The sun is kind to tomatoes. I mean real tomatoes. The type that is allowed to ripen on the vine. And just when you think those ruby orbs can’t get any more glorious, the sun draws out their liquid, intensifying the tomato flavor in the desiccated slices. Every bite is like tomato candy for grown-ups. No wonder sun-dried tomatoes are so beloved among chefs and gourmands.
Store-bought sun-dried tomatoes usually come in two ways: bottled in olive oil and packed dry in cellophane bags. Most chefs prefer the olive oil-packed tomatoes because the flesh is soft and pliant without any rehydration in water necessary. The flavorful leftover oil can be used in dressings, marinades and dips (try a simple blend of sun-dried tomato oil and balsamic vinegar to dip pieces of bread!) But many recipes use both oil-packed and dried.
When choosing tomatoes to sun-dry, sun-ripened on the vine is the only way to go. Grow you own like I do (it really is simple!) or beg, borrow or barter from neighbors who do. Otherwise, buy organically grown tomatoes that are sold vine-ripened. Most commercial growers harvest tomatoes green and then gas them with ethylene to hasten the ripening process. Green tomatoes transport better, but lack the flavor that results from ripening naturally on the vine. As for tomato varieties, any type will work but Roma has more flesh to seed ratio and that matters when the moisture evaporates and the tomatoes shrivel.
But regardless of variety, a true sun-dried tomato needs to be dried, well, in the sun. Seems like an obvious fact, but many packages of “sun-dried” tomatoes are dried in electric dehydrators. I have made both dried and sun-dried tomatoes, and the latter comes out more flavorful. Electric dehydrators can turn the slices brittle. You’ll need a screened box or some sort of netting or cheesecloth to cover your tomato slices while they dry outdoors to keep away flies. My father built my mother a simple, lightweight “box” with two racks out of plywood and netting. I set mine outside on cookie cooling racks covered with those picnic food umbrellas I found at the 99 Cent Store. If you do this, be sure there are no spaces around the edges for bugs to crawl through. Air must be allowed to circulate all around the tomato slices.
There are only a few guidelines when sun-drying your tomatoes. One is to be sure the sun is out! Even though ultraviolet rays can penetrate clouds, the tomatoes need dry air and the sun’s heat not the UV rays. Then, be sure to bring in your drying tomatoes in the evening, setting them in an oven with the pilot light on. Dew can undo all of the day’s efforts. Finally, a light sprinkling of sea salt not only helps to pull liquid from the tomatoes but impedes bacterial growth. Here is the basic recipe:
Vine-ripened tomatoes, preferably the Roma variety
natural sea salt
Wash plump Roma tomatoes and gently pat them dry. Using a sharp, serrated knife, cut them into thin, uniform slices no wider than 1/8” thick. Thinner slices take less time to dry. Line them on a cooling rack so there is at least an inch of space around the slices. Sprinkle sea salt on each side of the tomatoes; a scant pinch should cover both sides of one slice.
Place in a screened box, cover to be sure no bugs can enter, and place the tomatoes in full sun. Bring in the tomatoes in the evening and set them out again in the next day’s sun, turning over the slices first. Continue until the slices are shriveled and dry but not brittle.
To store, keep in an airtight container or pack the slices in a glass jar and fill with olive oil. Keep the jars in the refrigerator and use within two months.
Here was some ways to use your sun-dried tomatoes:
1. Snip them and add to bread dough or muffin batter, along with some fresh or dried basil.
2. Rehydrate some slices in water, chop them and sprinkle in all types of salads.
3. Dice and mix into cream cheese with some roasted garlic and sea salt to use as a spread on crostini (toasted baguette slices). You can use this same mixture to stuff chicken breasts before coating with buttery bread crumbs and baking or spreading onto flank steak before rolling it up, tying with string, searing and roasting.
4. Rehydrate the slices and use them in grilled mozzarella cheese sandwiches.
5. Make stuffed Italian meatballs by chopping sun-dried tomatoes and grating mozzarella cheese. Pinch a bit of the cheese and tomatoes into a small ball shape and then cover this with raw meatball mixture. Press into a round shape. Cook them in a bit of olive oil and garlic. I sear the outside of the meatballs, cover the pan and lower the heat to finish cooking. Make larger sizes to eat as a stand alone dish, medium to add to pasta sauce or small for hors ‘doeuvres.