There is a point in the growing season, that it almost feels as if the tomatoes will never ripen. The plants sit, loaded down with green globes, waiting for something, of what you’re not sure. You check every day, peering into each bush hoping to find the red gems inside, but to no avail. Then finally, they start and before you know it, you are inundated with tomatoes. This is a good thing. Tomatoes are one of the most versatile vegetables in the garden: they can go on sandwiches, in salads, canned whole, chopped or crushed, cooked down into sauce, juiced, frozen, processed into an endless array of condiments, the list goes on. And for each culinary use, there is a specific tomato that breeders and gardeners have selected for over the years.
At my house, we eat what we can fresh, and turn the rest into chopped tomatoes or sauce for pizzas and soups later in the year, and likewise, we always grow a couple of varieties of tomatoes: big hearty ones with few seeds that are great for slicing and chopping that break down well in sauce, and smaller cherry varieties ideal for snacking and salads. Unfortunately, this year, due in part to a very wet spring, our cherry tomatoes did not fare well, luckily we had planted a number of Black Vernissage as a test crop, and while not a cherry tomato per se, they are on the smaller side with most fruits smaller than a golf ball and for all intents and purposes, they eat just like a cherry.
Making sauce, while enjoyable the first seven quarts, can become something of a burden, especially when it’s 95°F outside, and you are filling the already hot kitchen with more heat and steam. And let us be serious, no one is really salivating when it comes time to crack open a jar of sauce; it is an excellent addition to a dish, but you can not snack on it by itself. Of course, we add some of our cherry-types to sauce for additional flavor, but we also like to turn many of our cherry tomatoes into a healthy garden snack that can last well beyond a tomatoes natural shelf life: sun-dried tomatoes. It may be up for debate as to whether or not these actually qualify as sun-dried tomatoes, but that is neither here nor there, the fact of the matter is they are a delicious snack and exceptionally easy to make.
This year we used our Black Vernissage, but because of their larger size, we had to cut them up into quarters or even sixths; when using typical marble size cherry tomatoes, we only cut them in half. Once cut up we toss them in a bowl with some spices. Sometimes we will stick to traditional Italian flavorings, and other times we attempt more exotic flavors – a personal favorite is salt, cocoa powder, cayenne and olive oil – but whatever flavorings you choose, make sure to use salt and olive oil as these ingredients help speed the drying process and mitigate potential mold growth. Once the tomatoes are thoroughly coated, they are laid out – so as not to touch each other – on old dehydrator trays, or cookie sheets, or whatever is easily movable and available. Sometimes with juicier tomatoes, it is better to start them on solid trays so the juice does not drip to the surface below. Once everything is laid out, I put them in my van.
Yes, you read that right. In the summer, my van works as the ideal solar oven. I put the trays on the dashboard and let the sun do the work. If you have vents (like I do in my man-van) you can crack them, or you can just crack the windows a little, but some air flow is vital. After the first day, when most of the dripping juice has evaporated, I will move the tomatoes onto some aluminum screen that I have set aside just for this purpose, or you can use the screen inserts from a dehydrator if they are not in use elsewhere. Do not stack your trays and make sure they are laid out in the full sun. The olive oil and salt help keep mold at bay, but so do the heat, sun and air flow. I have also found that turning the tomatoes over so the skin side is facing the sun after the first day helps to speed drying. The whole process takes two to three days, depending on the weather, but it is important to check them often; believe it or not, they can go too long and then they not only become too hard to chew, but they can actually burn.
Once cured, we try to get them in jars with rubber gaskets before the kids eat them all. They make great additions to salads and pastas or simply as individual snacks, and they make your car smell garden fresh!