Recipe-phile: This summer's heroic tomatoes deserve gallant culinary efforts
The tomatoes have struggled to the finish line this summer, surviving both blight and cool temperatures, so I feel like they deserve our best efforts.
I've eaten plenty of ripe, juicy slicers, I've made tomato sauce ... what's next? Tomato confit (the word means "cooked slowly in its own juices") is a versatile recipe that extends the lifespan of your tomatoes by a couple of weeks. They're not quite as dry as sun-dried tomatoes, but they're much more flavorful.
It's a simple recipe with a powerful effect: Peeled, seeded tomatoes are laid out on a sheet tray, drizzled with olive oil, herbs and garlic and then baked very slowly in a low oven to dry them slightly and to concentrate their flavor. When finished, they shrink into floppy petals of tomato so sweet they're almost candied, though a lingering tartness keeps them interesting.
They add intense bursts of tomato flavor to pastas, bean salads, panfried corn or zucchini, and of course, burgers.
Making tomato confit always brings back memories of cooking professionally for me because every restaurant I worked at in New York made them, including a French restaurant that served, amidst its traditional French food, the most expensive burger in New York.
The beast consisted of a fat sirloin patty stuffed with a puck of braised short ribs and foie gras (fattened duck liver) and it was topped with, you guessed it, tomato confit. (In 2002 it sold for $27; now it's $32.)
It took one guy about three hours to form the burgers for dinner service - to cook properly, the filling had to be absolutely centered in the burger - but the tomato confit took even longer, at least 8 hours in a 150-degree oven.
I was responsible for the tomato confit and I remember assembling eight trays of these at the end of service so that they could cook overnight. At one in the morning, my nerves brittle after a tiring day, how I cursed the burger and its unfathomable popularity.
They were selling over 100 a night and the poor burger guy was panting. They didn't want to be known as "the burger place," so they raised the price; it sold better than ever. It was the most ridiculous thing. And I think the tomato confit, not the foie gras, was the best thing about that burger.
I don't mean to hang so much baggage on this recipe. You don't need any fancy reasons or equipment to make tomato confit, just a slow oven and a little patience. Any kind of confit (meat, vegetable or fruit) is really quite rustic, and such recipes were developed long ago, when people were around all day long to watch something slowly stew and sputter on the back of a wood cookstove.
In fact, the best ones I ever made were made on top of my own woodstove. Once, deep in the fall when we were starting to keep the fire stoked from evening until morning, I assembled a tray of tomato confit and set it on top of the woodstove after breakfast.
I went about my day, passing by every hour or so to rotate the tray and stoke the dying fire. At lunchtime, I could smell them starting to wallow in the olive oil.
A few hours later, they were done: perfectly shriveled, they tasted almost impossibly sweet. All week I threw them on sandwiches, into bean salads and vegetable sautés. And when they were gone, I fried eggs in the wonderful golden tomato oil.
I didn't make a burger then because the memories of the exorbitant one were still too fresh, but I think I might be ready for it now.
Makes 48 pieces
12 roma (or paste) tomatoes, 2 pounds, 12 ounces
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 garlic cloves, smashed
2 sprigs rosemary
2 sprigs thyme (or fresh basil, whatever you have)
6 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Slice a small "x" in the bottom of each tomato. To remove the skins, drop them into a pot of boiling water and then transfer them to a bowl of icy, or cold running, water. Once cold, remove them immediately from the water and slip off their skins.
Cut into quarters and then cut out the seed pods and inner membranes, to make "petals," or ovals of pure seedless tomato.
Lay the tomato petals out on a baking sheet and season them with salt and pepper. Scatter the thyme, rosemary and garlic over them and drizzle with the olive oil.
Bake in a 200 degree oven for about 2 to 3 hours, or until shriveled and concentrated. Cool and pack into a storage container and keep refrigerated. If topped off with olive oil and tightly sealed, these will keep as long as two weeks in the refrigerator.
Tomato confit can also be made with cherry tomatoes, though it's more work to peel them.