Making sun-dried tomatoes at home is not as daunting as it seems. There are two ways to make them: sun-drying (as the name implies) on racks outside or using a dehydrator. My mamma tried the outdoor method last summer; it took about two days to dry out three plump tomatoes, but my oh my were they sumptuous! If you’ve never tasted truly sun-dried tomatoes, I recommend it wholeheartedly. They are soft and sun-kissed, supple and bright unlike the store-bought versions that always seem to suffer one of the following problems: tough as taffy, preserved in nitrates or lip-puckering salty (in this case, rinse well).
Tomato season in Ithaca is a rapid flush. It comes in late July or early August, and I usually bide my time and bask in summer’s most perfect creation by gobbling them in gross quantities. Then suddenly I realize the season is short and they’ll be gone before I’ve packed my shorts away for the year. No amount of eating will make them last longer. In late August I scramble to Stick and Stone Farm and pick madly in the fields alongside my friends, collecting cherry tomatoes until my fingers are sticky with green fuzz from the vines.
Then, I spend nearly two hours swatting away a growing horde of fruit flies while I slice the tomatoes in half and layer them on my Open Country Dehydrator, a gift from my mother-in-law for which I will be eternally grateful. I leave them overnight on the “vegetable” setting until they are soft, but all traces of “wetness” have disappeared. In the morning I pack them two ways.
I either store them in an airtight, glass jar with a silica packet (rescued from a bottle of vitamins), or cure them in a jar with two sprigs of rosemary and covered with extra virgin olive oil. In both cases they can be stored in the pantry (refrigeration will cause the olive oil to harden). Storing them the first way means that I can be more creative with them for cooking – I just soak them in hot water, drain them and then add them to stir-fries, sauces, sandwiches or anywhere else I want the memories of fresh tomatoes – with a more concentrated flavor. I use the broth from soaking them to enhance soups and sauces.
Cured sun-dried tomatoes are also lovely and a quick addition to toast with cheese, roast meats and any stir-fries and other dishes with Italian seasoning. I use the olive oil straight from the jar for drizzling on salads, in soups and on sandwiches – and top off the olive oil when it falls below the tomatoes.
Bottom line: I never regret any effort I put into stocking the pantry with sun-dried tomatoes. But, if I simply can’t get to it there’s always the grocery store…!