Gardening alert: Those who grow more than one vine of cherry tomatoes get what they deserve.
A conservative expectation is that each plant is endowed with — no joke — thousands of cherry tomatoes. You cannot eat 1,000 cherry tomatoes in salad. When the cherry-tomato freight train hits, you can preserve them as a sauce base for soups, braises and pasta sauce, or into dried bits for cheese boards, salads or snacks doused with good olive oil great for a night in front of the TV.
This year, I planted one vine of a variety called Sweet 100s. This is a very popular cherry tomato that’s sweet as candy with good acidic high notes on the palate. In my area of Northern California, I’ll be picking them till Thanksgiving. One year, they lasted to Christmas. By that time, with globes of fruit still red and ready, I yanked it out of the ground and chopped it into compost. Enough!
With fresh tomato season ending around the rest of the country, why not regard the prolific cherry tomato as a special varietal to transform into base for sauce or raisin-like dried tomatoes? Because cherry tomatoes are small, capping them is labor intensive on the front end. But the sauce is easy, and requires just letting them sweat over low heat until they melt into their own liquid. The task is more of a process than a recipe. The same is true for drying them. I use my oven, and you can too.
Varietal Sauce: Essence of Cherry Tomatoes
With this method, you can get rid of 3 to 5 pounds of cherry tomatoes quickly and with little attention. You’ll use just tomatoes, an onion, olive oil and seasoning — that’s it. The seeds and skins have some pectin that thickens and adds body to the essence. Not fond of chopping? There’s nothing to prep except for imperfect swipes at the onion. The tomatoes go into the pot whole.
Makes 2 to 2¼ quarts
- Peel and rough-chop the onion. Wash cherry tomatoes in a sieve or colander. Remove and discard all leaf caps. Leave tomatoes whole.
- Heat the olive oil in a big pot over medium-high heat. Add onions and all the tomatoes, seeds, skins and all. Cook tomatoes uncovered over medium-low heat until you can mash the tomatoes with the back of a wooden spoon, about 1 to 1½ hours. Stir now and then. Tomatoes will cook down and end up sitting in their liquid.
- Add 1 teaspoon salt, stir and taste. If you prefer more salt, add small quantities until you achieve the desired taste.
- Cool the tomatoes and their liquid slightly. In batches, blend the contents of the pot, including all juices. Run the blender at least a full minute on highest speed.
- When smooth, strain through a fine wire mesh strainer into a large bowl, pressing hard; discard the solids. You’ll be left with a strained, smooth base.
- Freeze in freezer-quality zip bags.
Dried Cherry Tomato ‘Raisins’
So-called sun-dried tomatoes may not be “sun” dried at all. These are dried in the oven, which does a fine job. The idea is to dry the tomatoes, not cook them. The worst part of this task is removing the leaf caps and halving hundreds of cherry tomatoes. With cherry tomatoes being about the size of large grapes, the shrunken result is like a pliant raisiny bit. Five pounds raw gave me enough dried to fill a quart zip bag.
- Line cookie sheets or the bottom pan of a broiler rig with aluminum foil to catch drips.
- Wash the tomatoes and remove leaf caps. Split tomatoes lengthwise and set on racks close together, flat sides up.
- Set electric ovens to 200 degrees F. If using a gas oven, the pilot light might be hot enough. In either case, leave oven door ajar so air can circulate. Prop open with a wooden spoon or pot holder.
- Sprinkle tomatoes with vinegar. (I shake the vinegar bottle upside down while holding my finger partially over the opening.) Vinegar thwarts bacteria and mold, but has no invasive taste on the dried tomato.
- Set racks in oven. If any white mold specks form, throw those pieces away and set the gas oven to 200 F. Move the trays around. Keep an eye on these for about a day and a half. You may turn off oven at night, but leave oven door ajar.
- Pick off tomato halves as they become dry. Store in a zip bag; continue until all tomatoes are dry to the touch. Press air out of bag. Refrigerate the dried tomatoes in the zip bag. They’ll last a couple of years.
Zester Daily contributor Elaine Corn is a James Beard Award-winning cookbook author and food editor. A former editor at the Louisville Courier-Journal and the Sacramento Bee, Corn has written six cookbooks and contributed food stories to National Public Radio.
Photo: Cherry tomatoes
Credit for photo and slide show: Elaine Corn