Thursday, 24 September 2009

Sun-dried Tomatoes - in the oven!

The summer is over. Autumn is here, and the weather is starting to get cooler. The last of the berries are flying from the supermarket shelves. Summer salads are giving way to heartier, winter root vegetables from my nemesis the Parsnip to fabulous, versatile butternut squash. This summer I've stocked up. My little freezer is filled with delicious sweet corn and Exmoor blueberries and, admittedly, reduced priced blackberries from Somerfield.

That being said, reduced priced and 'value' items can be quite useful. Tomato season is ending which means the final remnants of the bumper crop are everywhere. There should be an abundance of both fully ripe and wonderful heirlooms and standard beefeater reds as well as green tomatoes of "Fried green tomatoes" notoriety. And by the way, I've had these lovely little morsels before thanks to a Los Angeles buddy of mine, and they're tasty if done right. Soft, tangy, and just the nicest bite thanks to bread crumbs.

However, I didn't make friend green tomatoes. As yummy as they are, I'm not a huge fan of fried food especially if I'm making it in my own home. Oil gets everywhere. And if it gets on you, it HURTS. Even if there's no one around to see, jumping from foot to foot squeaking in pain is still somewhat embarrassing. I'm sure my gerbils are laughing at me. Actually, they're probably cuddled up asleep ignoring their owner's culinary antics unless they're getting the periodic vegetable scrap.

One of my favorite tomato sun dried tomatoes. They're tomatoes but super injected with flavor that has been concentrated and tamed and made oh so delicious by the sun. However, they also tend to be prohibitively expensive. Being relatively unemployed at present, spluring on a teeny tiny packet of these lovely red gems hasn't been on my list of things to do.

There are ways around this. Value tomatoes can be as cheap as 99P depending on where you shop. Without thinking too much about it, I spent a whomping six quid on six packets of Value Cherry tomatoes. These ruby treasures were lovingly brought home - okay, practically danced home in my over enthusiasm - and chucked into a sink filled with cold water as I cracked my knuckled and prepared to harnass the power of the sun! Okay, not really. I was going to put my oven to good work and make it do what the sun would do if there was sun to be had to dry my tomatoes. Did you get all that? Neither did I.

Anyway, before I continue, I think I ought to add a warning.

1. These take a long time to prepare and you need to be comfortable leaving you oven on for a LOOOOONG time. So yes, DIY sun-dried tomatoes are cheaper, but you must be PATIENT. They will take AGES

2. These little babies are addictive. HIGHLY addictive even. So be sure you make them in bulk or you can kiss all of your hard work goodbye in a matter of minutes.

3. If you can get them, use a paste tomato like Roma. A lot of your store bought tomatoes have lots of juice inside with very thin fleshy parts. While these still make tasty tomato treats, they will not be nearly as effective as fleshier tomatoes with less juice inside. Need more information? Check out Better yet, grow your own tomatoes. These are infinitely better than ANYTHING you can buy short of those produced by small producers. I speak from experience. Remember that tomatoes are high in natural sugars. As soon as they are picked, these sugars start to degrade. It is for this reason that most people will tell you not to put your tomatoes in the refrigerator as the cold exacerbates and speeds up the process. That doesn't mean you'll get listless, tasteless tomatoes, but they won't be nearly as sweet as a fresh picked tomato.

4. Feel free to disregard number 3 which isn't really a warning at all. Just good advice. That being said, the point of drying these tomatoes was that they were cheap. Inexpensive. Budget friendly. And these are never going to be top quality tomatoes which makes them, ironically, as perfect for drying as any non-paste tomato can be. While the sugars may be degraded and therefore not as potent, the beauty of sun-dried tomatoes is that the drying process...wait for it...concentrates the sugars into one delightful tomatoey bite. So the sugars left in your value tomatoes will be condensed into a blissful dried out tomato raisin.

5. Do NOT omit the salt. Salt is a natural flavor enhancer for tomatoes. It makes them taste better. I know there might be health fanatics out there going AGH! Salt! Do it anyway. Add salt. Don't over do it. But certainly don't omit it. I tried drying a few without as an experiment, and it almost made the whole thing a wasted effort. Salt is necessary.

And...ever onwards.

You will need:

- A lot of tomatoes. Remember warning 2
- Olive oil (optional)
- Salt (essential)
- Herbs of your choice - basil, rosemary, oregano are all good. Just not together.

1. Slice the tomatoes in half. ALL of them. In half. Nice, neat halves. This takes FOREVER. So put in a movie, put the kids to work, put the laundry in. Whatever you choose to do, you have been warned.

2. If you want to make your life even more difficult and cut down on oven time you can opt to de-see the tomatoes. That's right, reach your little finger in there and gently and lovingly scoop out it's insides. Don't toss the tomatoe entrails in the rubbish bin! Make life easier and push the pulp into a bowl. You can use this later in all sorts of ways - anything that requires a tomato base. Or add a dash of tobasco, pinch of salt, and give it a whirl than drink. Yum. Tomato juice. Seed removal via strainer is optional...

3. With your tomato halves in a large bowl, sprinkle generously with salt and stir.

4. Add any herbs and stir.

5. Now this part is optional. I didn't feel that the addition of olive oil really altered anything. It may help things dry more evenly, but that's about it. Either way, add your oil sparingly. Do NOT over do the oil or you'll end up with a mess in your oven and potentially soggy tomatoes. You have been warned!

6. Arrange your tomatoes cut side up on a bake tray. Single layer please. No tomato pile ups here. At this point you can let your tomatoes dry out a bit by allowing some of the moisture that the salt will pull out to evaporate, or you can shove the little demons directly into an oven.

7. Set your oven to a low temperature. This tends to be about 150C/200F give or take. I'm sure that's an inanccurate conversion, but it's close enough for our purposes. Point is - LOW oven setting.

8. Chuck your tomatoes in the oven. Turn the tray every hour or so for better results than had you not rotated your tomato tray.

9. Let your tomatoes dry out until withered and a bit gummy - think tomato gummy bear but not quite. You do NOT want super dried out CRUNCHY tomatoes. Nor do you want super wet, SOGGY tomatoes. Gummy good. Cruncy or Soggy is BAD. This can take anywhere from 2 hours (or so I've been told although I remain skeptical) to a very, very long time (6-7 hours) depending on the size and type of your tomato. This is why I take a good portion of the juice/seeds out of mine. They dry faster, and I got far fewer soggy tomatoes. Just took an age and a day to de-seed them.

10. I believe that these will store about three months packed in a jar filled with olive oil. However, I prefer to put them in a bag in the fridge or freezer. In the freezer they will keep semi-indefinitely. Also means less oil to deal with and a nicer, dryer texture when chopping the little beauties up for other dishes.

11. DON'T EAT THEM ALL AT ONCE! I suspect this will make your tummy relatively unhappy for one thing. Of course, if you can't resist and don't mind upset tummy, go for it. I guess. But don't say I didn't warn you! For another, it means you've just spent ten minutes destroying HOURS and HOURS and HOURS and HOURS of hard work.

I made about four pounds of these cherry tomatoes. It's amazing how much volume they lose. I still have some in my freezer although I've eaten quite a few. Don't be disheartened when all of your hard work and an army of tomatoes that once filled the entirety of your counter space is reduced to a couple of handfuls of concentrated tomatoey deliciousness that CONVENIENTLY fits into a small container. Remember, think positive!


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