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Dried tomatoes are homemade way to enliven your table

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In the coming few weeks, fresh, ripe, roma tomatoes are going to be at their most delicious, least expensive and most available of the entire year, at markets all around town. What a convenient time to learn to make your own version of sun-dried roma tomatoes at roughly half the cost of the ones you find in the gourmet section of your local grocery.

Cooks who own convection ovens and dehydrators regularly make their own dried tomatoes, but even with an ordinary oven you can make them with little hassle and great results.

Making the tomatoes yourself really doesn't take more than 10 or 15 minutes of preparation time. The waiting, however, is another matter. You must be patient. The lower the temperature used and the longer left in the oven, the better the tomatoes will taste.

After you make the tomatoes, cover them in extra-virgin olive oil and herbs. You can experiment with the oils and herbs you store them in: Instead of the traditional but fabulous basil and garlic, try hot chili oil, or tarragon-infused oils, fresh rosemary or dill. Not only will the oils subtly improve the flavor of the tomatoes, but the flavor of dried tomatoes will sweeten and intensify the oil. The flavored oils are especially delicious in any recipe that calls for the tomatoes, in vinaigrettes, or as a marinade for grilled meats. For a tasty treat, try dipping crusty bread in the tomato flavored oils.

I make these tomatoes often and always keep a jar on my counter. Nona Nielsen-Parker, owner of the catering company, Culinary Capers, makes and uses these tomatoes often, and adds this caveat, "If thoroughly covered in oil, they can remain without refrigeration for up to two months. If you make a larger jar than you can finish in a few months, then keep

them in the refrigerator, and remove them to room temperature a few hours before you need them."

And since you'll have so many dried tomatoes on hand, why not experiment with a few new recipes? From pastas and appetizers that remind you of dining al fresco in Portofino, to the more unusual combinations -- yellow grit stars, for instance -- these tomatoes and recipes will spice up your summer menus.

Decorative jars of these beauties make thoughtful gifts to friends who appreciate good food. And during those cold winter months, when tomatoes aren't quite as nice, your friends will have your gift of golden-red jewels to remind them of summer's delights.

Oven-dried Roma Tomatoes

3 to 4 pounds of ripe roma tomatoes

1 tablespoon sea salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper

8 to 16 ounces extra-virgin olive oil (enough to cover the tomatoes)

1/2 cup fresh basil leaves

3 to 4 garlic cloves, whole

Turn your oven to its lowest setting (somewhere in the 140-degree range). Line two baking sheets with aluminum foil and place a baking rack on top of the foil. Slice tomatoes lengthwise, cut off bottoms, and lay slices on rack, cut side up. Sprinkle with salt and white pepper and place them in the oven.

The first time you make the tomatoes, check on them every two hours or so. (Oven temperatures vary, I usually let my tomatoes dry overnight.) They are done when most of the detectable moisture is gone, and the golden wrinkles form all over the tomato. (If they become brownish red, they are burnt.)

Remove them from the oven and place them in a jar with the garlic and fresh basil leaves. Fill the jar with olive oil.

Phyllo Dough Pizza Mediterranean

Serves 12 to 16 as an appetizer

1 cup sliced mushrooms

1/2 cup dry white wine

1 tablespoon butter

10 sheets of phyllo dough

6 ounces butter, softened

3/4 cup oven-dried roma tomatoes, roughly cut

3 garlic cloves, minced

1/2 cup black olives, sliced

1 cup fresh basil leaves, chopped

3/4 cup crumbled feta cheese

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

freshly ground white and black pepper to taste

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Saute the mushrooms in 1 tablespoon butter and dry white wine. Set aside.

On a clean dry surface, assemble the following: properly thawed phyllo dough, a pastry brush, softened butter and a large baking tray. Butter the baking tray using the pastry brush. Place a sheet of phyllo dough on the tray, and butter the dough. Working quickly, place another phyllo sheet over that one and press down, and butter that sheet. Repeat the step nine times, buttering each sheet of phyllo, and pressing down the next sheet. If the sheets are larger than the tray, fold over the edges, and butter the area folded over.

Place the baking tray on the center rack and cook until golden brown and crispy, about 12 to 15 minutes. Remove it and set aside to cool for about 10 minutes. Layer the tomatoes, fresh basil, mushrooms, black olives, and garlic on the crust. Sprinkle the feta cheese next, and then the Parmesan. Top off with white and black ground pepper.

Place the tray back in the oven for another 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool for 10 minutes. Cut into squares, or triangles and serve as an appetizer. This is just as good when served at room temperature, and can be made a few hours in advance.

Per serving: 137 calories; 9 g total fat, (5 g saturated fat); 22 mg cholesterol; 10 g carbohydrates; 3 g protein; 322 g sodium; 79 mg calcium; 1 mg iron.

Yellow Grit Stars With Mushroom Sauce

Serves 6

FOR GRITS:

2 cups yellow grits (or slow-cooking polenta)

8 cups water

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

4 tablespoons butter

5 ounces sharp Cheddar cheese, grated

FOR MUSHROOM SAUCE:

1 tablespoon minced shallots or onions

1 large garlic clove

2 tablespoons butter

1/4 cup fresh tarragon or 2 tablespoons dried tarragon

1 pound button mushrooms, sliced

1/2 cup sherry or Marsala wine

8 oven-dried roma tomatoes, cut in half

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 cup chicken stock (if you use canned, use low-salt only)

sea salt

freshly ground black pepper

nonstick spray

For grits, line a baking sheet with wax paper or parchment paper. Set aside. Boil water and sea salt and stir in grits. Cook for about 4 minutes and stir in 4 tablespoons butter. Remove from heat and stir in Cheddar. Pour grits onto baking sheet and spread evenly, to about 1 1/2 inches thick. Cover and refrigerate until needed, but at least 1 hour.

