Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Celebrate Sun Dried Tomatoes

October is Celebrate Sun Dried Tomato month. These little gems have a sweet and sometimes tart concentrated tomato flavor. They are easy to make at home and great to have around to add flavor to salads, sauces or cheese plates.

When drying tomatoes, it is best to use Roma tomatoes but any variety works. Romas tend to be meatier having more flesh with less seeds and juice. Cherry tomatoes are also a great choice as their already sweet flavor concentrates nicely.

Whatever type of tomato you use, make sure you wash it well before you start and discard any with blemishes. Slice them in half lengthwise and sprinkle lightly with kosher salt. Two optional choices are to sprinkle with a bit of sugar to enhance their sweetness or sprinkle them with dried herbs if you would like a flavored dried tomato. Just remember whatever you add to the tomatoes will be concentrated as it dries, so use a light hand. Place the seasoned sliced tomatoes, cut side up, on a clean drying screen. If your screen does not come with a top screen, you can cover the screen with cheese cloth to keep the bugs away from your treasures. Make sure the cheese cloth or top screen do not touch the tomatoes.

Place your screen in the sun. Depending on the size of your tomatoes and the temperature it can take several days to two weeks to dry your tomatoes. Make sure to bring inside evenings to keep the morning dew from negating any of your hard work.

Tomatoes can also be dried in the oven. I'm not very patient so oven drying is my preferred method. Prepare the tomatoes the same way as you would to dry in the sun, however place on a baking sheet instead of a screen. Make sure to place cut side up and leave a bit of room between each tomato. Place in a preheated 250F oven for 2 to 6 hours (depending on their thickness). Adding some parchment paper to the baking sheet (or a Silpat pad) will help with clean-up.

Whichever your drying method, you want the tomatoes to be dry with the edges shriveled . The tomato will shrink to about three-quarters to half of its size.

The tomatoes can be stored in an airtight container for a few days in the refrigerator or a few weeks in the freezer. They can also be covered with oil (flavored or not) and stored in the refrigerator for up to two months.

Your dried tomatoes can be used:

In a Mediterranean style salad with greens, artichokes, cucumbers, feta and red onion, drizzled with a balsamic vinaigrette.

Tossed with pasta and olive oil (or the oil the tomatoes were stored in), fresh garlic, salt, pepper and chopped fresh basil, oregano or marjoram.

Or made into pesto by combining in the food processor with fresh basil, garlic, pine nuts, a splash of balsamic vinegar. Drizzle in some olive oil, toss with pasta and sprinkle with freshly grated Parmesan-Reggiano cheese.

The pesto can also be spread on lightly toasted bagette slices for a delicious bruschetta. Mix a bit of goat cheese as well for a real sublime treat.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

September is National Honey Month

Honey can come from several species of bees, but the honey bee is best known to produce honey. In its lifetime, a single honey bee will produce only about one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey. It takes about 550 bees to visit 2 million flowers to produce one pound of honey.

These hard working insects have been around for 30 million years with evidence of humans collecting their honey for at least 10,000 years. Archeologists have found cave paintings depicting women collecting honey and honeycomb from hives. Honey has also long been referenced in religion and is evident in Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism.

Bees use the nectar they collect from flowers to produce honey. They collect the nectar by sucking the nectar from flowers with their straw-like tongues and storing it in one of their two stomachs. They have a regular stomach to digest food and a second stomach to store nectar. They can carry double their body weight with stored nectar. The collected nectar is taken to the hive where worker bees mix the honey with enzymes to break down the complex sugars making it easier to use later and more bacteria resistant. The nectar is then spread throughout the honeycomb, where the water is evaporated from the nectar turning it into gooey honey. This honey is used as a food source during the cold months for the bees. In one year, an average honeybee colony will eat between 120 and 200 pounds of the honey they produce. Beekeepers encourage overproduction of honey by the bees so to not endanger the hive.

Honey produced by honeybees must be 100% pure with no additional additives. Honey produced by other types of bees does not follow this same strict guideline. Honey is usually classified by the flowers in which the nectar is collected. Honey classifications include: Blended meaning coming from more than one type of plant; Polyfloral or wild flower honey comes from varies types of flowers; Monofloral comes primarily from one type of flower. Raw honey is completely unprocessed. Pasteurized honey has been processed to prevent crystallization over time.

If your honey develops crystals, the honey is still good. Gently warm it in the microwave or in a pan of warm water until the crystals dissolve.

Besides used as a sweetener, honey has also been used to embalm bodies, as a form of currency and as a gift to Gods. It has also been used for medicinal purposes like as a sore throat remedy. It is also used topically for its antibacterial and antiseptic qualities. By consuming locally produced honey, it may help combat seasonal allergies.

Honey can be added to coffee or tea to sweeten instead of using sugar. It can be drizzled over fresh fruit or added to your favorite vinaigrette in salads. To makes a great additional to barbeque sauce and helps caramelize the outside of the meat when cooking. It can be mixed with butter and spread over warm biscuits or toast.

Infants under one year of age should not eat honey because of the risk of botulism from their underdeveloped digestive systems.

For additional information, visit these sites: