Alimentary, My Dear
Tomatoes Fit to Hit the Trail
By Tamia Nelson
June 21, 2011
Killer cucumbers and septic sprouts notwithstanding, fresh is best in the vegetable department. Of course, toxic E. coli is really no laughing matter, but you get my drift, I'm sure. There's just no substitute for fresh veggies. Yet it's hard to keep vegetables fresh on any trip that lasts much longer than a long weekend. Potatoes? OK. They'll keep. But they're the exception that tests the rule. They don't suffer much in being dried, and it's good not to have to haul the extra water around on the portages. Tomatoes, though, are something else. Nothing quite equals a fresh tomato. The bad news? Fresh tomatoes survive about as long in a pack as a lemon meringue pie. Still, the longer the trip, the more I crave them. Which makes it even harder for me to stomach the dried tomatoes on offer in the HyperMart. "Dried" is too tame a word to describe them. "Desiccated" comes nearer the truth. At their best, these shoe‑leather tough twists barely manage to hint at something that might — just might — have once been a half‑ripe tomato. I figured I could do better, and when I stumbled across some especially tasty cherry tomatoes recently, I seized the opportunity. I'd had good success drying other vegetables, after all. Why should I let tomatoes defeat me? What could be so hard about …
Nothing, as it turned out. And I'd like to think my success was foreordained. My grandparents brought a love of gardening with them when they came to the States. Some of my earliest memories are of an annual family ritual in which young tomato plants, carefully nurtured from seeds saved from the previous year's harvest, were transplanted to a meticulously prepared plot. (Where did the seeds for the very first year's crop come from? I've no idea, but I wouldn't be surprised if they crossed the Atlantic in a steamer trunk.) The care of the growing plants and ripening fruit was man's work, but come August, when the first ripe tomatoes were picked, it was the women's turn at hard labor. The tomatoes were laid out on a long table in the sunroom, and canning operations began. The scene wouldn't have been out of place in a local drama group's production of Macbeth. Women, their sweating forms often obscured by billowing clouds of steam, moved ceaselessly about the kitchen, bending and swaying, alternately cursing and laughing, while we children darted in and out of the house, snatching cherry tomatoes from the sunroom table and popping them into our mouths like so much penny candy. We were never admonished for this. Cherry tomatoes weren't destined for the canner. Any that remained after we kids had eaten our fill were dried, instead, to be stored in jars until called forth from the pantry on some dark, dank midwinter's day, when their deep red radiance lent a touch of much needed warmth and color to the shadowy recesses of the big farmhouse kitchen.
Sadly, the memory of those days grew dim over the years, until a chance encounter with an exorbitantly priced package of sun‑dried tomatoes on the HyperMart shelves reawakened this all‑but‑dormant remembrance of things past. So strong was the ensuing flood of memories that I yielded to temptation and paid the extortionate price for the packaged tomatoes, only to suffer predictable disappointment. No matter. I decided to channel my recollections of those happy hours in my grandmother's kitchen into productive activity. If store‑bought dried tomatoes didn't evoke the magic, I figured I'd dry it on my own.
The bottom line? The experiment proved successful, and I've since repeated it. Now it's your turn. Here's what you'll need:
- Cherry or grape tomatoes
- Some coarse salt (optional)
- A sharp knife (dull knives are only good for scraping paint!)
- A cookie or pizza sheet
- An oven
If you grow your own tomatoes, you'll have to wait for them to ripen, of course. But I've had good luck with the HyperMart's offerings. Either grape or cherry tomatoes will do, though the former are smaller and less juicy, and this is one place where that's a good thing. Can you also use larger tomatoes? Yes, you can. But they're not ideal — too juicy. Should you decide to "trade up," despite my earnest advice, take the halfway option: go for meaty plum tomatoes. (These are also known as Roma tomatoes. I've included one in the photos below, by way of illustration.) And whatever type of store‑bought tomato you fancy, watch for sales. Then stock up, resolving to dry your haul within a couple of days of purchase.
The process itself is as about as easy as it gets. Discard any bruised tomatoes. Wash and dry the rest, removing the stems as you do. Slice them in half and place them on a baking sheet, cut side up. No baking sheet? Cookie or pizza sheets work equally well. Now sprinkle with a modest amount of coarse kosher salt. (Use a very light hand here, or leave the salt out altogether, if you want. I like the flavor, and the salt jump‑starts the drying process, but it's not essential.) Finally, pop the tomato‑laden sheets into a 200‑degree Fahrenheit oven. After just two to three hours, the tomatoes will have dried, their shriveled forms bearing little resemblance to their once plump selves. But don't let appearances deceive you. Allow your newly dried tomatoes to cool. Then sample the fruits of your labors. I defy you to eat just one!
Be sure to save a few, though, and store them in an air‑tight container in a dark, cool place. Later, when you're ready to head out to the put‑in, simply repack them in a ziplock bag. Seldom have a few ounces been put to better use.
Easy, eh? Now let's take …
A Closer Look
Begin with a sharp knife. If none of the knives in your kitchen fits the bill, take time to sharpen your favorite. I used a chef's knife, but a paring knife works, too. As already noted, you'll want to wash and dry the tomatoes before you halve them, removing and discarding any stems first. You'll also need a baking sheet or other pan that's large enough to allow you to spread out the split tomatoes in a single layer, giving them a bit of elbow room to facilitate air circulation and drying. In the right‑hand photo below, I've placed halved cherry and grape tomatoes (plus a single, thin‑sliced plum tomato) on a well‑seasoned pizza pan:
Slice the small tomatoes in half from stem to stern, so to speak, and place them on the sheet with the cut faces uppermost. A plum tomato needs special handling. Rather than simply halving it, I cut it into quarter‑inch‑thick slices. And just as was the case with the small tomatoes, the cuts ran from the stem end to the stern. If you want to salt the tomatoes, now is the time to do so. Use a very small amount of coarse salt, and don't worry if some goes astray. Once all is in readiness, place the baking sheet with its cargo of sliced tomatoes in the oven. Use the middle rack. (Too many sheets to fit on one rack? Then stagger the sheets on several racks and swap them round after an hour or so.)
