Michael Symon's Tips For Using Tomatoes All Year Long - Exclusive Interview

Michael Symon is a strong proponent for a tasty dinner — especially when it involves his favorite pasta with a classic tomato sauce. The chef released "Simply Symon Suppers: Recipes and Menus for Every Week of the Year” earlier this year, featuring some delectable dinners that are user-friendly. The recipes even cater to dietary restrictions, which are recognized and detailed towards the end of the book.

In an exclusive interview with Food Republic, Symon dove into his latest partnership with Contadina, the canned tomato brand, resulting in a tomato braised pork chops with spicy rice and tomato chutney recipe. The Food Network personality named the tomato-based meals he's cooking up right now, the cocktail you should make for the winter, and the puree that's better than mashed potatoes (spoiler alert: you may want to snag some celery root during your next grocery run). Fans can get excited, because Symon also revealed two new shows coming.

Don't underestimate tomato broth with fish

What's a tomato inspired recipe that you're cooking up right now?

I use tomatoes, canned tomatoes especially, all the time. I'm part Sicilian, so there's a lot of pasta and tomato-based sauces in my life. We very often have a Sunday type sauce going — depending on where you live, "sauce" or "gravy," a bolognese, things of that nature. I love using it too, this time of the year and going into winter and then spring before there's all kinds of fresh tomatoes available. The thing that I love about Contadina is I could count on it always tasting the same, no matter when I eat it during the year. I've been doing a lot of fish broth and poaching seafood in them, which is really fun too. 

Living on Long Island, there's always tons of fish. To make a really flavorful tomato broth and then gently cook the fish in it is a lot of fun. We did the roasted pork rack with Contadina. That is delicious with that tomato, chutney, relish, sweet, sour, and spicy kind of situation, but you could take it in a lot of ways other than a pasta sauce, which is the beauty of it.

Is there any standout or unexpected ingredients that you put in that, or is that just tomatoes and you let it do its thing?

Tomatoes, then you could put in any stock that you want, like white wine. Say you sautéed some onions and garlic, and then you deglaze the pan with a little bit of white wine, and then a fish stock, a vegetable stock, a chicken stock, and then fortified that with the crushed tomatoes, especially the fire roasted ones. Then, you bring that up to a simmer, and once it's simmering, you could gently throw the fish in and let it poach in there. 

It's because of the acidity of the tomatoes, too. It helps the fish set up and it's delicious. It's also great to cook eggs in. If you want to make it kind of spicy, you could do ... We always say, "If it's not spicy, it's eggs in purgatory. If it's spicy, it's eggs in hell," but both of them are delicious.

When you say fish, you mean a white fish, probably?

Yeah. A white fish works the best, but you could certainly do it with salmon or some of those styles, a more oily fish also.

There's a lot of tomato side dishes out there

This goes back to a tomato question, but what are your thoughts on using tomato paste in tomato sauce? Do you do that?

I use the crushed fire roasted for a Sunday sauce or a gravy type sauce. If I'm making a bolognese, I use paste. It depends on the type of sauce. For a bolognese, where it's predominantly meat accented by tomato, I'll use a paste. Where it's a hearty tomato sauce with meatballs and sausage and braised short ribs and all those kinds of things in there, then I'll use crushed tomatoes, but not paste.

I'm curious too, because tomatoes are often involved in the main dish. Do you have any ideas for a side dish to use with tomatoes? Just a few ingredients.

The little seafood trick, if you wanted to do shrimp or scallops in there and then serve them as a starter, that would be a nice seafood starter. You could also make meatballs with eggplant or zucchini, and then cook those in the sauce and then serve eggplant meatballs with a little bit of tomato sauce as a starter. It would also be great with Halloumi cheese or a cheese that doesn't melt, but has a lot of salty flavor. Sear off the Halloumi until it gets crunchy on the outside, and then finish it with some of those fire roasted crushed tomatoes, or the fire roasted crushed tomatoes with the garlic would be great, and some torn basil.

Let's switch gears to your latest cookbook. I really like that throughout your past cookbooks, you acknowledge dietary restrictions and autoimmune diseases, and in this book you do towards the end. Are there any gluten and dairy-free recipes you advise for the holidays?

