By David Harbilas
I feel like I’m too young to understand trends in cooking, and when I was a teenager my father used to say that sun-dried tomatoes were a thing of the past.
I can’t remember exactly the words he used, but there was no doubt that he doubted their lasting effect–even though he would occasionally buy them and cook with them.
Yet I feel like it influenced my opinion of them, even after I finally had the opportunity to try them for myself.
The sun-dried tomatoes of that time were almost always packed in olive oil and seemed to taste greatly of some unidentified spice.
I remember not liking them.
They had a leathery texture and flavor that seemed a combination of vinegar and oil, not unlike badly produced and packaged artichokes. Yet it seems that the uses for and packaging of sun-dried tomatoes today have changed greatly, and while I doubt a renaissance is in their future it does seem like they deserve a degree of attention.
Years ago it seems like sun-dried tomatoes were everywhere, and their place on many menus was center-stage. Today we still favor a ubiquitous approach to food, except now “methods” have been highlighted on menus with words like “froth,” “emulsion,” “reduction,” and “organic.” (“Organic” really pisses me off, since very few people–myself included–understand what it takes for a farm to become certified as organic, never mind what that difference really means in terms of the food we actually eat. But that is a subject for another discussion.)
Sun-dried tomato dishes of the ‘80’s were bold, often tasting of little else than sun-dried tomatoes. I can rather vividly remember one fish entrÃ©e that was so laden with them that it seemed like the fish was an afterthought. Considering how our attention has been shifted in cooking from the bold to the balanced (among other things) it is no wonder that sun-dried tomatoes have virtually disappeared from our lexicon.
So what place do sun-dried tomatoes have in our cooking today, and do they deserve more? It seems like they have become a seasoning rather than a star ingredient, and I think perhaps that is where they are best used. Many times we tend to want a lot of something that at first seems like the greatest discovery of all time, and we forget that it often takes us a long time to figure out and understand how certain ingredients and methods are best used. That process is, of course, part of the beauty of cooking–our mistakes are sometimes the source of these very discoveries. Yet in our zeal we often forget that the curiosity that prompted that invention is exactly what teaches us moderation.
We search with intense interest for new things, yet once we find them we overuse them. Over time we understand what it is about these things that interest us and we use them with those characteristics in mind. Sun-dried tomatoes have become an afterthought mostly because of their overuse, yet it seems like they have never really taken on a proper use at all.
Perhaps it’s time we reexamined them as an important seasoning, similar to tomato paste, rather than a major, contributing component. Chefs often develop an obsessive relationship with ingredients, not only concerning themselves with where they come from but also with how they can be used. As with tomato paste, sun-dried tomatoes seem best used sparingly, and it bears mention that most tomato products that are cooked or processed are the ones best used as such. The fresher the tomato the better it is suited for star status.