MOUNTAIN FALLS, VA. -- From the realm of the exotic to the mainstream kitchen -- that's the saga of the dried tomato over the last few years. Not too long ago, only expensive imported-from-Italy dried tomatoes were generally available, and only in specialty gourmet shops. Now, thanks to Joy Lukacs and her husband, Carey Lokey and a few others like them, American dried tomatoes are showing up in many cookware shops, wine and cheese stores, carryout caterers and other places around the Washington area.

At their farm here, near Winchester, this enterprising young couple plants, grows, processes, packages and distributes a sweet dried tomato product that offers real competition to the imported variety. Last spring, they planted 40,000 Roma plum tomatoes and are now processing about one ton of tomatoes each day. That adds up to 100 or more pounds of dried tomatoes every day, yet they would have to produce four times as much to meet their distributors' demands completely, they say.

Tomatoes from L'Esprit de Campagne, the company's trade name, are organically grown -- no fungicides or herbicides -- using a drip irrigation system, at an altitude of 1,000 feet. This elevation is "great for tomatoes," says Lukacs, who adds, "The Shenandoah Valley used to grow large quantities of excellent tomatoes. We have wonderful soil so their taste is better than California tomatoes. Our worst problem this year has been the deer eating the plants."

Lokey, a former woodworker, designed the stainless steel dehydrators himself, and had them built nearby. The couple and their three farm helpers wait until the tomatoes are sun ripened -- completely red and at their peak -- before picking them. The perfect tomatoes go from the fields to cold storage, where they can remain up to two weeks at temperatures between 50 and 70 degrees.

After that the four-member kitchen crew scrubs the tomatoes with a brush and rinses them three times in water. Then they go into the cutting machine, new last year, which slices them in half. Working fast, the crew can fill a 30-gallon can in five minutes.

The next step is filling the dehydrator trays, which are stacked on carts, and moving the trays into the hot and humid dehydrators. The drying process takes about 24 hours.

All-natural, preservative-free L'Esprit de Campagne dried tomatoes come packaged two ways.

Plain, they are sealed in plastic bags. They can be used as-is or rehydrated by steaming for 2 minutes over boiling water.

Or, most popular among consumers, are the ready-to-eat ones packed in sterilized jars with L'Esprit home-grown herbs -- rosemary, fennel, marjoram, garlic -- and covered with extra virgin olive oil (processed without chemicals or heat) imported from Spain.

In contrast to imported dried tomatoes, L'Esprit tomatoes are only lightly salted. They are now in nation-wide distribution and locally in stores such as Kitchen Bazaar, Sutton Place Gourmet, Suzanne's, Food and Co., Cheese and Cheer, Provisions, Cheese and Bottles, Meredyth Vineyards, Pasta and Cheese and Someplace Special.

Before she became a farmer and entrepreneur two years ago, Lukacs, a graduate of the Cordon Bleu school in Paris, moved to Washington to work in a restaurant. Later she turned to catering and cherished a fantasy, she explains, "of producing my own wonderful fresh products."

Neither Lukacs nor her husband had ever had any farm experience but they never let a "detail" like that daunt them. Lokey found the 40-acre property, located 1 1/2 miles down a bumpy, rutted dirt road, and when Lukacs saw it for the first time, she recalls, "I laughed all the way down that dirt road. But now here I am and I love it. We renovated the old house, planted the fields and the kitchen garden, set up the business -- did everything ourselves."

Because of her food training, Lukacs has enjoyed experimenting with the dried tomatoes and creating innovative recipes that highlight their rich, tangy-sweet flavor. So while most people never progress beyond putting dried tomatoes in salads, Lukacs uses them in ingenious ways.

To start with, she says, "use dried tomatoes in any dish that you would use a fresh tomato. It intensifies a dish's flavor." Specifically she suggests putting them in sauces, olive oil, salad dressings, marinades, soups, chowders, gumbos, stews and chili. Adding dried tomatoes to pizzas, pastas, omelets, quiches, frittatas, ratatouille, gazpacho, stuffed grape leaves, chicken or veal scallopini, saute'ed shrimp and stir-fry dishes transform them from ordinary to special.

After these simple uses become commonplace, Lukacs says, it is time to move on to the more esoteric uses. She suggests keeping on hand a batch of tomato-pesto, a combination of fresh basil, dried tomatoes, garlic and olive oil that can be spooned out as needed and used on grilled meats, vegetables, omelets and pizzas or spread on crackers and bread. Dried-tomato mayonnaise is equally versatile and tastes especially good spread on sandwiches, fish, eggs, raw or steamed vegetables and salads.

Savory goat-cheese cake topped with a layer of dried tomatoes, and slices of buffalo mozzarella cheese overlapped with dried tomatoes in oil or cooked on pizza dough make flavorful meal starters. So do mushrooms stuffed with the tomatoes and baked. Bite-size packets of phyllo dough with dried tomatoes and cheese; goat cheese and dried tomatoes on french bread; mozzarella cheese, prosciutto ham and dried tomatoes on croissants; or dried-tomato quesadillas all make simple-to-prepare but sophisticated and tasty appetizers or luncheon dishes.

So far Lukacs has not developed any dried-tomato desserts. But now that the stores are stocked with L'Esprit dried tomatoes, she and Lokey are turning their attention to drying cherries, peaches, plums and apples with the same homey skills used for the tomatoes.

