If you can’t find sun-kissed tomatoes, go for the next best thing – sun-dried tomatoes.
Dehydrated tomatoes, whether dry-wrapped or pickled in olive oil, are sweet, flavorful and add a touch of flavor to salads, pasta, quick dips, and pesto. They make a colorful topping on pizza, focaccia or crostini and are ideal for an antipasti.
A creamy Parmesan polenta, for example, is enhanced when topped with oil-filled, sun-dried tomatoes cooked with garlic, broccoli raven, and broth. Or how about tossing roasted green beans with sun-dried tomatoes whisked with kalamata olives, lemon juice, fresh oregano, and goat cheese.
Fusilli salad sings with an antipasti tone when the cooked corkscrew-shaped pasta is combined with sun-dried tomatoes, salami, provolone cheese, artichoke hearts and paprika-peppers. Garlic chicken meatballs with chopped sun-dried tomatoes and jalapeno are a sensory treat for a weekday dinner.
The shrunken fruits are minimalists because they only have four requirements – good plum tomatoes, a little salt, lots of sun, and a lot more patience.
You can thank the sun for its concentrated tomato flavor. When tomatoes dry under the summer sun, their water content is drawn out, making them more flavorful and colorful. And they keep their antioxidants and vitamins.
Lisa Mantella, 65, born and raised in southern Italy in Calabria, remembers helping her mother dry tomatoes in July and August when the sun was at its strongest.
Her mother would be monitoring the weather forecast in the local newspaper and on the radio. When it was predicted that it would be sunny and dry for at least three or four days, it was time to pull a table out on the balcony and dry the tomatoes.
“It had to be nice and hot and dry. There couldn’t be any humidity in the air, ”said the resident of O’Hara, who is a part-time pastry chef at the Pittsburgh Field Club in Fox Chapel.
Only the elongated and sweet San Marzano tomatoes with pointed ends would be enough. The tomatoes were cut in half lengthways and sprinkled with a little salt to draw out the moisture. Then they were laid out in one layer on a kitchen towel over a tray, with the cut side facing the sun.
Round, juicy tomatoes were avoided as they took longer to dry.
The tomatoes were left out all day, depending on the sun, between three, four or more days. Dried tomatoes can lose up to 93% of their original weight. Ms. Mantella found that by their appearance they were ready – the tomatoes must have shrunk to three quarters of their original size.
She was only 5 or 6 years old when she started helping her mother. Her job was to lay the halved tomatoes on the tray after her mother cut them, and to move the tray so that they got full sun all day.
The plum tomatoes came from her family’s 40-acre farm, which also grew eggplants, green beans, and broccoli.
“Even though I’m Italian, I’ve never liked raw tomatoes. My mother never liked her either, ”she said with a laugh. “I only like them when they’re cooked.”
Sun dried tomatoes eaten on their own are so chewy that they are sometimes leathery and usually last three or four months. When hydrated in olive oil, they can last six months. The oil adds flavor to the sun-dried tomatoes and helps them stay fresh. Ms. Mantella warns that the tomatoes must be completely covered in olive oil and kept in tightly closed jars.
Dry-packed and oil-packed tomatoes are interchangeable in recipes. To make dry-wrapped tomatoes less chewy, hydrate them in water or broth first. Oil-wrapped tomatoes can be used as-is, but sometimes the excess oil needs to be blotted off.
Mrs. Mantella continued to dry the tomatoes after she got married and moved to Pittsburgh. Sometimes she uses her oven to get the job done.
“Pittsburgh summers can be humid and inconsistent,” she said.
She grows San Marzano tomatoes in garden pots and places the halves in one layer on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. She then puts them in a 170-degree oven for about 12 hours, checking them occasionally.
Just like their sun-dried tomatoes, the shrunken, oven-dried tomatoes have an intense flavor.
“To tell the truth, they’re almost the same,” she said.
Spaghetti with sun-dried tomatoes and pistachio pesto
Garlicky, nutty, sweet and spicy, this sun-dried tomato pesto has it all. Use leftover pesto as a spread on toast or with fried chicken. For 2 people. Based on “365: A year of daily cooking and baking” by Meike Peters (Prestel; October 2019)
For the pesto
3 ounces of sun-dried tomatoes
1/4 cup peeled salted pistachios, plus 2 tablespoons chopped nuts for garnish, divided
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon of olive oil, divided
2 large cloves of garlic, crushed
1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon of crushed red pepper
For the pasta
7 ounces of dried spaghetti
Coarsely ground pepper
For the pesto, bring a small pot of water to the boil and cook the sun-dried tomatoes for 3 to 4 minutes or until tender. Remove the tomatoes with a slotted spoon and transfer them to a plate. Reserve the boiling water.
Drain the tomatoes. Put in a blender. Add 4 tablespoons of the cooking water, 1/4 cup of pistachios, 1/4 cup of olive oil, garlic, salt, and crushed paprika. Puree until everything is smooth. Try and add more salt if needed. If the pesto is too dry, add a little more cooking water.
For the pasta, bring a large saucepan of salted water to the boil and cook the spaghetti al dente according to the instructions in the package.
Drain the spaghetti, distribute on the plates and drizzle with the remaining olive oil. Sprinkle with pesto, chopped pistachios and a little pepper. Serve warm.