Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Oven-dried Tomatoes

It's only logical that drying food would concentrate the flavors--as the water evaporates, they become "un-watered down."  Wild mushrooms are downright fragrant when dried, and even after being reconstituted, they're still more flavorful than fresh ones. The flavor of sundried tomatoes is not only more potent, but radically altered. There are two minor issues with dried food, however. One is the loss of fresh flavors--citrus in particular undergoes a profound change--and the other is that leathery texture food takes on when it has dried a little too much.

Oven-drying tomatoes offers a happy medium, where a lot of the original flavors of a fresh tomato are still palpable, but enhanced, and their juiciness is not entirely expunged. I first encountered this phenomenon in Australia, where they're called "semi-dried tomatoes" (that's tuh-mah-toes) and sold in the deli department at grocery stores. Spectacular.

Making your own version of these beauties is not hard at all. Here's what you do:

Preheat your oven to the lowest possible setting.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper (this prevents the acids in the tomatoes from reacting with the aluminum or iron in the pan, and contaminating the product.).

Cut the tomatoes in half and lay them out on the parchment, cut side up.

Stir pressed garlic and chopped parsley into some EVOO and brush a generous amount onto the cut surface of each tomato (don't worry if it spills onto the paper a little).

Season them with salt and pepper and slide the pan into the oven. Leave them several hours, checking on them from time to time, until they reach a "semi-dried" state. Depending on your oven, elevation, and relative humidity in the air, this could take up to 8 or even 10 hours.

First time out, I recommend doing this in the morning, and plan on being around to monitor them. If you have an oven with a very low setting, like 120F/50C, you can put them in at night and they should be perfect early the next morning. However, I tried this when I moved to Colorado and bought a house with an oven that would only light at 185F/85C, and they got too dark (as in burned).  My advice: try it in the daytime once, and see how much time they need. You can take them as far as you like in the drying process, but I recommend pulling them out when they still have a little juice left. They'll continue to lose moisture as they cool, and I think you'll find that a tender, luscious mouthfeel is far superior to a chewy, dry one. Your call.

I'm always on the lookout for "baby roma" tomatoes, which are fabulous oven-dried--they shrink down to a perfect bite-size. You can pop them in your mouth all at once, unlike the larger ones (pictured) that require two somewhat messy bites. You can use any kind of tomato, but the thick, succulent flesh of roma tomatoes is ideal for drying.

Once the tomatoes are sufficiently dried, you can use them to make interesting hos d'ouevres, top salads with them, add a delicious dimension to ordinary sandwiches, or just throw them directly into your mouth. Then I'm sure other uses will come to you, like chopping them and stirring them into salad dressings, sauces and soups. I used to make a sandwich with pesto, oven-dried tomatoes and brie; now, having dropped the dairy products, I'm still looking to match the unctuous sensuality of that one!


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