Michael Chiarello taught me to oven-dry tomatoes.
We were working on one of his early cookbooks and I’ve used the technique ever since. Because (the dirty little secret is:) even at the height of tomato season, sometimes they taste, well, not the way we remember or think they should. So we need to do something to them to add flavor, or to concentrate flavors already there, or both.
The flavor of San Marzano tomatoes, the highly regarded plum tomatoes recommended for sauce because of their meaty texture, often disappoints me. Probably because I love a brighter acid balance than is typical of this variety.
In pursuit of more concentrated flavors, I dry them, sometimes simply by putting them in the dehydrator and sometimes by oven drying them. My very old stove with its always-on pilot light maintains an ideal temperature for drying. When I’m in a hurry, I up the temperature to 225 or 250 degrees F.
I flavor the tomatoes with salt and pepper, vinegar, olive oil, garlic, and herbs, all dependent on whim and what’s in the garden and the pantry. This time I used lavender thyme, an herb easier to grow than to use. But it does combine some of the best qualities of both rosemary and thyme and so, with tomatoes, tastes great. (And would with lamb as well.) Instead of balsamic, I used a sweet-tart, syrupy red wine vinegar, olive oil, smoked salt to give an “outdoorsy” character, a 5-pepper blend, and pressed garlic. I considered adding smoked hot paprika but ultimately decided to save that idea for the next batch. You see, you really can go in a gazillion directions.
The tomatoes dried in a preheated 250 degrees F oven to for two hours. Before doing errands, I turned the oven off, and the tomatoes continued to dry for another 2 hours at 150 degrees F. It’s important to take the tomatoes out before they completely dry to the stiff, inflexible state. You want them (maybe I should speak for myself here) with a succulent texture and explosive flavor.
If you use more than a drizzle of oil, you will have a confit of tomatoes and some nearly addictive oil to drizzle over your late-summer salads of fresh mozzarella or feta, tomatoes, and cucumbers. Or use just a drizzle as I did and swab out the baking dish with good bread as a “cook’s snack.” Any tomatoes not immediately consumed (better to leave the kitchen after “testing/tasting” four or five), keep a week refrigerated in a covered container. Or transfer them with their oil to a freezer container to enjoy all winter.
Sharp, aged Cheddar cheese and sun-dried tomatoes is a combination not to be beat. But it can be amplified when teamed with whole-grain sourdough bread and Gravenstein apples, my favorites. They are juicy, tart, and crisp. They are also about the first apple to arrive at farmers markets in the late summer and the first to leave. You need to eat them while you can as they don’t store well and over ripen quickly. Do the math and it adds up to simply sensational seasonal eating.