There's several throughout the book and we mark them. We marked everything in the book, so people would know where they could go through this book without it. The good thing about the holidays is it's so protein-laden that to eliminate gluten is really an easy one. Turkey, no gluten. Ham, no gluten. Prime rib, no gluten. That kind of stuff is pretty easy. 

When I was a kid, no matter what the holiday, we always had a lasagna, but you could do all kinds of baked sweet potatoes, and things like that aren't going to have gluten in them. Any kind of vegetable side would work great. We've also done a lasagna where we shave sweet potatoes very thin, and those become the pasta, so to speak, which makes it gluten-free. There's plenty of options in that world.

For the lasagna, do you do a ricotta or béchamel sauce?

Yeah, you would make a classic lasagna of your choice. It could be either the béchamel-based lasagna or the full tomato-based lasagna. Where you would use pasta, use sweet potato.

Make an espresso old fashioned your go-to winter drink

In your cookbook, you also have a good amount of cocktail recipes. Do you have any ideas for a quick and easy drink recipe for unexpected holiday guests that come in?

Bourbon is my drink of choice, so I always tend to lead those ones a little bit. This time of year is really tasty, if you take the base of an old fashioned. An old fashioned would be the base of the drink. At the store, there's so many great iced coffees or iced espressos that you could buy now that are boxed where you could swirl in some of that espresso, and it's an espresso old fashioned instead of the espresso martini with vodka. You make an old fashioned, but you make it with espresso. 

It's really great around the holiday time, especially if you're having a lot of people over and you've got to stay awake a little later. It's a good way to go. Do it on the rocks with some good quality cherries and a slice of orange and a little shot of chilled espresso in there. The nice thing is there are companies that make that now. You could buy those shots and ... You don't need an espresso machine to make the espresso cocktails.

Then you could stay up past 9:00 PM.

Exactly. I mean, it'll still be a battle for me, but I'll try.

This is kind of a broad question for you, but what are three pantry staples you have to have in your kitchen at all times during the fall or winter season?

I always have dry pasta. I usually have a bunch, but you always have to have one dry pasta, because pasta's fast. I could get a can of Contadina tomatoes, a clove of garlic, make a quick Pomodoro with garlic and onion and those great tomatoes with a little bit of fresh basil and cook my noodle of choice, like a bucatini noodle, and have dinner on the table in eight, 10 minutes. You always need dried pasta. For me, because my guilty pleasure is salt and vinegar chips, I always have salt and vinegar chips. They're not going to help you make anything quickly, but they are going to be comforting at the end of the evening.

The last thing: You should always be stocked with a really high quality canned tomato product that you could trust, because you can do so many different things with it. The beautiful thing about Contadina is my grandmother used it, my mom used it, and now I use it. It's a generational product that you could lean on, but because the tomatoes are so consistently good, I don't have to cook them for 14 days to make a good tomato sauce. I could pop them open, put in some onion and garlic, and have a good Pomodoro in no time.

Why you should use celery root more

What's an underrated winter ingredient that you think people should use it more of?

All the root vegetables. I've always been a fan of the underrated. We used to do fried Brussels sprouts at Lola in 1998, and everybody's like, "What the hell are those?" They ended up becoming our most popular item, and now I love to see the success that the Brussels sprouts are having and beets are having. I love turnips, parsnips, and celery root. Celery root may be the most underrated of the root vegetables, especially this time of year. A celery root puree is four times better than mashed potatoes.

That's a bold statement.

It is, and I'm telling you — do it. Take celery root, cook it, mash it, and you will be like, "Oh my God, where's this been all my life?"

Do you put seasonings in that?

Yeah, make them exactly how you'd make mashed potatoes, but because they don't have starch, you could actually puree them in a blender to get them super smooth.

Do you have any other upcoming projects or anything you'd like to speak on?

Nothing right now. I have two new shows coming out on Food Network, but they haven't announced them yet, so I can't announce them. One, you'll know which one when it hits, but one of them is going to change the way people think about TV cooking shows. I know that's a big statement, but you will see. You'll know exactly when it hits what I'm talking about.

Are you able to give an approximation of when?

We're shooting right now for April or May.

Check out Michael Symon's recipes on Contadina's website or keep up with his latest projects on his Instagram page

This interview has been edited for clarity.