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

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. Cover with a layer of cheesecloth to dissuade insects. Turn tomatoes daily. Tomatoes are done when most of the moisture is dehydrated and they become somewhat leathery in texture. This should take about three days. If nights are damp and cool, or rain threatens, take tomatoes indoors.

Bruschetta With Dried Tomatoes and Cheese

1 baguette of French bread

Whole garlic cloves, halved

Extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 pound goat or brie cheese

10 dried tomatoes, chopped (substitute fresh tomatoes if you wish)

12 large leaves of fresh basil

Freshly ground black pepper

Cut French bread diagonally in slices about 1/2 inch thick. (There should be about six slices.) Toast bread, rub with garlic cloves, and brush lightly with olive oil. Spread brie or goat cheese onto toast and add two or three dried tomatoes. Top with basil, brush with olive oil, and sprinkle with black pepper. Place bruschetta on cookie sheet or broiling pan and broil until cheese begins to melt. Serves 6 as an appetizer or 3 as a light lunch.

Tomato Soup With Roasted Garlic

2-1/2 pounds vine-ripened tomatoes

8 garlic cloves, peeled

3 shallots, peeled and halved

1/4 teaspoon dried rosemary

1/2 tablespoon dried thyme

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

4 cups chicken stock or water

1 large bay leaf

1/3 cup balsamic vinegar

2 large leaves of fresh basil, chopped, or 1 teaspoon dried

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Parmesan (preferably Parmigiano Reggiano)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Place tomatoes, garlic, shallots, rosemary, and thyme in a 9-by-11-inch baking dish. Coat all vegetables with olive oil and bake uncovered for 20 minutes.

Pour vegetables and juices in a large pan or stockpot, add chicken stock (or water) and bay leaf. Bring to boil, reduce heat, and simmer 20 minutes, or until mixture is reduced by about one-third.

Add balsamic vinegar, basil, and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer for an additional 10 minutes.

Allow mixture to cool slightly and add to food processor in small batches. Puree mixture and strain through a sieve.

Soup may be reheated and served hot, sprinkled with Parmesan, or served cold garnished with basil leaves. Serves 4.

Classic Marinara Sauce

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

3 large onions, chopped

1 cup finely chopped carrots

3 cloves garlic, chopped

8 cups peeled and chopped tomatoes

4 leaves fresh basil, chopped

1 tablespoon dried oregano

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/4 cup chopped parsley

Parmesan (preferably Parmigiano Reggiano)

Heat olive oil in a large nonaluminum sauce pan. Add onions and carrots and saute until onions become soft and translucent. Add garlic and saute about 2 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add tomatoes and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. When mixture has cooled, process small quantities at a time in a food processor until texture is somewhat smooth.

Return sauce to saucepan. Add herbs and salt and pepper to taste. Pour over your favorite cooked pasta and top with parsley and imported Parmesan. Serves 4. Extra sauce may be frozen for future use.

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