Wednesday, September 9, 2009

15 minutes to heaven...

People are always asking me how I do so much and I am always saying "Huh? What do you mean?" Because I really don't. It never feels like I get much done at all. And I certainly don't get near as much done as I would love to.

I seldom spend big chunks of time doing stuff. This is for lots of reasons--being busy with kids, short attention span, but mainly because of some funky health issues that mean I am kind of screwed in the long-term energy department. To adapt to how my life is (as in really is, rather than how I want it to be) I have developed this odd way of dividing tasks in little spurts of time. Five minutes here, ten minutes there, I seldom do big crazy long pushes anymore. But from looks of my pantry, I guess these efforts add up.

For example, one morning this week, I had a big pile of tomatoes sitting on my counter. I was thinking about grinding them up to stick them in the freezer for the beginnings of fresh tomato sauce but I only had a few minutes and I knew that would make a mess. I hate leaving a mess behind when I leave in the morning so I opted to salt-dry some tomatoes instead. They only take a minute to clean up afterwards.

This whole process took literally 7 minutes to slice and place the tomatoes on the dehydrator trays, salt them and put the trays in the dehydrator, start the machine and clean up. Then the machine ran all day while I was in and out. Later that night I checked on them and decided that they needed more time and let it run all night. In the morning, it took another 6-7 minutes to take them off the tray and stick them in a jar for the winter. All in all, I preserved about 15 pounds of tomatoes in as many minutes of work. Nice. And the best part is they will be delicious in any recipe I make that has tomato sauce in it.

I learned about salt dried tomatoes a couple of years ago when we went to visit our friends in Switzerland. Sean is Steve's and my old skiing/climbing buddy from back in the old days--you know, college, when doing something fun was way more important than anything on the "list". Anyway, Sean apparently was studying in addition to having fun because he went on to be this very prestigious professor of geology (even inventing some kind of famous theory about the birth of mountains). He's now the Geology department chair of the Swiss version of MIT or something grand like that and has a house in the alps and Italian sweetheart Guiditta.

Guiditta, who is also a geologist, grew up in a hotel in the Dolomite mountains of Northern Italy. Her mom was super busy running the hotel so her virtual nanny became the hotel cook. Seeings how the cook was supposed to be busy cooking, not watching Guiditta, Guiditta learned to cook early and from a master. On our visit, she taught me all kinds of things about making delicious pasta sauces.

One night she searched the hidden back corners of their food cupboard and took out this little teeny, tiny jar of salt dried tomatoes that a friend had brought to her from the southern tip of Italy. (I think she might have been hiding them from Sean. He LOVES salty things.) Anyway, she explained all about their particular properties and handed me one to eat (oh my gosh, it was divine!) and then she dropped a few in the sauce she was making. Did I say I almost died of heaven eating that sauce?

Anyway, when we came home I immediately set to work figuring out how to make them. And every year since I have been salt drying tomatoes to add to fine sauces. If there is one ingredient that takes a sauce from good to out of this world, it is these...and as you can see they are EASY. I love things that rock my cooking world and take 15 minutes to make. Thank you Guiditta.

So here's the scoop on what I have learned about making them. After three years of experimenting I still don't have an exact replica of Guiditta's little jar...probably because my tomatoes are not grown in the heat of southern Italy and I am drying my tomatoes in a machine. But I have learned to make a pretty good imitation.

My first trick is to be liberal with the salt. It looks like a lot but you are only going to be putting a few in a whole batch of sauce so the salt gets absorbed. It should look like this when you put it in the dehydrator.

Secondly, spend the money on good salt. You can make salted tomatoes with Morton's, but they are ever so much better with a delicious mineral salt on them. Yes, even salts are worth spending money on. Did you know that some research links good salts to longevity?? That is something to remember when you are paying $5.69 a pound for a little stash of salt.

So far, my two favorite salts on these tomatoes are a himalayan pink salt which I can buy in the store but some people might have to special order it from a place like Tropical Traditions and a course celtic sea salt that I grind with a mortar and pestle (and yes, this time is figured into the 15 minutes).

Thirdly, dry thoroughly but not over much. They can burn and then aren't as tasty. Here is what they look like before, during and after drying to get an idea. Sorry the picture isn't so great.
Lastly, use the very best tomatoes you can find. A good tomato makes the difference between a decent and fantastic dried tomatoes.

So what is the point of drying them? Drying makes the flavor rich and the salt does something magical. The tomatoes end up almost like dried tomato chips...sometimes I steal a couple to snack on when I feel like something salty. They have the same crispy salty deliciousness as a potato chip without the fats. Yum. Here's what a jar of tastiness looks like.
If you aren't into having salted tomatoes, I just learned another dried tomato trick. Slice tomatoes and dry them halfway (about 10 hours in a dehydrator) and then throw them in ziplock bags in the freezer. Either pre freeze them on cookie sheets or throw in recipe amounts into individual ziplock bags or they will clump together. Partial drying dramatically cuts the cooking time for fresh sauce by wicking away much of the moisture and gives the sauce some of that same rich dried tomato flavor. Yum!

Now bring on winter, I can't wait to make spaghetti!


  1. My hus LOVES sundried tomatoes. I think I'll try a batch of saltdried tomatoes and see if I can rock his world! Thanks for the idea.

  2. Patti--those look delicious! I'll have to try that.