Squirreling It Away
Five days from the official start of autumn; I’d say it’s time to start squirreling away some of those summer crops to preserve warm-weather flavors that will brighten cold-weather dishes. Putting up all types of preserves for the winter is a long-standing tradition in my family. I have vivid memories of shelling dishpan after dishpan of lima beans and boiling pot after pot of beets to be canned and put in the cellar cabinets.
Those cabinets were fascinating in and of themselves. Built into the rough stone foundation of our century-old farmhouse, those cabinets got filled to the brim by mid-October with colorful mason jars and then “mysteriously” emptied by June of the next year, just in time for the full-swing of harvest. There was one small cabinet, just my size when I was seven or eight, which held all the fruit jams I helped my mom make – strawberry, grape, peach, blueberry, and raspberry. Peach was always my favorite.
The big cabinets held the large quart jars of pie fillings (peach, apple, cherry); fruit halves (pears, peaches); soup mix (for my mom’s amazing hearty vegetable soup); vegetables (green/yellow beans, lima beans, kidney beans, corn, beets, tomatoes); and sauces (apple sauce, spaghetti sauce, soup stock). All of this had been grown in our garden and on our farm. We had three large freezers full of meat we’d raised ourselves as well. To say the least, it was an impressive example of sustainable agriculture and eating really really local all year round.
But sadly, while I do have a farm right in my neighborhood, I don’t have that lovely big cellar with stone walls full of canning cabinets. My small rowhouse does have a basement but not one that was built to provide the right climate and storage for food preserves. Still, I’m determined to do two things this autumn – preserve our family traditions of preserving and perpetuate the eating of fresh local fare for as long as possible. Buying mass quantities of produce from the farm stands now to can and freeze will help support those farms through the winter just as much as buying a tomato here and a squash there has all summer long.
I began my quest by drying what remained of the large box of yellow tomatoes I had on hand. I was pleased with how long they had lasted off the vine, but the signs of demise were close at hand so I needed to take action before they were too far gone. I’ve never dried my own tomatoes before, nor has anyone in my family so this is actually an evolution of sorts of our family traditions. Since my small outdoor space is lacking bright sun while overflowing with squirrels, doing the drying by natural means wasn’t an option. Oven drying turned out to be a perfect and easy process.
OVEN DRIED TOMATOES
Researched on various websites
For this batch of oven dried tomatoes, I used a yellow medium sized variety. You can dry any kind of tomato – for cherry and roma tomatoes, cut them in half. For other larger varieties, cut them into 1 inch wedges.
Begin by washing the tomatoes well and removing the stem and core along with any bad spots (the great thing about drying tomatoes is that you can use a half rotten one if part of it is still good). Cut the tomatoes in half and gently squeeze them over a bowl to release most of the seeds and juice. Do not squeeze them too hard though as you want some of those juicy innards to remain for flavor.
Once tomatoes are squeezed, cut into smaller wedges (about one inch) and place in a single layer on a foil-lined baking sheet, cut side up. If you so choose, drizzle with just a little olive for added flavor. Don’t add very much though as it’ll keep the tomatoes from drying out properly if there’s too much oil.
Heat your oven to 150 F or its lowest setting if it doesn’t go that low. Since drying will take anywhere from 5 to 10 hours, this process works really well in a gas oven since the residual heat from the pilot light flame is usually enough to keep the drying process going if you need to turn the oven off when you’re in bed or not home. If using an electric oven that doesn’t have a 150 F setting, put it on low and prop the door open slightly. It’s okay to turn the oven off altogether and then turn it back on when you are in the kitchen again. Just leave the sheet(s) of tomatoes in the oven uncovered. If you’re doing multiple trays at once, rotate your baking sheets or racks every few hours.
When the tomatoes are dried they should be leathery and pliable, but not sticky. Don’t over dry them – you don’t want dark brittle bits. Rather, aim for a texture much like a raisin.
To store your oven dried tomatoes, let them cool completely and then put them in ziplock bags or glass jars with an airtight lid. Apparently they will keep this way for up to 6 months, but I can’t confirm that just yet (I’ll report back later this winter). One site I read also suggested you could freeze them for even longer storage times.
Oven dried tomatoes can also be stored in oil. To do this, do not dry them quite as much…they should still be a little bit plump. Quickly dip them in distilled vinegar and then pack in a jar before covering with olive oil. You can also add some fresh herbs and sliced garlic if you’d like. Allow the jars to sit at room temperature for a day and then store in the refrigerator.
These are great in any recipe that calls for sun-dried tomatoes. Or, to rehydrate to use in soups and sauces, soak them for 5 to 10 minutes in hot water, broth, or wine.
(one tray of tomatoes yeilds about one half pint jar when dried)