One of the biggest frustrations of cooking without nightshades is the many recipes that aren’t dominated by potatoes, but call for a few dollops of tomato paste. It’s a small, yet vital, ingredient in countless dishes across many cuisines.
In the beginning, during my first impoverished days of cooking without nightshades, it never even occurred to me to try to fake a tomato product. How do you spoof a perfect, and perfectly unique, piece of produce? Can you really counterfeit a botanical masterpiece, forge a signature flavor?
It seems you can. It began with a simple internet query, suggested by a friend who had been living without gluten for a few years. A Google search, as ever, provided the rough starting point, but I very quickly diverged. And my very first version provided a passable tomato-like experience. When seasoned like a proper pizza sauce, it made a proper pizza. Maybe not by the elite standards in Brooklyn or Naples, but certainly good enough to plaster a huge smile on the face of a boy who hadn’t been able to eat pizza for a year.
Over the years the recipe has evolved through several different variants, and I’ll get around to sharing more of them, eventually. But the best place to start is with version 3.0. The ingredients and ratios are similar to its predecessors. The difference is in the cooking technique, where it echos some classic culinary building blocks.
I discovered this while trying to write the recipe for version 2.0. I did some preliminary research on the use of vegetable blends and discovered a wealth of tradition that I’d never encountered during my potluck culinary education. Many cuisines, it turns out, have vegetable bases that serve as a versatile foundation for entire libraries full of recipes. There is mirepoix, a trinity of vegetables—onions, celery, and carrots—used in French cooking. Cajun cuisine claims its own mirepoix, swapping carrots for green peppers.
In Spain there is sofrito: garlic, onion, peppers, and tomatoes cooked in olive oil; Italians craft a similar soffrito. In the Portuguese sufrito (sometimes estrugido) onions, garlic, bay laurel leaves, and olive oil are the essential ingredients. And in Italy, there is also battuto: onions, celery, carrots, garlic and parsley.
And now there is Beetuto, a tomato like base for nightshade free cooking.
- oil for sauté
- 1 pound beets
- 2/3 pound carrots
- 3/5 pound celery
- 1/4 to 3/4 pound onion
- 6 cloves garlic minced or crushed
- 2-4 tablespoons tamarind concentrate
- 2 tablespoons and 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
- 2 tablespoons and 2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt (optional)
- herbs and spices appropriate to the final use
A NOTE REGARDING WEIGHTS AND MEASURES
Reducing this recipe to saucepan size resulted in some odd measures, and if you don’t use a scale you may feel a bit lost at first. I haven’t tried to translate to cup measures because it’s difficult to replace the weights above for volume measurements, particularly because grated vegetables can be packed to wildly different volumes. Your best bet here to hit the mark without a scale is to use a visual comparison. You have a 1 pound bag of carrots? Use two thirds of the bag. And so on. If it feels imprecise, don’t sweat the difference. The vegetable amounts are advisory, not absolute. The fact is that any vegetable on any given day could taste a little bit different, depending on where and under what conditions it was grown, harvested, transported, and stored. If you intelligently estimate the ratio, you’ll be as close to the original intent of the recipe as you need to be. But keep notes! That’s the key to learning from your experiments.
1Chop the onion. Sauté on medium low heat for about 5 minutes, then add the garlic.
2Peel the beets. Clean the celery and carrots. Chop the celery. (Since this is all headed for the food processor, you may be tempted to skip chopping the celery. Don’t do it! Chopping the celery into short bits is better because long celery strands can bind the blades and stress your blender or food processor motor.) Also, don’t bother peeling the carrots. The peel has a lot of nutrition, and you’ll be cooking this long enough that it hardly matters. Grate the carrots and beets using the roughest blade on your grater or food processor. A julienne blade also works great.
3Add the celery to the saucepan and continue sauté for a few minutes. Add the remainder of the grated or julienned vegetables and salt if you’re using. At this point you’re not really sautéing any more; the ratio of oil to veggie is too low. You want a slow but persistent heat. As the carrots and beets heat up they should release enough moisture to prevent the mixture from sticking to the bottom of the pan. The occasional splash of water may be necessary. For best flavor bring to a low simmering pace for about an hour and a half, though if you’re in a hurry you can speed things up with higher heat and a little more water.
4At about the 45 minute mark add the vinegars and the first two tablespoons of tamarind paste. After about 75 minutes add any other spices and herbs, and continue adjusting the tamarind to your taste. (Tamarind has a bitterness that is vital to this recipe, but it varies from brand to brand, and you don’t want to overdo it.) During this time you can also adjust the liquid, keeping in mind that it’s easier to add water than remove it.
5Let cool to a safe temperature, then process in a food processor, food mill, or blender until you’ve got your desire texture. Depending on your intended use, you may want to get it as smooth as possible, as for pizza, or retain a bit of texture for that garden-chunky vegetable aesthetic. For really smooth beetuto, use a strainer to remove as much as liquid as possible. This allows whatever processor you use to operate at maximum efficiency, then add back the liquid.
NOTES ON USE
Your Beetuto is ready to use, or you can freeze or refrigerate for future use. Add a bit of water if you’re using immediately for pizza or something like Sri Lankan Style Chicken Curry. I always have Beetuto in the freezer, ready to stand in for tomatoes as needed. For maximum convenience I freeze in various quantities—I use yogurt containers and old ice-cube trays.
Some recipes are very tomato rich, calling for one or more large cans of crushed tomatoes. When you’re using Beetuto in an ordinarily tomato-heavy recipe, there’s another tool to bring out the earthy and acidic finishing notes of tomato: In the last 10 minutes of cooking, add one cube of Bright for every two cups of Beetuto.
When a recipe calls for tomato paste, prepare to use a little more than what what the original recipe calls for. Use straight up when it calls for crushed tomatoes, but adjust liquids in the final product. Obviously, this recipe cannot replicate the textural complexity of actual tomatoes, so adapt accordingly. Also, beet and carrot pigments do not endure as well as tomato pigments, so the color will dilute and turn brown to varying degrees depending on what else is in the dish, and also over time. Taste is not affected, but the bright orange or red color will fade.
Beets and carrots provide the red and the orange. If you have yellow or orange beets available, use them in equal proportion to the red beets and they’ll make the red a bit less florid.
Substitute lemon juice for apple cider vinegar, but do NOT add the lemon juice until the very end.