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Food

Sun-dried tomatoes, the Mickey Rourke of food, get their second act

Sun-dried tomatoes over goat cheese with caramelized garlic and dried oregano
Sun-dried tomatoes can be scattered over slices of goat cheese with caramelized garlic and dried oregano for an umami-packed late summer appetizer.
(Leslie Grow / For The Times)

“Sun-Dried Tomatoes. Discuss.” I knew there would be some haters when I sent that seemingly benign four-word tweet in February, but the depth of distaste was surprising.

Take one of the most beloved summer fruits and extend its life, and you get the leathery, wrinkled sun-dried tomato. They were ubiquitous for cooks during the 1990s, which led ultimately to their downfall. From bad cream sauces on gummy pasta to mundane deli salads, they were everywhere, often unhydrated or overly salted like really bad beef jerky.

But I never used them that way. I was introduced to them in Italy, where they were used like capers, judiciously and for punctuation.

Sun-dried tomatoes embody the sweetness of the fruit but with a condensed and intensified flavor that develops through the drying process until they become umami lozenges — the perfect pantry staple.

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Recently I found myself craving sun-dried tomatoes and wondered where they’d gone.

Although we boomer chefs couldn’t resist putting them in nearly everything two decades ago, sun-dried tomatoes were not always a fad: They are a traditional ingredient with literal roots planted in the rich soil of the Mediterranean from Italy to Turkey. How many Instagram photos feature a whitewashed stone wall with bunches of scarlet tomatoes pulled from the ground, plant and all, and hung upside down, or cherry tomatoes carefully threaded and hung as garlands? The images telegraph that elusive dream of elegant-rustic.

So how do we treat them in a way that honors their roots and makes them taste good? The first step is to rehydrate them properly or to make your own version at home; the next is to use them in a dish that best highlights their flavor and distinctive texture.

Rehydrating Dry-Packed Sun-Dried Tomatoes
15 minutes. Makes 3/4 cup.

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Buying sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil means they will be more tender and ready to use, and you will pay extra for that. If you purchase dry-packed tomatoes, they will need to be rehydrated before use. Here’s how to do it:

Ingredients

  • 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 1/2 cups warm tap water
  • 1/2 cup dry-packed sun-dried tomatoes
  • 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil (optional)
  • Generous pinch red chile flakes (optional)

Instructions

  1. In a medium, microwave-safe bowl, stir the salt with the water until dissolved. Add the tomatoes, cover the bowl with a plate or plastic wrap, and microwave for 2 minutes, until the tomatoes are plumped.
  2. Carefully remove the bowl from the microwave and let the tomatoes cool completely in the hot water. Drain the tomatoes and place on paper towels to dry.
  3. Place the tomatoes in a small jar or storage container, seal, and refrigerate until ready to use, up to 1 week. Optionally, sprinkle the chile flakes over the tomatoes in the jar, then cover with the olive oil. Seal the jar and refrigerate for up to 1 month.

Slow-Roasted Small Tomatoes
3 hours. Makes 3 cups.

For those of you who can’t bring yourselves to use sun-dried tomatoes, you can make your own plump and juicy oven-dried beauties. Lay them out on the pan organized by type; they will be done at different times according to size and tomato variety, and it will be easier to take them off your sheet pan if some are ready before others. Choose a pan that will just fit your tomatoes without any empty space, which might cause burning.

Ingredients

  • 2 1/2 pounds tomatoes (mix of cherry, cocktail, plum or any variety, shape or size you like), cut in half vertically through the stem end
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling
  • 1 bunch fresh rosemary or thyme on the stem (optional)
  • Red chile flakes (optional)

Instructions

  1. Heat the oven to 300 degrees. Line a large, rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Arrange the tomatoes in the baking sheet cut side up and grouped according to their size or type. If you want them drier, leave a bit of space between them. Season the tomatoes with salt and pepper as you normally would and drizzle a bit of olive oil over them. If you wish to add herbs, simply lay the sprigs here and there over the tomatoes.
  2. Bake until they are as dry as you would like, 2 to 3 hours. Transfer the tomatoes to a storage container, add a pinch of chile flakes, if using, and pour in enough olive oil to cover them completely. You can also freeze these if they last long enough to make it to the freezer. They keep in the refrigerator up to 3 days.

Goat Cheese with Sun-Dried Tomatoes and Caramelized Garlic
15 minutes. Serves 4 to 6.

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What better ingredient to pair with sun-dried tomatoes than the other food fad of the 1990s, fresh goat cheese? This is the dish I made recently to satisfy cravings. As Caprino al Pumate it was a standard at my Angeli restaurant for the entire length of its run. I still serve it to friends, and it gets demolished every time. The tomatoes’ hit of acidic sweetness is paired and tamed by the acidic richness of the cheese. The garlic oil soothes the acid, and floral yet earthy dried oregano grounds it all.

Ingredients

  • 4 to 6 whole garlic cloves, peeled
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 log (8 ounces) fresh goat cheese
  • 4 Slow-Roasted Small Tomatoes (recipe above) or rehydrated dry-packed sun-dried tomatoes (see method above), cut lengthwise into thick slices
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons capers, drained and rinsed
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano, preferably Greek or Mediterranean
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Crackers or bread, for serving

Instructions

  1. Place the garlic cloves in a small skillet and pour enough olive oil into the skillet to just cover them. Place over medium-low heat and bring to a gentle simmer. Cook until the garlic cloves become flecked with golden color all over, about 6 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat and let the garlic cool in the oil.
  2. 2 Cut the cheese into 1/2-inch-thick slices (or leave whole) and arrange in an overlapping fashion on a serving platter. Scatter the tomatoes over and around the cheese, followed by the capers. Remove the garlic cloves from the oil and add them to the platter. Sprinkle the oregano over everything and season with freshly ground black pepper. Finish by drizzling a generous amount of the garlic oil over everything; reserve any remaining oil for another use. Serve at room temperature with crackers or good crusty bread.

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