A simple technique which should be in everyone’s bag of culinary tricks is to use your oven to slowly dry fruits and vegetables. It literally creates a whole new group of ingredients. One of the most dramatic demonstrations of how a basic ingredients can be transformed by oven drying is tomatoes. Unfortunately most of the tomatoes we get in our markets today (even in the middle of summer in most places) are really awful. They are usually tasteless, often “cardboardy” in texture (which is the result of getting refrigerated somewhere along the way – – – You do know don’t you that you must never, never refrigerate fresh tomatoes!) and without any of their intoxicating fragrance.
At least two things help account for this sad state of affairs. First, varieties have been hybridized and selected because they exhibit especially resilient skins (read “tough”) that enable them to be shipped long distances without damage. In order to further enhance their “shipability”, commercially grown tomatoes are picked immature, usually green and hard and then gassed with ethylene gas to give them color. They may look ripe but of course they aren’t. In my cooking classes I’ll often bounce these unfortunate tomatoes off a wall or ceiling and almost always they remarkably came away completely intact with never a split or bruise. This may be a good thing for the grower and the shipper but it is definitely not a good thing for the cook. Some variation on this unfortunate scenario is played out with most of the conventionally grown fruits and vegetables in our markets. I don’t know why we accept this. Remember the movie Network from a few years back?? The great often repeated line by the main character was” . . . I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to put up with it any more!” We shouldn’t either with awful tomatoes!
Well off the soap box and back to the virtues of oven drying. Even poor underipe tomatoes can be greatly improved by slowly drying them in the oven. If you are lucky enough to get flavorful “real” vine ripened tomatoes grown in the earth and not hydroponically – – oven drying will have an even more dramatic effect. The secret is to use a relatively low heat, around 250 degrees or so maximum. As the fruits or vegetables gradually lose their moisture, their flavors concentrate and deepen and the texture becomes supple with a bit of chewiness. By drying at a relatively low temperature you maintain more of the “fresh flavor”. Higher heat results in more of a cooked and browned or caramelized flavor. The procedure is very simple. You simply cut the fruit in half or quarters, depending on its size and spread out on lined or lightly oil baking sheets in a single layer. You can season if desired and in the case of vegetables, drizzle on a little flavorful olive oil. It’s up to you. If you are using more than one sheet pan at a time be sure to rotate them so that the produce will dry evenly. Also check the progress from time to time and pluck those pieces out that may be done before the others. What we are doing here basically is to “semi-dry” so that the fruit or vegetable will still have some moisture. It is not preserved at this point so you’ll need to refrigerate any produce that you are not going to use immediately because there is still enough moisture left for molds and other little micro-organisms to grow
Here are some more simple and quick ideas for oven dried fruits and vegetables:
Add oven dried mushrooms, tomatoes and/or zucchini to omelets, frittatas or freshly cooked pasta or rice and top with some freshly grated parmesan or other cheese of your choice.
- Place any combination of oven dried vegetables including garlic in a jar with fresh herbs and fruity olive oil to cover and refrigerate for up to 10 days. These are great used in salads, to top grilled or broiled meats and fishes or as part of a anipasta platter.
- Add oven dried grapes, apples and pears to an arugula, watercress or other savory greens salad along with a nice blue cheese and toasted walnuts.
- Finely chop oven dried tomatoes and olives, add some fresh herbs and use on top of crostini
- Use any oven dried fruits in quick breads, pancakes, waffles or puddings
- Oven dried tomatoes and mushrooms combined with fresh basil and fresh mozzarella make a great sandwich
- To make a fast, flavorful and satisfying soup add any combination of oven dried vegetables to simmering chicken or vegetable stock and top with a crouton toasted with a little cheese topping