The Tomato Experience

I’m a nervous flier. For about the first 10 minutes, I’m squirming in my seat, nervously yammering, trying to control my soaring heart rate with slow, deep, deliberate breaths while fidgeting with my wedding ring. I’m 100% convinced that at any moment the engines will fail, and the aluminum tube that is hurtling me and 150 other people into the stratosphere at breakneck speed will nosedive to the hard, unforgiving ground below. After those 10 minutes are up and we level off, I’m relatively fine. I read magazines, I watch ridiculous movies (Old Dogs?! God help me!), and I begin to realize that fate is working in my favor and I will most likely land safely at my destination and continue my existence on this earth.

I say all of this because during a recent flight from Miami to Dallas, after surmising that destiny has indeed granted me another day among the living, I was nervously flipping through my latest Food & Wine magazine, desperate for distraction. Searching for inspiration for the upcoming week’s menu, I stumbled upon this recipe for oven dried tomatoes. “Ooh!”, I thought, “There are going to be a ton of tomatoes ready to pick when we get home – I’m doing this for sure.” Oh, Laura. Some decisions made at 36,000 feet just aren’t well thought out.

On the vine

You see, I aim to provide my dear readers with relatively easy, straight forward – even fun! – recipes, which I hope bring you tasty results. But what transpired over the course of six hours (six! hours!) last Saturday afternoon, while incredibly delicious, was also, at times, tedious, time-consuming and even frustrating. But, as it is also my duty to report back to my readers with true, unadulterated results of my culinary exploits, I feel it only fair that I share with you the results of my, ahem, tomato experience. So, this is my fair warning to you: the results are fabulous, but this endeavor is neither quick nor uncomplicated. Now, on with the show.

When I’m using a recipe that calls for sundried tomatoes, I often sigh with minor irritation that I have to go to the store and buy an expensive jar of the little things. Granted, they’re wonderful and very versatile, but oftentimes get used once and are subsequently buried in the vast collection of jars and bottles in my refrigerator door, only to be discovered six months later looking like a science project gone wrong. These oven dried tomatoes rival the most expensive jar of sundried tomatoes out there, I assure you, and while you may feel lingering pangs of resentment for hours now lost, their flavor makes up for it. Their sweet, tangy, garlicky bite makes me want to add them to everything. I’ll throw them into salads, pastas and sandwiches, or even eat them straight out of the jar.

Simple Ingredients

What starts out as a juicy, perfectly ripe tomato slowly (with emphasis on the slowly) turns into a shriveled, darkened, more intense version of its plump former self. The oven is kept at 325°, or as we foodies like to call it, “low and slow”, to prevent the delicate tomatoes from torching right off the bat. Granted, the recipe is rather innocuous and hands-off in the beginning, with only peeling, flipping, and the occasional rotation or rearrangement necessary. Toward the end, however, you need to keep your eagle eyes glued to the oven to make adjustments – take done ones out, flip others, rearrange the rest. The smaller tomatoes can burn easily (I speak from experience, here), and the larger tomatoes may require more time to achieve their perfect, shriveled state.

What’s more, the garlic cooks more quickly than the tomatoes; if you’re not careful, you’ll end up with beautiful tomatoes and cremated garlic cloves. Keep an eye on the garlic and as the cloves start to turn golden and the inside softens, take them out.

So, five pounds of tomatoes, two heads of garlic, twelve thyme sprigs, three glasses of wine, several moments of regret, countless curse words and six hours later, I must say I was very pleased with my results but ready to never set my sights upon a tomato again. I’m not bitter; don’t get me wrong, here. I’m still enjoying the fruits of my labor and chalk the whole thing up to an experience. If you’ve got the time and the inclination, go for it!

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Oven Dried Tomatoes with Garlic & Thyme

(makes two 8 oz. jars)

Download this recipe

5 lb. ripe tomatoes, seeded, cored and halved lengthwise
1/2 c. extra virgin olive oil, plus more for jarring
2 heads of garlic, cloves separated but not peeled
12 large thyme sprigs
salt & pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 325°, and position two oven racks just above and just below the center of the oven. Pour 1/4 c. of the olive oil onto each of two sturdy, rimmed baking sheets. Arrange the prepared tomatoes cut side down onto the oiled baking sheets and scatter the garlic and thyme sprigs around. Make a small slit on each tomato.

Out of the Oven

Bake the tomatoes for about 45 minutes, until the skins begin to wrinkle, switching the pans from top to bottom halfway through. Take the pans out of the oven and gently pry off the skins of each tomato, and flip them to cut side up. Place back in the oven and bake for one hour.

After that hour, flip the tomatoes again and continue baking until the tomatoes begin to dry but are still slightly plump and oily, one to two hours longer (longer for big tomatoes, shorter for small tomatoes). Keep a close eye on them – they burn easily!

Out of the oven, place the tomatoes on a wire rack and season with salt and pepper and allow to cool completely. In the meantime, peel the garlic cloves and discard the thyme sprigs. In 8 ounce jars, layer the tomatoes with the peeled garlic cloves, allowing enough room at the top to cover the tomatoes with olive oil. Slowly pour olive oil over the top of the tomatoes and fill up the jar. Slide a butter knife along the inside of each jar to release air bubbles. Seal the jars and refrigerate up to two months, or freeze for up to six months.

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Laura Hobbs is a regular contributor for the Fayetteville Flyer. She was born and raised in Fayetteville. She is a self-proclaimed foodie and avid cook. For more of Laura’s contributions, see her author page or visit Flyer Foodie on Facebook.