Summer's bounty: When tomatoes ripen past their prime, try drying them in the oven
Yes, I have to admit it: I played a part in the great sun-dried tomato craze of the 1980s. Guests at my original Spago location above Hollywood's Sunset Strip could enjoy sun-dried tomatoes on pizzas, in pastas and salads, and as part of the sauces or garnishes for grilled or sauteed foods. From their gemlike, deep-red color to their chewy texture to their almost candy-sweet flavor, they were irresistible. But while sun-dried tomatoes continue to be every bit as popular today, far fewer food lovers now consider them a novelty.
You might wonder, however, why I would be so enthusiastic about dried tomatoes at a time of year when so many people are enjoying fresh sun-ripened tomatoes. But that's exactly the point. Right now, even if you have just a few tomato plants in your garden or on your terrace, or you visit the farmers' market weekly and give in to the temptation to buy an assortment of the beautiful heirloom tomatoes you see on display, you may find it hard to use them all before they ripen past their prime. That's when it makes sense to start drying them.
But few people have the terracotta tile roofs on which tomatoes were originally sun-dried centuries ago in Italy -- let alone the reliably sunny, dry climate you would need to ensure that the tomatoes don't go bad before they dry. That's why I would like to share my favorite method for preparing dried tomatoes in the oven.
I must admit that I like my oven-dried tomatoes even more than many packaged sun-dried products. Why? The simple reason is you can't always be certain of the quality you'll get when you buy them in a package, while oven-drying ensures that you control the quality from the moment you select and buy the fresh tomatoes, through the drying process, to the point at which you use them. Oven-dried tomatoes also tend to be a bit more moist and plump than most sun-dried ones -- though that also means that they should be stored in the refrigerator and used within two to three days.
Oven-drying also gives you the opportunity to season the tomatoes to taste before the drying begins, enhancing their flavor even more. As you'll see in the recipe, I like to sprinkle them with a little fresh thyme along with salt, pepper and a small touch of sugar to highlight their natural sweetness. If you like, use a different herb such as oregano or rosemary, and feel free to add a touch of spicy red pepper flakes.
Keep making new batches through the rest of the season, extending your enjoyment of summer's tomato bounty while it lasts!
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Makes about 1 1/4 cups (310 mL)
12 medium organic sun-ripened Roma tomatoes, about 2 pounds (1 kg) total weight
3/4 cup (185 mL) extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra as needed