Lock in the flavor with dried tomatoes

Until someone invents year ‘round summer in Oregon, the time to enjoy local sun-ripened tomatoes is now. They are truly one of the season’s blazing triumphs — plump and colorful to the eye, aromatic and juicy to the other senses. To say this blessing from nature represents the best of summer is hardly an overstatement. Especially in Oregon, where they seem particularly intense and sweet in character. Sort of like my sweetie.

Well, like a good mate, Oregon summers and the tomatoes they produce should never go to waste. I’ll leave the social directing up to you, but the culinary aspects of tomato appreciation in these final days of summer-into-fall are right up my alley. My favorite short-term approach hasn’t changed in umpteen years: two slices of a whole-grained bread, toasted to perfection, slathered with a silky layer of mayonnaise then piled high with tender sheets of lettuce, crisp ribbons of bacon, and thick slices of juicy tomato still warm from the afternoon sun.

For long-term enjoyment, one of my favorite treatments for preserving summer tomato flavor for later is to dry them. Home-dried tomatoes are a superior product compared to store-bought. And because they’re a fraction of the cost — as long as the tomatoes are coming out of your own garden — you’re more inclined to find uses for them beyond the obligatory toothpick appetizer and sandwich garnish.

Dried Tomato tips

•Obviously, the meatier the tomato, the better they are to dry. “Roma” or “Italian” styles are preferred. But regular slicers, beefsteak, and even little cherry and golden pear tomatoes are good candidates. Just make sure the little guys are halved, and the bigger specimens are quartered or sliced lengthwise, from stem to stern.

•Tomatoes packed in olive oil are safe to store at room temperature as long as you have not added any moist, low-acid ingredients such as fresh garlic or fresh herbs. Dried garlic and dried herbs are perfectly safe. But if you want to include fresh, moist garlic and herbs, you must refrigerate the jars.

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•Whether you’re using a food dehydrator or your oven to dry tomatoes, you’ll need to re-position the trays/baking sheets every few hours to encourage even drying.

•The other factor to consider to achieve a thoroughly dried tomato is its thickness. Tomatoes contain pockets of thick, juicy meat, which is always the last portion to dry. During the drying, I police my batch and when I encounter one that has an especially plump portion, I pierce it with a knife and squash it to allow moisture to escape.

•Although I like to season my tomatoes before drying —sometimes just with salt, other times, with salt and dried herbs — it isn’t necessary from a food safety standpoint. But I do think the flavor is richer when a tiny bit of salt is used.

•Unlike most recipes you’ll encounter for dried tomatoes, I slosh each piece in a saucer of vinegar before storing in olive oil. This maneuver seems to preserve the oil so it is less likely to go rancid during long-term storage.

•For a wonderful pesto-style spread, blend together about 1 cup of pesto with ½ cup of oil-packed dried tomatoes (drain them before adding to the blender or food processor) with 2 to 3 tablespoons of Balsamic vinegar. Run the motor until the tomatoes are finely chopped, but flecks are still visible. Will keep, refrigerated, for several weeks, or frozen for many months.

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Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com or find additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.