12-Hour Tomatoes

By Joe Yonan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 15, 2007

An occasional series in which staff members share a recipe we turn to time and time again.

Of all the things I cooked for my sister's homespun Maine wedding in 2000, one recipe was particularly unassuming: tomatoes with a hefty sprinkling of cumin, baked until they started to shrivel up.

They don't necessarily sound appetizing until you consider all the meat and juice and seeds of one-half of a large, at-its-peak tomato that reduce to a mere 1/4 -inch disk. With the edges starting to get a bit crisp after up to 12 hours in the oven, they are somewhere between dried tomatoes and tomato jam.

The tomatoes, I figured, would work beautifully on the appetizer table, a laid-back array I hoped would tempt guests to pick up a slice of bread, top it with a tomato and, perhaps, a smear of goat cheese, maybe a piece of smoked trout. So I cooked them for days in advance, keeping whole trays of the tomatoes going day and night (literally) in the outdoor wood stove.

One of my favorite things about the technique is the volume reduction. One day you're staring at a pile of tomatoes, and the next you've got a tightly packed jar in the fridge.

Where did I get the idea? The recipe has become so rote, I honestly can't remember. I had seen the basic recipe or some variation in a cooking magazine, but soon realized that there are as many takes on this as there are, well, types of tomatoes. I've satisfactorily substituted other spices, from paprika to cinnamon, but I always come back to cumin, which brings the bright tartness of the fruit deliciously down to earth.

Even though the instant-bruschetta idea remains one of the most appealing ways I know to eat these, they are versatile enough to be a late-summer staple, making their way into so many of my dishes this time of year. I pile batches of them tightly into jars, pressing a little to get the heady mixture of olive oil, juice and cumin to rise, then cover and store them in the refrigerator (front and center, where I can keep my eye on them).

Truth be told, though, my most frequent way to deal with them is to do just what I saw so many guests do at my sister's wedding reception. Faced with bread, goat cheese and smoked fish options, they just picked up the tomatoes and popped them directly into their mouths, with no conveyance whatsoever. Pure summertime.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company