Feeling saucy

Operators get creative to make tomato sauces their own.

Published in FSD Update

By 
Lindsey Ramsey, Contributing Editor

Basic is a word that comes up a lot when speaking to chefs and operators about tomato sauces, and it’s not said in a negative way. What these operators mean is that tomato sauces are so versatile and necessary to their menus, that a basic sauce is almost all you need to turn dishes into something special.

To buy or not to buy: One of the major challenges with tomato sauces is the decision to use purchased product or make your own. Chris Kaschak, executive chef at the University of New Hampshire, in Durham, says the department currently purchases its base tomato sauce, but he hopes to move toward making his own.

“We want to go with our own sauce because a lot of the purchased sauces have extra sugars and corn starch and things like that,” Kaschak says. “All you need is carrots, onions, celery, fresh tomato, basil and olive oil. So making our own is something we are looking at. However, we have been able to take our purchased sauce and change it to suit our needs. For example, we make a chicken amatriciana where we basically take caramelized onions, bacon and garlic and add them to the purchased red sauce.” That sauce goes over a chicken breast.

Kaschak’s team also makes a pork, pepper and onion dish. The chefs season pork loin, sear it and layer it into a hotel pan. Then they fortify the tomato sauce with white wine and garlic and pour it over the pork. The dish is topped with peppers and onions and slow braised for two hours. Kaschak says using tomato sauce to braise proteins helps infuse the dish’s flavors.

“Tomato sauce brings a great flavor to a product and it can help enhance flavors of other products,” Kaschak says. “It goes very well with different types of seafood. You can pair it with a lot of different options. It’s definitely not just for pasta. We do a poached haddock that’s done in a red sauce with white wine. We fortify a lobster stock with the tomato sauce, then you add caramelized onions, garlic and in the end it’s more like a broth than a thick red sauce. Then we throw whole grape tomatoes in that and poach it and finish it off with some fresh basil. That’s really, really good.”

Another way Kaschak and his team use tomato-based sauces is by making their own by using tomato paste as a base. For their steak pizzaiola, they first sear off the steak and then in the steam kettle they add onion, mushrooms, garlic, burgundy wine, oregano, basil and black pepper along with tomato paste and crushed tomatoes. Kaschak says they serve that sauce with the steak, which has been very well received.

Tomato sauce’s versatility is what makes it a favorite for school operators like Tazeen Chowdhury, foodservice director at Mt. Lebanon School District, in Pittsburgh. Chowdhury says her team makes its own pasta sauce from USDA canned crushed and diced tomatoes.

“We put Italian spices in it like oregano and basil,” Chodhury says. “We serve pasta every day. The kids always have a choice of plain marinara or a meat sauce. We make it from scratch. We also use it in our lasagna, rotini and meatballs, casseroles and stuffed shells.”
Beyond pasta sauce, Chowdhury says the department uses crushed tomatoes to enhance dishes like taco meat and Mexican rice as well with soups and chilis that require a tomato base. The department also makes its own salsa and even puts stewed tomatoes in its mac and cheese in order to increase the amount of vegetables.
“[Tomato sauce] is high in nutritional content, so it helps us meet our vegetable requirement,” she says. “Plus, the kids really like tomato-based products because they are used to having them at home.”

Tony Loftus, sous chef at Gwynedd Estates, an ACTS Retirement Community, in Ambler, Pa., also makes his own tomato sauce for a variety of dishes. Loftus’ basic sauce includes canned diced and/or crushed tomatoes, chicken stock, olive oil, basil, garlic, and a little sugar and oregano. Sometimes he’ll also put in some Parmesan cheese. Beyond the usual suspects of pizza and pasta, his team makes a steak braciole that uses the tomato sauce.

“We take any kind of steak and pound it out thin,” Loftus says. “We do a couple different stuffings, like bread or an onion, garlic and sausage-type stuffing. The stuffing and steak is rolled, seared and sliced and then we cover it with the sauce and bake. We also use that sauce in a cioppino fish stew. We add some diced peppers and onions to the sauce, along with a little white wine. We put clams, mussels and shrimp in there and then the sauce is ladled on there and you steam it in the sauce. We finish it off with lumps of crabmeat and serve it over pasta.”

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Executive Chef Jeff Orr says his department makes its own base pasta tomato sauce in the cook-chill facility.

“We use two different tomato products for our basic pasta sauce,” Orr says. “One is a ground tomato product and one is chopped tomatoes. What we really like about doing it ourselves in cook-chill is that we get to have exactly the product we want. It’s clean with no preservatives. The recipe couldn’t be simpler—the sauce is just onion, garlic, tomatoes, olive oil and basil. By using two different cuts of tomatoes, we get a nice middle-ground texture. We also think it rounds out the flavor in terms of the sweetness. We make the sauce 100 gallons at a time, every other week.”

Beyond his basic pasta sauce, Orr says he’s most excited about a roasted tomato salsa that the department serves at its Que Rico concept. For the salsa, Orr purchased 8 pallets of end-of-the-season tomato seconds from local farmers last fall.

“If you get the tomatoes in a bag in a box, you can just freeze them like that and they won’t freeze in a block,” he says. “Then we started making the roasted tomato salsa in January. The fact that they are tomato seconds and they’re frozen works out great because we’re roasting them anyway. That way we’re able to get top quality local tomatoes at a very good price. The salsa itself has the roasted tomatoes, olive oil, onions, serrano peppers, garlic, cumin, cilantro and lime juice.”

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