Canned tomatoes are for more than homemade pasta sauce. Chef Michael Symon shares his favorite uses for the pantry staple.

Chef Michael Symon says canned tomatoes are for more than just homemade pasta sauce. (Photos: Contadina)
Chef Michael Symon says canned tomatoes are for more than just homemade pasta sauce. (Photos: Contadina)

A staple in many households, tried-and-true canned tomatoes are used repeatedly in everything from homemade pasta sauce to salsa. While you'd be hard-pressed to find a pantry without a can on-hand, many use these kitchen wonders for the same recipes again and again.

But celebrity chef Michael Symon is trying to change that. Symon says he's hoping to mix things up by sharing new ways to bring canned tomatoes to life in a modern home kitchen. He reaches for the pantry staple often to add flavor to a variety of dishes, not just a quick weeknight spaghetti sauce.

"The great thing about [canned tomatoes] is they can be worked into stews and braises," the Iron Chef tells Yahoo Life. "Once fall hits and we get into winter a little bit, some beef stew where you fortify it with diced tomatoes, it gives such a nice backbone to the dish."

"I also think [canned tomatoes are] great to fold into rice dishes — if you're making a quick rice or paella or risotto," he adds. "As a chef, I'm looking for things I can count on … I can add [canned tomatoes] and add tremendous flavor and they're incredibly consistent."

Symon, a Food Network personality spoke with Yahoo Life as part of his work promoting canned tomato brand Contadina. As part of the campaign, he developed a vibrant tomato chili relish, which he says is simple to make and even easier to enjoy.

"We were developing the recipe and I made a bunch of jars of it and put them in the fridge," he says. "That's when I knew it was good, because everyone got addicted to it. I made like four gallons of slightly different variations, and it was gone in a week. People were using it with cheese, dipping chips in it like a salsa — we were flying through it."

In addition to a perfectly-developed recipe, the 53-year-old restaurateur shares that canned tomatoes are a helpful tool that ensure consistency in each batch. "I'm a huge gardener, and obviously, there are a lot of tomatoes growing in my garden even right now," he says. "But to be able to count on something that you know is going to be ripe every time? I think it's incredibly beneficial."

Symon shares the inspiration for his sweet and spicy tomato chili relish came from his love for another widely-popular condiment. "The chili relish kind of came from my slight addiction to chili crunch," he says. "Obviously you can't make the crunch with tomatoes because of the moisture in them, but we wanted to use the tomatoes to give it a little more depth of flavor and make something we could create, jar and hold in the fridge, then work into other dishes."

To prepare the tomato chili relish, Symon suggests utilizing disposable gloves to clean dried guajillo and pasilla-ancho chilies. Then, slice the stem top off each and shake out any loose seeds before grinding the chilies until they resemble red pepper flakes.

From there, the ground chilies head to a heat-safe bowl with sugar, salt, paprika and ginger. While those sit to the side, in a medium sauce pot stir neutral oil and shallots occasionally until the shallots are light golden brown. Next, strain the shallots, reserving the oil. Then, repeat the process by cooking garlic to a light, golden brown in the same oil.

Next, the star of the dish, a can of drained Contadina tomatoes, gets added to a pot over medium-high heat. Continue to stir occasionally until most of the liquid has cooked out and the tomatoes are fragrant, which typically takes about five minutes.

"Starting the tomatoes in the pan first is to pull some of that moisture out and intensify the flavors of the tomatoes even more," says Symon. "It's a great tip. Don't be afraid to add a pinch of salt or two to really take out the moisture and reduce that product down."

Once complete, pour the reserved oil over the tomatoes and bring to a simmer, allowing the tomatoes to fry in the oil for about a minute. To complete the dish, pour the tomato mixture over the dried chili mixture and combine. Once the mixture has cooled, it's ready to be used or stored in a jar in the fridge.

"If you wanted to get the texture of the crunch you could add the onions and garlic right at the end and serve immediately so you would get that crunch in there," Symon adds. "I like the convenience of it. If I'm entertaining, I make it a week or ten days ahead of time and just have it."

