Jan’s Dried Tomatoes

Read about my “secret ingredient” in the Note on Vinegar below. It really does produce a superior oil-packed dried tomato.

•7 or 8 pounds of firm, ripe Italian-style tomatoes

•1 tablespoon dried seasoning (such as an Italian blend, or a mixture of dried basil, oregano and thyme), optional

•2 teaspoons salt

•Red or white wine vinegar (see note)

•About 1¼ cups extra-virgin olive oil

Rinse the tomatoes and dry them. Cut out the stem and scar and the hard portion of core. Halve the tomatoes if they are less than 2 inches long; quarter them if they are larger. With the tip of a knife or your index finger, scrape out most of the seeds without removing the pulp.

Arrange the tomatoes, cut surface up, either on drying racks (if using a food dehydrator) or on non-stick cookie sheets (if drying in a conventional oven). Combine the dried herbs if using, with the salt, and sprinkle a small amount over the surface of each tomato.

Proceed with drying, as described by the manufacturer for your food dehydrator, or by using the oven method as described below. The tomatoes will not all dry at the same rate. As they reach the right degree of dryness, remove them from the oven or dehydrator. Dip them into a saucer of vinegar, shake off the excess, and pack in the olive oil. Make sure that no bits of tomato protrude from the oil because those portions will darken.

As the jar(s) are filled, cap each one tightly and shelve it at cool room temperature for at least a month before serving the tomatoes. After removing the tomatoes from the jar, add more oil, if necessary, to keep the remaining tomatoes covered. Dried tomatoes stored in oil will keep for months and months at room temperature. Yields about 1 pint.

OVEN-DRYING METHOD: Bake in 170 degree oven for about 3 hours. Leave the oven door propped open about 3 inches to allow moisture to escape. After 3 hours, turn the tomatoes over, cut side down, and press flat with your hand or a spatula. Continue to dry, turning every few hours and gently pressing flatter and flatter, until the tomatoes are dried. This procedure can take about 12 hours, but often takes a significantly shorter amount of time, depending on the moisture content of the tomatoes. Avoid over-drying because tomatoes will become brittle and crisp if dried too extremely. On the other hand, make sure they are dried to the point of being “leathery” when manipulated; if not dried enough, the tomatoes will mold at room temperature.

NOTE ON VINEGAR: I’ve tried several methods, but the vinegar treatment is the difference between a good dried tomato and a great one. That extra bit of acid acts as a preservative, ensuring that your olive oil stays fresher longer (by months and months).

AVOIDING THE OIL: Once the tomatoes are dried, simply store them in airtight jars, plastic bags or containers, and keep them in a cool, dry, dark place for up to a year. Dried tomatoes can also be frozen. Dried tomatoes not stored in oil can be snipped into pieces and added directly to soups, stews, and sauces. But for some recipes, you’ll need to rehydrate them by soaking them in boiling water for 2 to 4 minutes; just long enough to soften. Then drain and pat dry.

Sun-Dried Pesto Spread

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Makes about 2 cups

While basil is still fresh and local, make a lot of this and freeze in small batches. It’s a great spread to take along on a day hike because it can survive out of the refrigerator for several hours without suffering in quality. And for later in the year, it’s a wonderful spread for your autumn picnics and parties.

•2 cups packed fresh basil leaves

•5 to 6 cloves garlic, peeled

•2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

•¼ cup pine nuts

•½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

•½ cup olive oil

•About ½ teaspoon salt (or to taste)

•Freshly ground black pepper

•16 oil-packed dried tomatoes (drained of the oil)

•¼ cup balsamic vinegar

Combine the basil, garlic and parsley in a blender and process until finely chopped. Add the pine nuts and Parmesan and process just until blended. With the machine running, slowly add the olive oil and process until a smooth paste is formed. Add the dried tomatoes and vinegar and continue processing until the tomatoes have been chopped into tiny pieces (but are still visible). Scrape the mixture into a bowl and stir in salt and pepper to taste.

For day hikes, just pack into a lightweight container and pull out at lunch, along with crusty chunks of bread and a bit of your favorite cheese, plus some really great garlic-dills and local cherry tomatoes.

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