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June, 2012

Dried Tomatoes — No Sun, No Salt

By Dennis Linden

Popularity came only when those amorous-centric French started calling the fruit Pommes d’amour [“love apples”], touting the tomato’s aphrodisiac powers.

Hot House Tomatoes

Like so many other staple crops that are cultivated today, tomatoes can be traced back to those industrious foodies, the Aztecs and Incas. There are records of the fruit showing up in their kitchens about 700 AD. The conquering Spanish introduced the fruit to Europe in the mid 1500s. However, the conquistadors were apparently much better at conquering than public relations; the western world was very slow to embrace the new fruit because it is a member of the nightshade family with a very poisonous group of first cousins. It was a clear case of unfounded guilt by association that the fruit’s Spanish promoters could not overcome.

Popularity came only when those amorous-centric French started calling the fruit Pommes d’amour [“love apples”], touting the tomato’s aphrodisiac powers. Those silly, silly French with their one-track minds! Still, it was enough to get the tomato in the door of most medieval households. Good taste and versatility took over from there; today the fruit is a staple ingredient in a wide array of cuisines around the world.

While the aphrodisiac qualities have long since been dispelled, the tomato is turning out to be packed with beneficial nutrients. Specifically, a potent antioxidant called lycopene that gives the tomato its red color and, as an antioxidant, contributes to the body’s overall health in myriad ways including some very powerful anti-cancer properties.

Until modern canning methods were developed, drying was the preservative of choice. Italians, another romantic bunch who built a national menu around the tomato, took to drying the fruit on their oven-like tiled roofs as a way of extending the crop for use during the winter months. While the process has been taken off rooftops, little else has changed over the centuries – including the use of copious amounts of salt as a key component in the procedure. This low-heat technique takes so long to complete that salt is needed to protect the fruit from rotting first.

The technique sounds like a good plan, except science has discovered that salt also kills the lycopene molecules so valued in the tomato. Actually, if the truth be known, the term “sun-dried” has become a marketing phrase that does not necessarily describe the method by which the fruit was processed. It’s such a lovely, natural notion -- drying in the sun – and it sells tomatoes, so the definition of the product is sometimes expanded to include “sun-dried-like”. Still, it is not difficult to spot real dried-by-the-sun fruit because the salt turns the fruit a very dark, almost black, red. This coloring is a telltale sign that the lycopene has been destroyed; the salt robbing it of pigment and nutrients. Conversely, a tomato that has been dried using a high heat, no salt, dehydration process retains its beneficial nutrients as evidenced by its vibrant red color and pliable, chewy texture.

Dried TomatoesSo the next time you spot Melissa’s DRIED TOMATOES in the grocery store, you will know that our packaging distinguishes the product from less nutritious, sun-burnt and salted brands. No matter what is claimed on the package, there is no truly sun-dried tomato in the marketplace that does not use salt. In this case, an “unnatural” method of drying this fruit works best to preserve the tomato’s natural nutrients.

Melissa’s Dried Tomatoes are processed on the premises of our long-time grower/supplier. Only the best of this growers’ Roma Tomato crop, harvested at the peak of ripeness, is selected for the driers. The stems are removed; the fruit is washed and cut in half. The halves are placed on large trays, which are stacked on wheeled carts that are moved through a wood-heated tunnel dryer. It takes 24 hours to dry the tomatoes and approximately 7 lbs. of fresh to make 1 lb. of dried. We hate to brag [not true] but this product is 100% natural, no added sodium (salt), with an intense tomato flavor and color. Warning: As an out of hand snack food, these chewy morsels can be addicting!

I treat dried tomatoes as a completely different ingredient than fresh tomatoes. The drying process itself concentrates the flavor, which is altogether unlike the fruit’s juicy “fresh self”. In addition, one can manipulate this concentrated flavor depending upon the liquid used in rehydrating the fruit.

The traditional method of reconstituting is to simply soak the tomatoes in warm water for 30 to 40 minutes until they are soft. Use boiled water if you are in a hurry. Then drain and pat dry. Save the liquid for a vegetable stock or cooking rice. Of course, no hydration is necessary if the dried tomatoes are being added to a soup or stew, as they will readily absorb whatever is simmering in the pot deliciously! In fact, wine and rich broths also make wonderful liquids for rehydration.

Olive oil and tomatoes have always been a great pairing. If you would like to try this combination at home using Melissa’s packaged Dried Tomatoes; it just takes a little planning ahead. First soak the dried tomatoes for 10 minutes in a mixture of equal parts vinegar and boiled water. While the tomatoes soak, season a good olive oil with herbs like basil, thyme, oregano and/or powdered garlic. Drain and pat the tomatoes dry before adding them to the olive oil mixture, which should cover them completely. Let the tomatoes marinate for at least 24 hours at room temperature before using; flavor will increase with age. Excellent in salads and pasta dishes right out of the jar!

When keeping dried tomatoes in olive oil, make sure that the tomatoes are always completely covered. When the tomatoes are gone, use the oil in salad dressings as it has picked up the flavor of the tomatoes as well as the herbs. Just remember, sun and salt are good on vacations, not tomatoes. Enjoy!