My husband taught me to make sundried tomato basil pesto. It sounds good, right? But it is even better than it sounds, I promise you. And if you’ve ever bought anything like it in the store, I assure you the store bought one doesn’t taste as good as what you can make yourself.
Let’s start with the most important ingredient: the dried tomatoes. I’d like to say that I dry them in the sun, laid out on a screen for days but I don’t. My reasons for not trying it this way is that I haven’t got around yet to making a solar powered drying thingie. It’s a priority but so are 6784 other things I’m afraid. Next, I fear that if they don’t dry fast enough they will spoil. We’re humid here in the east – loads of thunderstorms in the summers and even the hottest and sunniest of days can end in a rich humidity relieving itself in crashing rains if only for a brief time. I worry the tomatoes would not dry consistently enough. But I’m willing to give it a try one day, I promise. If anyone knows of a plan for a solar dryer – I’m all ears!
I use a variety of tomatoes called Principe Borghese which is like a mini Roma tomato. Like saucing tomatoes, it is pasty and has more flesh than seeds. They are shaped like a grape tomato and slice in half into firm little ovals. I lay these out in a large, electric dehydrator and run it for about 24 hours or so at around 120C. It can take up to 48 hours in humid weather or only 12 hours in the right conditions. The tomatoes are ready when they are firm but have a slight give when you bend them. They can be chewy, slightly crunchy when you pop one in your mouth (and I do!) If they go too long, they will go hard and might turn slightly black but it is hard to actually burn them at this low temperature – they still probably taste fine.
When I have a medium Ziploc bag full (about 8 Quarts of fresh tomatoes - one round in my Excalibur dehydrator) I send the dried tomatoes around in my ‘coffee’ grinder (the one used for everything but coffee) until it is mostly powder with the odd small flake the size of a pepper seed at most.
Out comes the food processor and in it I chop a few cloves of garlic. Then I add the tomato powder, a few full bunches of basil goes in with an extended drizzle of olive oil, a small splash of lemon juice, a half cup of raw sunflower seeds and some salt and pepper until the mixture is ground into a finely chopped paste. Finally I add some more olive oil until it is a very wet paste. Don’t underestimate the flavour of the dried tomato powder – it is powerful. I am not sure how dried tomatoes you find in the buik section of some stores are done but as many foods go, they are just not the same as these little gems. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Try it yourself and compare.
There is also no question that garlic grown in nutrient rich soils is completely different from the garlic you usually find in a large grocery store. But I don’t need to tell you that, do I? The varieties of garlic also seem to be as different as night and day. We commonly grow about 2000 bulbs of a variety called Music – a very popular one around here. Potent. Rich in flavour. When I dry our garlic to make powder, I swear it could be used in biological warfare. At least as far as bacterial, viral or fungal infections go. You can also use garlic scapes (the flower of the garlic that comes up in early spring that needs to be nipped off in order for the bulb to grow properly) but they won’t be as strong so use more of them.
Now you can use dried basil as well and I do in pinch. This pesto does not lean heavily on the basil flavour. It is the garlic and the tomatoes that make it sing. But fresh basil is much nicer and please try and get a hold of some if you can.
The final colour of the pesto should be a very deep red with a tinge of dark green in it.
I’m sorry I’m not giving amounts. As usual I always go by colour, taste and texture which isn’t all that helpful to you, is it? You basically want equal parts garlic and fresh basil by weight added to tomato powder ensuring that the final predominant colour is red and not green. You are best to add basil to the tomato mixture because I’ve learned the hard way that you can’t ever make a strongly basil paste red. Especially given the time investment on the tomatoes.
This stuff is to die for. You can add it to tomato sauce for pasta or just mix it directly in with noodles. The dried tomatoes actually thicken up a thin tomato sauce too. I also thin the pesto down slightly with tomato sauce to make my pizza sauce (that you can freeze in ice cube trays and have at the ready for home made pizza night). It can be mixed with cream cheese and rolled in tortillas or used as a cracker dip. I’ve added a spoonful to squash soup. Today I mixed it with some cubes of feta and it was ridiculously good on our salad greens. Add cilantro to that feta mixture and your head might actually pop off with delight. I know mine feels like it will.
Oh dried tomatoes, even though I don’t harness the sun to make you, you bring sunshine into my life every time you are near.