Robust Roles for the Tried-and-True Tomato the Fruit (or Vegetable?) Is All the Rage Sun-Dried, and It Never Goes out of Style in Soups and Sauces

Article excerpt

The history of tomatoes has all the color and sex appeal of a character in a Judith Krantz novel: Found in South America; sent off to Europe; denounced as a poison; hailed as an aphrodisiac; and banned from Boston (and the rest of the United States) only later to be accepted in Italy as a most welcome, attractive, and delicious vegetable addition to the dinner table.

Vegetable? For years the tomato suffered something of an identity crisis.

Late in the last century, a New York importer shipped in a large batch of tomatoes from the West Indies. He claimed the tomato as a fruit, hoping to avoid an existing 10-percent duty on imported vegetables. The decision went all the way to the Supreme Court. The court decided that the tomato is "usually served at dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish, or meat, which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits, generally as dessert." The importer had to pay.

Today tomatoes, like eggplants, cucumbers, and corn, are considered fruits anatomically, but they are usually referred to as vegetables.

Fortunately for us, the tomato's day in court is over, its reputation is restored, and it is now the most popular vegetable grown by home gardeners. That's no surprise. Nothing takes the place of freshly picked tomatoes. (Does anyone really buy those four-in-a-pack horrors packed in a plastic corral covered in cellophane? They are as useless as they are tasteless.)

According to Organic Gardening magazine, tomatoes should be picked just before they have reached full color and allowed to ripen at room temperature for a few days. This way, essential oils and flavor are not burned away. Never store tomatoes in the refrigerator.

If vine-ripened tomatoes are not available, the one substitute for fresh tomatoes in soups and sauces is canned tomatoes imported from Italy. The best ones are whole tomatoes grown in the San Marzano region. These are far superior because they are allowed to ripen on the vine before they are picked and canned. San Marzano is clearly marked somewhere on the label, and "Italy" is embossed on the top of the can.

I asked several friends what they wanted to know about cooking tomatoes. Many of them responded that they wanted to know how to dry them. Sun-dried tomatoes (or in some cases simply dried tomatoes), along with goat cheese and balsamic vinegar, are among the darlings of today's cuisine. Dried tomatoes are a popular addition to soups, salads, sauces, omelets, breads, pizzas, in fact almost any place where their plump siblings are found. Following are two methods for drying and three recipes.

Oven-Dried Tomatoes

Wash, dry, and core freshly picked tomatoes (Roma or plum tomatoes are best). Cut tomatoes into 1/4-inch slices. Cover a cookie sheet with aluminum foil. Spray foil with oil, or lightly brush with olive oil. Place sliced tomatoes on foil about 1/2 inch apart and into a preheated, 150-degree-F. oven for 6 to 10 hours (or longer if necessary) until tomatoes are dried and leathery in texture. Cooking time will vary depending on type and texture of tomatoes used. When cooled, pack in glass jars and cover with olive oil. Tomatoes can be eaten immediately or stored in the refrigerator up to 6 months.

Sun-Dried Tomatoes

Prepare tomatoes as above and place outside on clean plastic screen in full sun. …