The sun-dried tomato was a child star of the 1990s. Today, it is slowly disappearing from European restaurant menus across the world. It is a shame that food trends are often as fickle as fashion. I love sun-dried tomatoes although, I must say, I have eaten some bad ones which were leathery or over-marinated and soggy. When perfect, they are meaty, sweet, a little chewy with a nice texture and have a rich, intense flavour.
Sun-dried tomatoes come from Italy and are usually the San Marzano
variety which comes from the south. This variety loves the rich potash soil like the terrain around the Vesuvius area where material from the volcano has made the soil extremely fertile. This variety is bright red, sweet and plum shaped, more pulpy than watery. This is essential to sun-drying, too. A tomato full of water will give you a dried, chewy product, once all the water has evaporated. The tomato is cut into two, lengthways, sprinkled with salt and put in the sun to dry. The dehydration and concentration of salt in the tomato ensure that it can be preserved without going bad. Before using the tomatoes, you must either soak them in water for a couple of hours to lose some of the salt and swell up or you can soak them in a solution of vinegar and water for a few hours, drain them and put them in olive oil with chillies, garlic and herbs. Consume the olive oil variety quite soon before they turn mushy and overpowering; they are now available in India. A great way to enjoy them is fritters. You simply dip the rehydrated tomatoes into a batter of fresh yeast, chopped garlic, parsley, water and salt and deep fry them until golden like bhajis. They can be eaten as a snack, aperitif or a first course.
In cahoots: Sun-dried tomatoes need assertive flavour partners.
In cooking, sun-dried tomatoes are best partnered with equally assertive ingredients such as olives, garlic, anchovies, arugula, capers, rich cheeses and good olive oil. If they are just too much for you at first, cut them into small pieces to “tame” their presence. I had this dish at the home of our friends, the Corsini family, with a view of Lake Garda in the background.
Spaghetti with Arugula (rocket), Feta Cheese and Sun-dried Tomato Pesto
1 cup sun-dried tomatoes in oil, drained and chopped
6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup walnuts, toasted in a frying pan
½ tsp finely chopped garlic
½ cup grated Parmesan
1 packet (450g) spaghetti
4 cups arugula leaves, washed, dried and roughly chopped
½ cup feta cheese, diced
In a food processor, make a paste of the sun-dried tomatoes, olive oil, walnuts, garlic, Parmesan and a pinch of freshly ground black pepper.
Bring three litres of water to a boil, add a tbsp of salt and throw in the spaghetti. Cook until al dente or just done (about 12 minutes). Drain, reserving ½ cup of the cooking water, and return pasta to the pot. Stir in arugula, sun-dried tomato pesto and cooking water. Lastly, toss in the feta cheese. Serve immediately.
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