Now close the oven door — you shouldn't have to prop it open — and heat to 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Resist the temptation to check on progress until two full hours have passed. Too‑frequent checks only prolong the drying time. If the tomatoes are still noticeably juicy after two hours, however, you'll have to return them to the oven for a third hour. That should do the trick. How will you know? Easy. Properly dried tomatoes have the consistency of fruit leather. They're chewy without being either brittle or tough. Incompletely dried tomatoes can be eaten, of course. In fact, they're delicious. But they'll soon succumb to mold in storage.
In the first of the two photos below, I'm sprinkling coarse kosher salt on the tomatoes. The second photo shows how the tomatoes looked after being in the oven for three hours:
The cherry and grape tomatoes dried perfectly, but — as I feared would be the case — the plum tomato didn't fare as well. The thinner slices powdered when I tried to lift them from the baking sheet, while the thicker slabs had scorched, leaving them with an acrid flavor that was far from pleasing. (I ate them anyway. A cook should always eat her mistakes. Call it consumer feedback.) I think it would have been better just to halve the plum tomato, as I did its smaller cousins. But then it would have taken even longer to dry. So I'd suggest limiting your efforts to grape and cherry tomatoes, at least at first. After all, they turned out well:
Looks good, doesn't it? And it tasted good, too: tangy, sweet, and toothsome. In fact, I had a hard time stopping myself from eating my way through the whole batch. I did manage to save a few, however, and once they cooled I packed them away in a ziplock bag, planning to use them as trail food on some future outing. But they didn't last that long. The future arrived sooner than expected. No problem. I just dried more. Which brings up one last question:
What Good Is a Dried Tomato?
Yes, they're great snacks, but that's probably not the best use for these tangy little treats. It's better to save them for pasta, rice, soups, and stews. Use them as toppings on skillet pizzas. Or add them to salads, if it's early enough in a trip for you to have other salad fixings. Or try any (or all) of the following:
Pasta and Dried Tomatoes Cook up a pot of your favorite pasta. (I like tortellini.) Drain off the excess water and stir in some dried tomatoes, along with olive oil, black pepper, and a generous helping of grated Parmesan cheese. If you like garlic (I do), add a couple of cloves (raw or sautéed in hot olive oil), chopped fine. Then, if you have Triscuits or garlic croutons in your food pack, crush some into coarse crumbs to use as a garnish. Pine nuts make a delicious garnish, too.
Chicken or Tuna with Rice Pilaf and Dried Tomatoes Make a batch of pilaf, adding anywhere from a quarter to one‑half cup of dried tomatoes to the rice about halfway through the cooking time. The tomatoes will absorb some moisture while lending flavor to the rice. Now stir in chicken or tuna from a can or a shelf‑stable packet when the rice is almost done. (NB If using canned chicken or tuna, be sure to include the juices.)
Instant Couscous and Dried Tomatoes This is a recipe sure to delight the hearts of "man cooks" everywhere. It only requires boiling water or broth, and it's ready in 15 minutes or less. Place water or broth in a pot, using a bit more than necessary for the amount of instant couscous you'll be making. Now add about half a cup of dried tomatoes to the liquid and bring to a boil. Next, add the couscous, then cover the pot and remove it from the stove, letting it sit for a few minutes before stirring and serving, with or without additions like diced cooked meat, dried fruit, nuts, or cheese.
Black Beans and Dried Tomato Tortillas Heat a shelf‑stable pack of black beans — canned beans work, too, though you'll want to drain them first — stirring a small handful of dried tomatoes into the pot while the beans are cooking. Add dried oregano, ground cinnamon, and dried cumin to taste. (You can also add grated cheese to the beans if you like.) Then, when the beans are hot, wrap in corn or flour tortillas.
Bagels With Dried Tomato Spread Mix a few dried tomatoes — chopped or whole — into a spreadable cheese. I like cream cheese, but you'll need to keep it cool, so it's for short trips only. Any soft cheese will do, however. Spread the cheese‑and‑tomato topping on bagel halves, toasting them first if desired. For a real treat, melt butter (either real or ersatz) in a skillet over your stove, and place the split bagels cut‑side down in the melted butter, leaving them on the stove till they're golden brown. Then top the browned bagels with your tomato‑cheese spread. This takes a little time to prepare, but it's worth it.
Scrambled Eggs and Dried Tomatoes Whether fresh or dried, scrambled eggs are as good at dinnertime as they are at breakfast. Just add some dried tomatoes after the eggs begin to thicken, stir, and heat till the eggs are done.
Frittata and Dried Tomatoes This is another variation on the eggy theme, in which a frittata pinch‑hits for the scrambled eggs. Chop some dried tomatoes into small bits and whisk into the eggs before cooking. Or use whole small dried tomatoes if you prefer.
For many folks, fresh tomatoes are the taste of summer — subtle, sweet, and satisfying. But fresh tomatoes don't travel well. Luckily, though, properly dried tomatoes capture much of the flavor of fresh, and they're great travelers. There's even more good news for paddling cooks: You can dry your own. So what's stopping you? Dry it! You'll like it. And that's a promise.
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