Sunday, September 30, 2012

Local Foods: All Those Cherry Tomatoes

Last weekend I stopped in at a little roadside vegetable stand down the road. I was hoping to get a couple of end-of-season bushels of tomatoes to can for this winter’s tomato sauce. Unfortunately, I was a little too late for the larger saucing tomatoes.  Luckily, there were still a few long rows full of cherry tomatoes on their last legs – and free for the gleaning!

Thirty minutes later I walked away with a bushel of beautiful red cherry tomatoes. After the excitement of having acquired so many tomatoes for free wore off, I was suddenly struck with the cold, hard reality of a full bushel of cherries needing to be used quickly.

Cherry tomatoes in large quantities are not as easy to deal with as larger tomatoes- they are delicious, but because they’re so small, the preservation options are limited. I was considering salsa, but wasn’t in the mood, and so decided the best way to deal with this glut of tomatoes was to dehydrate them.

Dehydrating  tomatoes in a fairly simple task – you just need a few hours time to clean, de-stem, halve, and layer them on the trays. An electric dehydrator lets you simply flip the magic switch of electricity, and (depending on the size and amount of water) about 24 hours later the cherries will be fully dried.

Dehydration of fruits, vegetables, and even meat for jerky, can also be done on trays laid out in the sun in the summertime or over a wood stove during the cooler months. Unfortunately, fully dehydrating produce for long-term preservation in a standard kitchen oven is typically not the best method, as most home stoves can’t be set on the low temperatures required to slowly dry- no more than 135 degrees is recommended for fruits and vegetables.

I also wanted to make a little something special with some of the  fresh tomatoes. In my opinion, the most delicious way to cook up cherries (or grapes) is to oven-roast them. Oven-roasting differs from dehydrating in that not all of the moisture is removed, so they are perishable. These tomatoes will keep in your refrigerator for about two weeks- if they last that long without being eaten!

As with the dehydrated tomatoes, you will need to clean and de-stem your tomatoes and cut them in half. Then I like to very lightly toss the tomatoes in a little olive oil (you don’t need much as tomatoes have a lot of moisture) and a few pinches of salt. Then you will need to spread out the tomatoes in a single layer on a cookie sheet an bake in the oven at the lowest setting you can achieve- my own oven goes no lower than 220 degrees- for approximately 2 hours, sometimes less depending on the moisture content of the tomatoes.

When they are done, I like to mix in 1 or 2 finely minced garlic cloves and a little fresh oregano (or basil) to taste.  Some people like to roast the garlic right along with the tomatoes- I happen to like the flavor of raw garlic, but either way is fine. They taste fantastic tossed with pasta, or spread over a nice piece of good Italian bread. Or, if like me, you happen to have a couple of eggplants in your fridge and feel the feel the need to go overboard and make something that is truly amazing, you can whip-up some caponata.

Caponata, an eggplant spread of sorts, is one of my favorite foods in the world. It’s one those foods that has many different variations and can be adjusted according to what ingredients you happen to have in your home.

The basic requirements are eggplant, tomatoes, garlic, fresh basil, balsamic vinegar and olive oil. As I happened to have an excess of tomatoes, I decided to use a combination of both oven roasted and fresh. I like to add in some celery for a little crunch, capers for a little zing and some raisins or currants to cut the sharp taste of the garlic and balsamic vinegar. I also decided to go completely overboard and cook up some caramelized onions to add to the mix. Pretty much anything goes- you can use your imagination and adjust this recipe as you like.

One note about this recipe- I decided to make a balsamic vinegar reduction to drizzle over the top. Reducing vinegar involves cooking the vinegar at a slow rolling boil, stirring constantly until much of the moisture has evaporated and you are left with a thick, syrup-like consistency. This causes the vinegar to sweeten up and tastes absolutely delicious- it really changes this recipe into something extraordinary. It also adds about 20 minutes of cooking time to the process and creates a mess in the pan that is hard to clean (the reduction become candy-like and will stick to your pan if you don’t wash it immediately).  I have to tell you, it is not absolutely necessary – you can simply add in a few splashes of balsamic vinegar to taste and your caponata will still be delicious.

Caponata with Eggplant, Cherry Tomatoes and Caramelized Onions

Step 1: Roast your tomatoes

2 pints cherry tomatoes, halved, tossed in olive oil and a few pinches of salt, roasted in oven at lowest setting (see instructions above)

When done roasting, toss in the following

1-2 finely chopped cloves of garlic

1 sprig fresh oregano, chopped or a few leaves of fresh chopped basil (or both!)

Step 2:

Take 2 good-sized eggplants, peel them, cube into 1 inch chunks, toss lightly in olive oil. Sprinkle lightly with salt, place in a single layer on a cookie sheet and roast at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes. You may want to flip the eggplants half way through the roasting process so they are browned on both sides

Step 3:

While the eggplant is roasting, prep the following ingredients and set aside:

1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved

1 stalk celery, finely chopped

1/4 cup golden raisins, mascerated

Handful chopped fresh basil

2 cloves finely chopped garlic

Measure out 2 tbsps capers (alternatively, you can use chopped olives)

Remove the eggplant from the oven and allow to cool.

Step 4:

Caramelize 2 good-sized red onions in butter in a skillet. Set aside. (this step is optional, but it really makes this into an extra special dish)

Step 5:

Make Balsamic vinegar reduction:

Place 1 1/2 cups balsamic vinegar in a pan. Turn heat to high, and bring to a rolling boil. Turn heat down to lowest setting and allow vinegar to boil slowly. It will evaporate down to a thick syrup- you will have about 1/4 cup reduction by the end.

When the vinegar is done, add all of the ingredients to a large bowl and toss together. When tossed, drizzle balsamic reduction and 2-3 quick turns of olive oil over the top of the vegetables. Toss lightly. Done! Serve immediately or place in your refrigerator- the salad improves further with a few hours of of the flavors marinading together.

Photos: Above, cherry tomatoes loaded into the dryer; below, the coponata.

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Shannon Houlihan is a Public Health Nurse in Warren County who spends her free time obsessing about food.

After many years of home cooking and baking, she has determined to master the arts of food preservation including canning, fermenting, charcuterie, and cheese making.

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