Summer is the much awaited season with regard to the annual pickling and sun drying process. While in India we take advantage of the intense sunshine to help in making pickles out of seasonal ingredients,in colder parts of the world drying and preserving during the summer months ensured the availability of ingredients to cook with during winter.
When ice and snow cover the landscape in colder parts of the world I have heard friends ,who live abroad lament about having to pay dearly for even a small quantity of fresh tomatoes. These past few weeks our tomato harvest has been more than generous.While sharing this bounty with friends and family ,we also received, in return ,a large quantity of cherry tomatoes.
There are so many varieties of cherry tomatoes with colours ranging from a pale green,sunshine yellow, chilli red to a deep maroon.The shapes too vary. Not all are perfectly round,some are oval or oblong .The yellow pear tomatoes resemble miniature pears. The ones we received were of an irregular oval shape and consisted of a thick skin and juicy ,slightly sweet flesh. These are the cherry roma tomatoes. The local supermarkets also carry this variety on occasion. Among the many cherry tomato seeds that are available online, this particular roma variety is not listed as being hybrid. In fact the roma cherry tomato comes under the category of heirloom tomato varieties.
This is one ingredient that is best eaten raw or lightly grilled at the most. It is not something which is suited to our Indian cooking . Although having said that I do know of many a home cook who are proud of their chinna thakkali rasam experiments. Our favourite pairing is to eat these cherry tomatoes with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar,extra virgin olive oil ,buffalo mozzarella and lots of fresh basil leaves.
Cherry tomato plants fruit in abundance and a single plant yields a great deal. They also tend to ripen at a fast rate so this time we decided to try our hand at sun drying. We did two batches. One tray of sliced cherry tomatoes was seasoned with sea salt and the other tray was left plain.
Every day for a week ,the tomatoes were left under the direct rays of the sun, covered with a simple mesh to prevent insects and impurities from getting in.The tomato slices began to dehydrate very quickly.The edges curled up and the skin turned all wrinkly. What amazed me was that the intense red colour did not fade or darken to a huge extent.
I popped one into my mouth to taste and was pleased with the intense tomato flavour that accompanied the chewy texture. I was reminded of a cousin who talked about tasting the sun in a ripe tomato during his time spent in Italy. Well, this felt exactly like that!
So we set aside the unsalted batch in an airtight box and added dried herbs to the salted sun dried cherry tomatoes before soaking them in extra virgin olive oil. These are great for quickly tossing into pasta or for a topping on toast slathered with ricotta.
One hears of farmers tossing tomatoes by the roadside when prices hit rock bottom. It is heart breaking on many levels. Sun drying them would be a terrific value addition to the farm especially since it requires little effort.
sun drying , is rather a straight forward process, not that different from the drying of appalams and other starchy rice crisps . After they have been thoroughly depleted of any moisture, these sun dried tomatoes can be stored in air tight containers for many months.To re-hydrate ,simply add it to the dish when cooking and it will soak in the moisture from the cooking liquid. The sun dried tomatoes that are preserved in oil needs refrigeration (is what all the cook books claim). I find that the extra virgin olive oil tends to solidify when refrigerated. It does melt down fairly quickly when left out, especially in summer…so ,I leave the choice up to you.It is suggested that to increase the shelf life it is essential to dip the sun dried tomatoes in white wine vinegar before dunking in oil. We also put in some dried herbs for extra flavour.
Now we are in the process of sun drying our harvest of nattu thakkali. The natural taste does intensify during the sun drying. Also the antioxidants and nutrients are left intact (lycopene and Vitamin C). In addition to sun drying the traditional ingredients, it seems like we can add a modern day fun twist to the age old process of open terrace (mottai madi) vadagam drying .