L'ESPRIT PESTO (Makes 1 cup)

4 ounces dried tomatoes

1/2 cup olive oil

1 large clove garlic

2 cups basil, washed and drained

1/4 cups toasted pine nuts (optional)

Place tomatoes, oil, garlic, basil and pine nuts in a food processor or blender and pure'e until smooth. Pack into a jar and cover with 1/8 inch olive oil. To use, spoon out desired amount and refrigerate remainder.

L'ESPRIT DRIED-TOMATO MAYONNAISE (Makes 4 cups)

4 ounces dried tomatoes

3 egg yolks

2 tablespoons dijon mustard

2 tablespoons lemon juice or herb vinegar

1/4 teaspoon salt

Fresh ground pepper to taste

1 cup olive oil

1 cup sunflower or other vegetable oil

Bring all ingredients to room temperature. Place tomatoes in a food processor or blender and pure'e 30 seconds. Add egg yolks, mustard, lemon juice, salt and pepper and process 1 minute. With the machine running, slowly add oils and continue processing until mixture is thick and creamy. Add additional salt, pepper and lemon juice to taste, if needed. Keeps refrigerated 5 days.

L'ESPRIT QUESADILLAS (4 servings)

2 tablespoons oil from jar of dried tomatoes

2 tablespoons butter

4 flour tortillas

1 cup cheddar cheese, grated

1/4 cup chopped bell peppers

1/4 cup chopped red onion

1/4 cup dried tomatoes in oil, drained and chopped

Heat 1 teaspoon oil and 1 teaspoon butter in a skillet. Add 1 tortilla and cook 30 seconds on each side. Remove and keep warm. Repeat with remaining oil, butter and tortillas. Combine cheese, peppers, onion and tomatoes. Spread mixture evenly on the tortillas, roll up and place seam-side down in a baking dish. Bake in a 325-degree oven until cheese is melted, 5 to 10 minutes.

For a heartier dish, add chopped cooked shrimp, crab or chicken and serve with hot pepper sauce and sliced avocados sprinkled with lime juice.

L'ESPRIT MOZZARELLA AND DRIED-TOMATO SALAD (6 servings)

Lettuce leaves for garnish

1/2 pound smoked mozzarella cheese, cubed or cut in matchsticks

1 cup black calamata olives, pitted

1 cup peperonciniSTART NOTE cq END NOTE, drained

4 ounces dried tomatoes in oil, julienned

1/4 cup capers

2 red onions, cut in rings

FOR THE DRESSING:

4 tablespoons oil from tomato jar

2/3 cup olive oil

2 tablespoons herb or wine vinegar

2 tablespoons dijon mustard

Salt and pepper to taste

Arrange lettuce leaves on a platter. In a decorative pattern, top lettuce with cheese, olives, peperoncini, tomatoes, capers and onions. Whisk together oils, vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper. Pour some over salad and pass remaining dressing in a sauceboat.

CHEVRE AND DRIED-TOMATO PIZZA (Makes 1 large pizza, 2 to 4 servings)

2 ounces dried tomatoes

4 tablespoons olive oil

4 cloves garlic

6 fresh basil leaves

2 ounces pepperoni, sliced

4 ounces che`vre cheese, rind removed

1 cup whole-milk mozzarella, grated

Fresh pizza dough

Fresh basil leaves for garnish

Place tomatoes, oil and garlic in a food processor and pure'e, leaving tomatoes slightly chunky. Add 6 basil leaves and process 2 to 3 seconds. Bring pepperoni and cheeses to room temperature. Roll out pizza dough until 3/8-inch thick and crimp edges to make a border. Spread tomato mixture over dough. Crumble che`vre over top and sprinkle with pepperoni. Cover with mozzarella. Bake in a 500-degree oven for 12 to 15 minutes until lightly browned and bubbly. Garnish with basil leaves.

L'ESPRIT CHICKEN SCALLOPINI WITH DRIED TOMATOES (4 servings)

4 chicken breast halves, skinned and boned

4 slices fontina or other full-flavored cheese

3 ounces prosciutto, julienned

1 1/2 ounces dried tomatoes, chopped

4 teaspoons parmesan cheese

2 tablespoons olive oil

FOR THE SAUCE:

2 tablespoons shallots

1 cup chicken stock

1/4 cup white wine or dry sherry

2 tablespoons prosciutto, julienned, for garnish

4 dried tomatoes, julienned, for garnish

Pound chicken breasts between sheets of waxed paper until thin. Place equal amounts of cheese, prosciutto, tomatoes and parmesan in the center of each breast and roll into a cylinder. Tie with cotton string. Heat oil in a heavy skillet, add rolls and brown on all sides, about 5 minutes. Remove rolls.

Add shallots to skillet and saute' 2 minutes. Add stock and wine and scrape up brown bits stuck to pan.

Return chicken to skillet, cover, and cook 20 minutes over low heat.

Remove chicken and reduce sauce until it coats the back of a spoon. Add prosciutto and tomatoes for garnish and heat 4 to 5 minutes.

Pour sauce over chicken and serve hot. Or refrigerate, slice and serve cold on sandwiches.

L'ESPRIT SHRIMP WITH DRIED TOMATOES (4 servings)

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, sliced

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

2 pounds shrimp, peeled and deveined

4 ounces dried tomatoes in oil

1/4 cup scotch whiskey

4 ounces pine nuts

Salt and pepper to taste

Heat oil in a skillet. Add onion and saute' until tender but not brown.

Add garlic and cook 15 seconds. Add shrimp and stir over medium heat 2 minutes.

Cut tomatoes in half and add to skillet with scotch. Cook 2 to 3 minutes or until shrimp are pink.

Sprinkle with pine nuts and season with salt and pepper.