For someone like the host of Food Network's BBQ USA, who spends the majority of his life in the kitchen, Symon says he understands sometimes a pre-prepared sauce or canned ingredient can make all the difference.

"I cook everyday of my life," he says. "I love cooking — people are like, 'You come home from work and you cook?' and I say, 'Always.' Sunday is my day off and we have twenty people over for dinner. That's just how it works. But you want consistent simplicity sometimes, too, things that can make your life a little easier."

Symon shares his top pairing tips to enjoy this delicious relish at home for a simple dinner or even while entertaining. "It would be great on any different protein or even just folded into pasta with some olive oil and butter," he says. "It's really versatile and making it ahead is a great tip for people at home to get a jump on things, whether you're making a quick dinner for your family on a weeknight or entertaining on weekends, to have something in your fridge like that that you can turn to is just great."

Roasted Chicken with Tomato Chili Relish

Courtesy of Contadina and chef Michael Symon

(Photo: Contadina/Michael Symon)
(Photo: Contadina/Michael Symon)

Serves 4-6


  • Olive oil

  • Kosher salt

  • Freshly ground black pepper

  • 2 fresh bay leaves

  • 1 small onion, halved

  • 1 4 to 6-pound whole chicken, cleaned

Tomato Chili Relish:

  • 1 1/4 cups neutral oil, like canola

  • 1/2 cup torn dried guajillo chilies, see method

  • 1/2 cup torn dried pasilla-ancho chilies, see method

  • 2 tablespoon granulated sugar

  • 3 teaspoon kosher salt

  • 1 teaspoon sweet paprika

  • 1 tablespoon finely-grated ginger

  • 1 cup thinly-sliced shallots

  • 1/3 cup thinly-sliced, fresh garlic

  • 14.5-ounce can Contadina petite diced tomatoes, drained

  • Finely chopped parsley


  1. Using disposable gloves, clean the chilies. Using kitchen shears, slice the stem top off of each chili and shake out any loose seeds.

  2. Once all the chilies have been cleaned, add them to a spice grinder or food processor. Pulse until the chilies resemble red pepper flakes, small and course in size. (About 1/3 cup, ground.)

  3. Pour the chilies into a heat-proof bowl. To the bowl add the sugar, salt, paprika and ginger and mix to combine. Set aside.

  4. In a medium sauce pot combine the neutral oil and shallots. Turn the heat to medium high and cook, stirring occasionally, until the shallots are light golden brown, 5 minutes.

  5. Strain the shallots, reserving the oil.

  6. Place the oil back in the pot set over medium high heat and add the garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the garlic is light golden brown, 2 minutes.

  7. Strain the garlic, reserving the oil. Set aside the fried garlic and shallots on a paper towel-lined tray to crisp.

  8. Place the pot back on medium high heat and add the drained tomatoes to the dry pan.

  9. Cook, stirring occasionally until most of the liquid has cooked out and the tomatoes are fragrant, 5 minutes. Pour the reserved oil over the tomatoes and bring to a simmer. Allow the tomatoes to fry in the oil for 1 minute. Remove from the heat.

  10. Pour the tomato mixture over the dried chili mixture and mix to combine. Set aside to cool completely, about 45 minutes.

  11. Preheat your oven to 450 F.

  12. Place the chicken on a foil-lined sheet tray. Place the bay leaves and onion into the cavity of the chicken then tuck the wings behind the breasts.

  13. Drizzle the chicken with olive oil and rub to coat all over. Season with salt and pepper then place in the oven, uncovered, to roast for 50 minutes, until golden brown and crisp and the chicken reaches an internal temperature of 160 F.

  14. During the last 20 minutes of cooking, brush the chicken with the tomato chili oil every 10 minutes.

  15. Remove the chicken from the oven and let stand for 20 minutes, allowing the juices to re-absorb.

  16. In the meantime, mix the fried shallots and garlic into the remaining tomato chili oil.

  17. Break the chicken down into 8 pieces and place on a serving platter. Spoon the tomato chili relish over the chicken and serve.

  18. Any remaining tomato chili relish will keep, refrigerated, for up to 3 months.

Wellness, parenting, body image and more: Get to know the who behind the hoo with Yahoo Life's newsletter. Sign up here.