Tuesday, September 9, 2008
Posted by Kate at 10:27 AM
I'm a former chef. So I'm just a wee bit gaga over food. I pay attention to recipes, cookbooks, the garden, meals, restaurants and food-related websites. I reminisce about foods we enjoyed years ago in farflung corners of the globe. I love slow food that is rooted in the place and season it hails from. I know a good recipe when I steal one.
I hope, by giving this background, to communicate how impressive was my husband's wildly successful experiment with smoking some of our cherry tomatoes. I was floored, wowwed, bowled over by the end results. The cherry tomatoes, smoked with apple wood chips from our own tree, were still just slightly moist and pliable with a deeply smoky flavor. The natural sweetness of apple wood complemented the concentrated tomato sugars to produce a taste sensation that stunned my mouth. This was clearly something that demanded to be noticed. And notice I did, while giving all credit to my husband.
Yet, frugal soul that I am, I considered all that charcoal that went into producing these very few diminutive treasures, plus a significant amount of his time, and the cost/return analysis didn't look good. So, I set about experimenting. Could I shorten the amount of smoking time needed? I tried putting on a tray of cherry tomatoes after grilling our dinner. After letting them smoke for just over an hour, I put them in my dehydrator to continue drying down somewhat. The results, sampled very early yesterday morning (after my cat woke me with a hairball attack, but I digress), were pretty disappointing. The smoke flavor was too faint to deliver the profundity of the original long-smoked batch. Scratch the quick and easy method.
Having failed to shorten the batch processing time, yesterday I attempted to increase the batch size by stacking several trays up on our grill. If I can't get the product quicker, I'd at least like the most product for my efforts. There's a significant amount of work involved in producing these things. Here's how I spent the middle of yesterday.
Pick and wash a few pounds of cherry tomatoes. While they drain, arrange a few aluminum foil pans on your cold grill to figure out how they're going to fit. You want a significant gap around the edges so that smoke can filter up. If you have enough trays, figure out how you might stack them. Perforate the bottoms of the trays with a metal skewer to help the smoke circulate. Cut the cherry tomatoes in half and arrange them cut side up on the trays, as many as will fit without undue crowding. Start the charcoal in the grill, and when it's ready separate it into two piles at opposite ends of the grill. Place the rack on the grill, with the somewhat open spaces where the handles are directly over the piles of hot charcoal. Arrange your filled trays on the grill rack and stack them as best you can, leaving gaps for air circulation. Throw some apple wood chips on the coals and cover the grill with the vents wide open. Check regularly, adding more charcoal and wood chips as needed through the gaps in the rack under the handles. Try not to spill the chips or charcoal on the tomatoes as you add them.
That, anyway, is the setup. My husband is the designated pyromaniac in our marriage and he's on another business trip. So it was just me trying to nurse along the smoldering embers and keep the grill full of apple smoke. I can get a bonfire roaring, but my fire skills are far too rusty for this delicate work. I checked the situation every fifteen minutes - yes, every 15 minutes - and finally called it a day after two and a half hours. This is definitely a high-maintenance way of dealing with the cherry tomato glut.
After just two and a half hours, the cherry tomatoes were still fairly plump and moist. So I consigned them to the dehydrator for an additional three hours, which freed me up to do other things. This gave them the semi-dried texture I wanted; not quite chewy, but packed with concentrated flavor. For dinner I added a handful of them to my quesadilla, along with some of our homemade, homegrown chile salsa. They shine especially brightly when paired with something a little rich, like cheese, cream, or eggs.
My husband thinks we ought to shop these around to local chefs, placing one of these babies on the tongue like a sacrament, and asking, "How much will you pay me for this?" I think he's crazy. First of all, there's no way I'm going to have any amount of these things that I'd be willing to part with. Second of all, if I did, there's no way I'd get paid anything close to what I think they're worth. Given that these little cherry tomatoes end up so much lighter than their original weight, and given the amount of time and effort it takes to get them there, I'd probably want a minimum of $75/pound. And who would ever pay that? But you, dear reader, could make your own. If you've got a grill and some cherry tomatoes, give it a try.
Further: I came up with a homemade smoker that runs on an electric burner rather than on charcoal.