Caramelized tomatoes are a way to take perfectly ripe, absolutely perfect tomatoes and make them even more amazingly delicious. Caramelizing them concentrates the natural flavors of the tomatoes, and the salt, olive oil, seasonings and the sugar you add at the very end just gently enhance their fragrance and taste. Texturally, caramelized tomatoes are soft and lightly chewy, with slightly wrinkled skins–sort of like sun-dried tomatoes but not so leathery and chewy.
And they are also amazingly versatile: you can use them to make a tangy-sweet pasta sauce, you can use them to top bruschetta, you can toss them in a salad, top a pizza with them, or you can just scarf them down as they are.
However, I must warn you that if you take the last approach and just gobble them down from the baking sheet–they are addictive. I have heard them described as being “like crack, only legal.”
Just be certain to make extra of these caramelized tomatoes if you are planning on using them for a certain dish, because once you taste one, you know, to make sure you got them right, you will find yourself dipping into them again and again. No really–they are that tasty.
They are also simplicity itself to make.
You can use any kind of tomato you want for these: lots of people use cherry or grape tomatoes for caramelization, but I prefer to use roma tomatoes. You could use any other kind you like, but if you use any large sized tomatoes like the beefsteak varieties, or even just average sized round ones, you will have to cut them into thick slices rather than just in longitudinal halves, as I do here.
In addition, you can leave out the crushed fennel seed I used as a seasoning, or you could add any other spice you liked. (I plan on making an Indian version of these with ground up panch phoron. I cannot help but think that would just kick this recipe up about ten notches and take the flavors over the moon.) You can also add fresh or dried herbs at the time you sprinkle the sugar on the tomatoes.
You don’t really need a recipe for this–you just need to learn the method.
So, here goes:
First, you need a quantity of tomatoes: I prefer roma, as I mentioned. (I don’t need to tell you to use ripe, homegrown, farmer’s market, local tomatoes, do I? You know that by now, don’t you? I thought so.)
Take your tomatoes, wash them and dry them thoroughly.
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F.
Core your tomatoes–I use a little gadget that is called a tomato shark to gouge the core and stem end out of the tomato quickly and cleanly. Then, slice them in half longitudinally. (Or, if you are using larger, round tomatoes, cut them into longitudinal slices, about 1/4-1/2 inch thick.)
After they are cored and cut in half, if you are not using cherry or grape tomatoes, seed them. Just reach your fingers in there and scrape the seeds and gel out.
Lay all of your tomato halves or slices cut side up on the rimmed baking sheets. I used non-stick sheets lightly rubbed in olive oil. You could also line your pans with silpats or parchment sheets that you have rubbed with some olive oil.
Sprinkle the tomatoes lightly with salt–as much salt as you would use to season your tomatoes if you were going to eat them out of hand. Season them with pepper, if you like, and if you like my idea of using a bit of ground fennel seed, sprinkle a little bit of that, too. Then, drizzle with olive oil–about a tablespoon or so. Don’t drown them in oil, but you don’t want them to dry out, either.
Put them in the oven.
Leave them in the oven for thirty minutes–check them. If they are a bit shrunken and drying a bit with some toasty dark bits on the edges, they are ready for you to sprinkle on the sugar. If they still seem a bit too juicy and there is no darkening, give them another ten minutes in the oven.
But, if they are ready, then take them out of the oven. Take a couple of teaspoons of sugar–up to a tablespoon or so–and sprinkle it evenly over the tomatoes. At this time, if you want to add herbs, either fresh or dried, this is the time.
Put the tomatoes back into the oven and let them cook for another five to ten minutes or so.
Remove from the oven, and allow to cool until you can handle them–they should still be warm, but not blisteringly hot–and remove them from the baking sheets and set them on a tray or in a bowl, depending on how you want to use them.
Any syrupy juice that you have on the baking sheets, scrape out and drizzle over the tomatoes. (That is the good stuff–if it gets on your fingers, lick it off, for the love of God!)
There you are. Caramelized tomatoes. Easier than pie. Tastier than crack–and legal, to boot.
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