Friday, 28 December 2007

So Many Tomatoes, So Little Time

Those fresh garden tomatoes so longed for in the dead of winter may now present a challenge in producing more than you can use. Secretly many may be happy to see fall come and the tomato vines dry up. There are just so many tomatoes you want to can and so much salsa you want to make. But there are other alternatives for those extra tomatoes.

Many recipes today call for sun-dried tomatoes. This is one way to preserve many tomatoes in a little space. Tomatoes can be dried outside in the sun, in a very slow oven (at 200 degrees), or in a food dehydrator. Drying outside in the sun will take several days and has problems with bugs and animals. It will take at least six hours to dry tomatoes in a food dehydrator, a gadget that many do not own. They will dry overnight (12 hours) in a 200 degree oven — and most everyone has an oven.

Small tomatoes such as cherry, grape or the meaty romas dry best, however, you can use whatever kind of tomatoes you have in excess in the garden. The town house dweller who has a cherry tomato plant on the balcony can dry the extra tomatoes in the oven. Once dried they make great little tomato cups to stuff with cheese, or use as a scoop for dip, use as a chip snack, or drizzle with cheese spread and heat for crispy tomato nachos.

Drying Tomatoes

Preparation for drying: Wash tomatoes well and dry. It’s optional to remove skins; most leave the skins on. Cut tomatoes in half (quarters if tomatoes are large). Remove seeds and the white part, but leave red pulp. A quarter teaspoon measuring spoon works well to remove seeds.

Drying in the oven: Place the tomatoes skin-side down on a cooling rack placed over a baking pan to catch any drips. Sprinkle lightly with salt and dried Italian herbs. Place in 200-degree oven. Check on tomatoes the first hour to assure everything is going well. (After three hours, some cooks like to take enough tomatoes out for supper. Slow-baked tomatoes sprinkled with shredded mozzarella are a real treat.) Check again in 10 hours. It will probably take 12 hours to dry completely. Avoid over drying. Even at 200 degrees the tomatoes can burn if left in the oven too long. At this stage, I like to allow the oven to cool, return the tomatoes to the oven on a baking sheet, turn the oven light on for just a minimum of heat, close the oven door and let the tomatoes have one final hour of drying before storing them.

Storing the dried tomatoes: Place the tomatoes in an air-tight container such as a jar with tight-fitting lid or a plastic bag, being sure to push out all the air. Freezing the dried tomatoes is an option. This seems to preserve the deep red colour. A short 24 hour stay in the freezer is recommended to eliminate bug infestation that so commonly develops in dried foods.

Some recipes call for adding fresh herbs, fresh garlic and oil when storing the dried tomatoes. The FDA has advised that storing fresh herbs and fresh garlic in oil is a dangerous practice. They have advised commercial packers to treat fresh herbs and fresh garlic with vinegar (acid) and to note on the container that the oil should be refrigerated after opening. The same precautions should be taken at home when adding fresh herbs and fresh garlic to oil.

Storing home dried tomatoes in oil is not recommended. Clostridium botulinum bacteria can grow in this atmosphere where no air is present. The bacteria can come into your kitchen on fresh herbs and fresh garlic. Heating to high temperatures cannot assure that the botulinum spores nor the toxin they give off are destroyed. It is a better practice to add oil and herbs to the tomatoes at the time they are to be used. Even with this method, the tomatoes must be refrigerated and should be used within two to three days.

Once you have dried tomatoes in your pantry, here are some ways you can use them. Most often the tomatoes are rehydrated before using in recipes. This can be done by covering the dried tomatoes with warm water and soaking for 30 minutes. Broth or wine are also suitable for rehydrating the tomatoes. Drain and pat dry before adding to a recipe. Chop and add the rehydrated tomatoes to cornbread batter, meat loaf, beef stew, soup (especially vegetable and tomato), dried beans, chili, quiche, macaroni and cheese, Welsh rarebit and stir fry.

Sometimes the crunch of the dried tomato is desirable in dips when soaking them is neither necessary nor desirable. The first taste of your first batch of dried tomatoes will suggest that herb seasoned dried tomatoes make crunchy chip snacks. They also lend themselves well to a quick hors d’oeuvre by stuffing them with a small piece of feta cheese, topped with a large caper or a slice of olive.

Drying tomatoes is easy and can be part of your multi-tasking as you go about your evening routine. Take a few extra tomatoes, put them in the cooling oven (200 degrees) when the supper casserole has come out, take a look at them when you go to bed, and take them out in the morning. It will be a good feeling to find there are a few less tomatoes sitting on the kitchen counter when you come home in the evening. You will enjoy those tomatoes so much more in the first pot of vegetable soup you make this fall.

By Dorothy Rowe

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