- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 23, 2005

People I know who love tomatoes always get a little bit melancholy around this time. Because they know that the bounty of sun-ripened fresh, locally grown summer tomatoes that fill food stores and farmers’ markets will soon be a distant memory. And they won’t be satisfied with the flavor and texture of the hothouse or airfreighted tomatoes you find the rest of the year.

The problem is even more challenging for people who grow their own tomatoes. One of the great things about growing them is that you can leave the tomatoes on the vine until they’re really ripe and sweet. But doing so often means that you wind up with more ripe tomatoes than you can use.

What do you do? Home gardeners who love to make old-fashioned canned goods and preserves put up jars of tomato sauce or bottles of homemade ketchup, a strategy that also works well when you can’t resist farmers’ market stalls selling bargain tomatoes by the bushel.

But canning is too much fuss for many people, myself included. That’s why I like to oven-dry tomatoes.

You’re probably familiar with sun-dried tomatoes, a traditional specialty of Italy and the South of France that has become popular with cooks everywhere the last couple of decades. Oven-drying them yields the same results - wonderfully chewy pieces of tomato with a beautiful deep ruby color and intensely concentrated flavor - without the need of finding a good space in the sun or worrying that the weather is just right.

Oven-dried tomatoes are really very easy to prepare at home. Just follow the first steps in my recipe for Fettuccine with Oven-Dried and Fresh Tomatoes, Fennel and Nicoise olives. Peeled and seeded, the tomatoes bake in the oven at a low temperature for about 1 hour, which evaporates their excess moisture. Submerged in olive oil in a covered glass container, they’ll keep in the refrigerator for up to a week; extending the length of time you can enjoy the harvest. (The instructions work well even if you double or triple the quantities, too.)

And you don’t have to enjoy these oven-dried tomatoes in my pasta recipe alone. Toss them with other vegetables for other pasta dishes; add them to sauteed or stir-fried seafood, meat or poultry; or toss a handful of them in a summer salad with crumbled fresh goat cheese. And don’t discard the oil you used to cover the tomatoes; it picks up some of their sweet flavor, which can enhance sautes or salad dressings.

However you use these sun-dried tomatoes, one bite will magically transport you to a Mediterranean garden on a beautiful late-summer day.

FETTUCCINE WITH OVEN-DRIED AND FRESH TOMATOES, FENNEL AND NICOISE OLIVES

Serves 4

OVEN-DRIED TOMATOES

2 pounds medium sun-ripened tomatoes

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed

1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme leaves

6 garlic cloves, crushed

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

FETTUCCINE

3 medium fresh sun-ripened tomatoes

4 ounces fresh garlic cloves, peeled

Salt

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 cups thinly sliced bulb fennel

1 cup pitted Nicoise-style olives

2 teaspoons drained capers

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Pinch of sugar

Freshly ground black pepper

12 ounces store-bought fresh fettuccine

2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley

2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil leaves

2 tablespoons julienned fresh basil leaves, for garnish

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, for garnish

Up to a week ahead, prepare the Oven-Dried Tomatoes. Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Bring a pot of water to the boil and prepare a large bowl of ice water. With a sharp knife, score an X in each tomato. Immerse the tomatoes in the boiling water for about 30 seconds; then transfer with a slotted spoon or ire skimmer to the ice water to cool. Peel, core and slice the tomatoes into bite-sized wedges, then seed them.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and arrange the wedges on top. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle evenly with thyme, garlic, sugar, salt and pepper. Bake until the tomatoes darken and shrivel, about 1 hour. Remove from the oven. When the tomatoes are cool, transfer to a glass container. Pour oil over them to cover, cover the container, and refrigerate.

For the Fettuccine, first peel the fresh tomatoes as described above, then core, halve, seed, coarsely chop and set aside. Put the peeled garlic in a small pan of salted water, bring to a boil, and boil for 30 seconds; then, with a slotted spoon, remove the garlic to a small bowl of ice water. Repeat the process again. Drain the garlic, thinly slice lengthwise, and set aside.

Bring a large stockpot of water to a boil.

Meanwhile, prepare the sauce. Reserving 2 teaspoons of olive oil, put the remainder in a large skillet over medium heat. Saute the garlic until golden, 3 to 4 minutes. Drain the Oven-Dried Tomatoes and add them with the fennel, olives, and capers and saute over medium-high heat for 1 minute. Stir in the fresh tomatoes, butter and sugar and saute until the tomatoes give up their juices, about 3 minutes then season with salt and pepper.

Add the fresh fettuccine to the boiling water and cook until al dente, 1 to 3 minutes. Drain, add the pasta to the skillet, and stir to coat. Remove from the heat and toss thoroughly with the parsley, chopped basil and reserved oil. Divide evenly among 4 heated shallow serving bowls. Garnish with the basil julienne and Parmesan. Serve immediately.

(Chef Wolfgang Puck’s TV series, “Wolfgang Puck’s Cooking Class,” airs Sundays on the Food Network. Also, his latest cookbook, “Wolfgang Puck Makes It Easy,” is now available in bookstores.

2005 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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