How ugly food can still give you beautiful results

Every year six billion pounds of U.S. fruits and vegetables go unharvested and unsold, but by using these vegetables to make products like homemade tomato sauce we repurpose product that typically go to waste. (Alex Wood/The Daily Campus)

Your mother always told you it’s what on the inside that counts.

Non-cosmetic or “ugly” food plays a huge part of food waste in the United States. In fact, every year some six billion pounds of U.S. fruits and vegetables go unharvested or unsold, often for aesthetic reasons, even when nutrition and taste remain uncompromised. This standard of perfect produce has been fostered over the past decades ever since grocery stores opened in mass numbers, creating a market of fierce competition with produce.

So why has this impossible standard become so normal for produce selling businesses? There are a number of factors. Biologically speaking, this makes sense. For centuries humans have been evaluating the quality of food with the senses, and first in that evaluation is always sight. Our senses are evolutionarily designed to detect optimum nutrients in raw foods, so people are going to favor the most consistently good-looking produce over foods that have bruises or scars and maybe are smaller/irregular in size or shape.

Since this has become a convention across the nation, when buying directly from famers there is often a large discount on produce that is ugly. The best example for this are tomatoes. Tomatoes are produced in large numbers and have a constant harvesting demand once the plants begin to produce ripe fruits. Tomatoes are also high in acidity and sugar, which makes them prime targets for all kinds of pests and disease while also decreasing their stability in the field, compared to other fresh foods. Tomatoes are also particularly delicate and can even split during washing and handling processes, post harvest. Because these aesthetic imperfections are unavoidable for growers, there is almost always, an ugly bin of tomatoes.

These beat up tomatoes often go for a third of the price per pound than the pretty ones, and they taste exactly the same. Some farmers will even give them away. But there is a catch: they often only sell in bulk. This intimidates the average market shopper but with knowledge on your side, you can enjoy flavor of a rich, summer tomato year round. With the tomato season coming to a close, now is the time to buy up those bins and make a nice tomato sauce.

Most recently I purchased a 30-pound bin of ugly tomatoes for ten dollars from River View Farm at the Storrs Farmers Market on Saturday (3 p.m.-6 p.m.). That’s 30 cents a pound as opposed to $2.99 per pound. From other vendors, I was able to purchase the aromatics I needed to complete the sauce, all from local sources, for a total of 16 dollars. This yielded four quarts of sauce. So each quart of natural, local, in season tomato sauce cost about 4 dollars.

A quart from the store of comparable quality and flavor, such as Rao’s Homemade or Classico brand sauce can cost any where from 7 to 12 dollars. With this recipe and a little patience, you can have great tomato sauce for pizzas, pastas, boosters to soups, to dip garlic bread or grilled cheese into it during the winter, for a fraction of the cost, all while supporting local food security and sustainable practices.

No-Loss Tomato Sauce

Prep time: 20 min

Cook time: 6-8 hrs

(You can scale the recipe up or down depending on your tomato weight)

Ingredients:

  • 1/4 cup of olive or cooking oil
  • 3 large white or yellow onions, diced
  • 2 heads of garlic cloves, peeled, rough chop
  • 1 tbsp. of crushed red pepper flakes or chili paste
  • 1 tbsp. of dry or fresh basil
  • 1 tbsp. of dry or fresh thyme
  • 30 lbs. of ugly tomatoes, stems cut out, diced

Salt and pepper to taste

Equipment:

  • Two, six quart or larger saucepots
  • Wooden spatula or spoon
  • Blender or stick blender
  • ICE

Directions:

  1. Heat oil in the pot over medium heat and add onions, garlic, and red pepper flakes.
  2. Then add as much tomato as your pot can hold with room to stir, you can always add excess tomato in later as your sauce cooks down.
  3. Add your herbs and seasoning; these can be adjusted later for preference as well. Also, do not go overboard on the salt, as the sauce will reduce and become progressively more savory over time.
  4. Turn your heat down low once the sauce begins to bubble.
  5. Watch your sauce as it simmers, scraping the bottom and the sides of the pot every 30 min or so to keep the sauce from burning on the bottom. If it is beginning to burn, you will be able to feel a rough texture on the bottom of the pot.
  6. Slowly your sauce will taste less like tomato soup, and more like tomato sauce, as it reduces. Taste your sauce and observe its color frequently so you can get a feel for how it is progressing.
  7. If at any point you can consolidate your various pots, this will free up burner space and make cleaning as you go more possible.
  8. Once the sauce is almost done cooking down, blend the sauce in portions, focusing on the chunky parts that may have accumulated towards the bottom of the pot. You can blend as many portions of the sauce as you’d like based on your texture of preference, but it should be said, a completely blended sauce will have a more consistent flavor.
  9. Lastly, conduct a final taste test and adjust the herbs, salt, and pepper as desired.
  10. At this point, your sauce is probably all in your biggest pot, take that pot off the heat and place it in your sink with the drain plugged
  11. Fill the sink with cold water and lots of ice and stir the sauce within the pot in the sink to help cool the sauce for packing
  12. IMPORTANT: It is advised that you cool the sauce to 65° F in less than 2.5 hours or your risk of food born illness will increase
  13. One the sauce has been cooled sufficiently; bag it in potions of your choosing and toss in the freezer for future use.
  14. When reheating be sure to bring to 165° F for at least 10 min to ensure flavor and safety.


Dan Wood is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at daniel.wood@uconn.edu