For sauce, saute onion, garlic and tarragon in 2 tablespoons butter, over medium-high heat, but do not allow them to brown. Add mushrooms and stir gently, cooking about 5 minutes. Add sherry. Raise the heat to high. Cook for another 10 minutes and then add tomatoes, tomato paste and chicken stock. Stir well and cook until sauce is thickened, about 15 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Remove grits from the refrigerator and cut star shapes with the cookie cutter. Transfer stars using a spatula, to another baking tray, coated with nonstick spray. Bake on the center rack for about 10 minutes. Remove two stars to each plate, and spoon mushrooms over.

Per serving: 318 calories; 14 g fat (8 g saturated fat); 33 g cholesterol; 41 g carbohydrates; 13 g protein; 1,239 g sodium; 180 mg calcium; 6 mg iron.

Rigatoni with Oven-dried Tomatoes and Veal Stock

Serves 6 as an entree

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/3 cup finely minced onion

4 garlic cloves, minced or crushed

1/2 cup dry white wine

1/2 cup fresh basil leaves or 3 tablespoons dried

2 cups veal stock (see note)

2 tablespoons tomato paste

12 to 14 oven dried tomatoes, whole

1/2 pound small button mushrooms, stems removed, whole

1/2 cup white wine

2 tablespoons cream

1 pound imported Italian dried rigatoni or other short pasta, prepared as directed

1 teaspoon ground white pepper

sea salt and ground black pepper to taste

grated Parmesan

Saute the garlic and onions in olive oil over medium heat about 5

minutes. Do not let them brown. Add the wine and the basil and reduce the mixture until the wine is almost evaporated.

Pour in the veal stock and cook over high heat until the stock is reduced to 1 cup. While the stock is reducing, saute the mushrooms in the white wine in a separate pan and set aside. Into the reduced veal stock, stir the dried tomatoes, and the tomato paste. Reduce the heat to low and cook for another 10 minutes. Stir in the cream, white pepper, salt and black pepper. Adjust seasoning, if needed.

Place servings of prepared pasta in shallow bowls, and pour sauce over. Top with sauteed mushrooms and grated Parmesan cheese.

NOTE: You can substitute 1 cup low-salt chicken stock and 1 cup low-salt beef stock.

Per servings: 510 calories; 9 g fat (2 g saturated fat); 6 g cholesterol; 92 g carbohydrates; 9 g protein; 2,204 g sodium; 174 mg calcium; 10 mg iron.

Veal Stock

5 pounds veal bones

2 carrots

2 onions

1 bouquet garni

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 1/2 gallons of cold water

Brown the bones in a very hot oven for about 30 minutes. Transfer the bones to a stockpot and add the carrots, onions, bouquet garni, tomato paste and water. Bring to a boil, uncovered. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 4 hours or more.

Strain and reduce further to produce a thicker stock.

Pasta, Shrimp in Sun-dried Tomato Sauce

Makes 6 large servings

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/4 cup finely minced shallots

4 cloves garlic, crushed

2 cups chicken stock

4 ounces andouille or other spicy sausage, chopped

2 tablespoons dried sweet basil

1 tablespoon dried tarragon

2 teaspoons ground white pepper

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

12 to 16 dried tomatoes, free of excess oil, and cut in half

1 large red sweet pepper, chopped coarsely and seeds removed

2 cups half-and-half

sea salt to taste

2 tablespoons butter

1 pound shrimp, shelled and deveined

1/2 cup sherry

6 fresh roma tomatoes, seeded and chopped for garnish

1 pound dried pasta, prepared according to directions

In a large cast iron skillet or other saute pan (not a nonstick pan), heat olive oil over medium heat and stir in onions and garlic. Saute about 2 minutes and stir in chicken stock, herbs, andouille and ground peppers. When chicken stock has almost evaporated, turn heat to high and add red peppers, stirring continually until peppers are a little charred. Stir in dried tomatoes and reduce heat to medium. Add heavy cream, stirring occasionally. When cream boils, reduce to low, and leave on heat until shrimp is ready.

In a separate saute pan, melt the butter over medium-high heat and stir in shrimp. Add sherry and continue to saute until shrimp are opaque, about 3 to 5 minutes.

Pour cream sauce into shrimp and stir. Serve sauce over pasta and garnish with fresh tomatoes.

Per serving: 801 calories; 25 g fat (10 g saturated fat); 126 g cholesterol; 113 g carbohydrates; 40 g protein; 2,939 mg sodium; 256 mg calcium; 15 mg iron.

Oven-dried tomato salad

Serves 8

1/2 pound assorted field greens

10 dried tomatoes, chopped

1 yellow sweet pepper, sliced and chopped

3 ounces large, ripe olives, whole

1/2 cucumber, sliced

1 ounce pine nuts

4 ounces feta cheese, crumbled

Mix all of the ingredients together in a large bowl in the order given.

Per serving: 266 calories; 8 g fat (3 g saturated fat); 13 g cholesterol; 44 g carbohydrates; 14 g protein; 1680 mg sodium; 218 mg calcium; 8 mg iron.

Vinaigrette

Serves 8

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1/8 cup balsamic vinegar

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, from tomato jar

1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, chopped

sea salt and ground black pepper

Whisk together the mustard and vinegar. Slowly whisk in the olive oil. Add the basil, salt and pepper.

Per serving: 122 calories 14 g fat (2 g saturated fat); 0 g cholesterol; .5 g carbohydrates; .2 g protein; 8 g sodium; 8 mg calcium; .2 milligram iron.

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