A SECRET INGREDIENT
I don’t really subscribe to the idea that an ingredient can be “cool” or not. The whole “move over kale, there’s a new leafy green in town” thing seems antithetical to the spirit of anyone who actually enjoys food. I’ll wear white t-shirts and mom jeans till the day I die just like I’ll always enthusiastically enjoy a head of regular broccoli because all are timeless, impervious to trend fluctuation. Cook with the ingredients that speak to you! If you like something, do not let a trend report shame you into thinking otherwise.
As long as it’s not like, a sun-dried tomato*. As long as I’ve worked in food, either cooking in restaurants or writing recipes, sun-dried tomatoes have not been cool. In fact, they have been actively un-cool. That’s at least 15 years where I overlooked sun-dried tomatoes at the grocery among the dried figs, dried currants, and worst of all, raisins. As someone who generally loves all other tomato products, I struggled to remember why I wasn’t supposed to enjoy them as a widely available, accessible pantry ingredient (my favorite kind of ingredient).
My predisposed negative attitude about these sun-dried tomtaoes had the familiar vibe of being told your friend didn’t like someone who they had never met, and out of solidarity, deciding you didn’t like them either. Sun-dried tomatoes? NO thank you! I heard they are chewy and too ’90s (not in a good way) and cooking with them would make me, by association, very un-cool. Am I projecting? Am I a sun-dried tomato? Anyway.
The other day I was at my local grocery store, Brooklyn Fare (thank you for staying open and keeping your customers safe, ILY!), and was absolutely taken aback by the world's largest display of sun-dried tomatoes. Followed closely by, yes, another display of differently packaged sun-dried tomatoes.
I always tell people I get my best ideas cruising grocery stores, and this was no exception. The sun-dried tomatoes were SPEAKING to me. I purchased a pack and started *~dreaming~* of all the ways I would use this very fun and definitely cool ingredient. I really wanted to make it work with them.
But, every time I thought of something, I kept coming back to the idea that whatever it was I was thinking of would actually just be better with fresh tomatoes, or maybe a little tomato paste, or no tomato at all. I will admit, a lot of my hesitation is visual: Left whole, sun-dried tomatoes have a very vaginal vibe (not mad at, but hard to unsee), and when they’re cut into strips or, worse, cubes, they look six dots of balsamic reduction away from a centerfold in Sunset magazine circa 1987 (and not in a good way).
I mean, they taste good, but do they taste better than a fresh tomato slow roasted in chicken fat? No. Do they taste better than very good, ripe tomatoes dressed with toasted spices and anchovies? Definitely not. They have a lot of flavor, sure, but is it more flavor than, say, a dab of double concentrate tomato paste? Not really. After a few practical exercises, I realized I was very much in “you’re trying too hard to make this work” territory. Not unlike dating the wrong person for two months too long or trying to pull off a borderline age-inappropriate outfit, you know when it’s just not it. It sounds silly, but honestly I was a little sad that I couldn’t get excited for an ingredient I was trying so desperately to like.
That said, I had a lot of sun-dried tomatoes to work through and I refuse to waste food. My best idea was to put them in a pasta salad (🥴), also possibly a food that is, in its most common iterations, maybe not on the cutting edge of cool. “Two negatives make a positive,” I thought. “Brilliant.”
I’d mix them with burst tomatoes in a skillet with toasted garlic, maybe something spicy and let them plump up, toss them with thick slices of lightly pickled red onion and lots of olive oil. Maybe finish it with coarsely ground hard, salty cheese. It would be kind of airport chic, my new personal brand. So un-cool that it works.
I brought some over to my trusted quarantine pod, excited to share this secret ingredient.
They guessed dill, then anchovies, but they’d guess wrong! Would I ever be so predictable? We ate it and they kept guessing. “Is it….a fruit?” “....yes” I smiled. We basically role played this scene, although I don’t know if I was Westley or Vizzini.
After the longest eight minutes of our lives I shouted “SUN-DRIED TOMATOES! THERE ARE SUN-DRIED TOMATOES IN THIS!” bracing myself for praise, possibly an award of some sort? I received neither. “Sun-dried tomatoes are like, already an ingredient in pasta salad. They *are* pasta salad.” Okay. Wow. “That’s not a secret ingredient at all.” WOW.
Anyway, they did love it, which just goes to show you, it’s nice to keep friends around who keep you humble and remind you that there are no new ideas! And on a personal note, sun-dried tomatoes, well, they’re just okay. And that’s okay.
That said, this pasta salad is very good, kind of has a “cold amatriciana” feel to it, which, if you’ve ever eaten cold, leftover amatriciana, you know is a very good thing. (Amatriciana is a classic Roman-as-in-Rome pasta made with cured pork, tomato, sometimes onion and pecorino.) You can eat it immediately, but it’s truly better after a few hours, either cold or at room temp, a textbook example of a great “eat directly out of a container” food. Find the recipe for this pasta salad here.
*If the concept of a sun-dried tomato is unfamiliar to you, well, do not be embarrassed, that only means you are likely very young and I am jealous of your youth! Sun-dried tomatoes, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, are dried tomatoes (although probably not dried by the sun). Priya Krishna wrote this article about what made them so popular and why they became so unpopular, which you should read.
Listen to a podcast (my cousin just launched a new arm of her Nocturnists podcast: Black Voices in Healthcare, an important and emotional listen). Brush your pet so they stop shedding everywhere. Listen to Bonnie Raitt on repeat and cry at how she just gets you. Eat a hot dog at least once a week. Wear a mask (seriously, wear a mask). Buy yourself a new plant, watch it grow in the heat (Natty Garden in Prospect Heights or Chelsea Garden Center in Red Hook for plants/soil, The Sill for non-terra cotta pots and giftable plants for friends). Make yourself a nice cocktail, you deserve it (this excellent new book “Drink What You Want” from my friend John DeBary will make you feel empowered to make your own cocktails at home, a great alternative to a prematurely opened bar, perhaps). Buy yourself some new olive oil from a (maybe *the only*) Black woman–owned olive oil company, send a bottle to a friend. Think about your ambition, mourn the loss of some of it, regroup. Drink this wine and text something nice to someone you love.
As a reminder, this newsletter will always be free! That said, please feel free to subscribe for a fee, the money will always go to a rotating organization. This month it will be Food Issues Group, where donations will go towards providing food relief to underserved communities in NYC and sustaining the mission to make a more fair and equitable food system all around. If you can’t donate and are interested in IRL volunteer work, contact them here.
See you next week!