Semi-dried tomatoes are a delicious addition to salads, risottos and pasta dishes or enjoyed as part of a ploughman's lunch. But, unfortunately when you choose the the shop bought variety either from the deli or a jar on the shelf, a big concern is the oil that they are swimming in . . literally, because it's typically a type of oil which is down right unhealthy, being highly processed and pro-inflammatory for your body. This of course goes for anything that you buy in oil including all marinated vegetables and other products like canned seafood for that matter.
This poses the question . . . which oils should we be looking for when we purchase foods drowned in oil? I will address this question by first explaining what's wrong with the oils you usually find in commercial foods.
The oils which are readily used by the food industry to manufacture foods are canola, soybean, corn, cottonseed, safflower or sunflower oils, which are either used individually or in combination under the umbrella term 'vegetable oils'. These oils are extracted from the seeds of the plants, which interestingly are largely not vegetable plants despite the general description used for the oils. The raw seeds used to manufacture the oils are naturally high in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat, but it's what happens during processing, in order to create a flavourless, colourless and odourless oil perfect for use in processed foods, that does the damage.
The raw product undergoes high temperatures and pressure, extraction using chemical solvents, deodorising and even bleaching . . a five step process which ultimately destroys the nutrition while leaving behind nasty and inflammatory compounds, and even creates trans fats in the process. Not to mention that several crops used to make vegetable oils are largely GM these days, including soy, corn and canola, unless stated otherwise on the label.
Do a little investigating and you will often find canola oil being used in semi-dried tomatoes, occasionally in combination with a small amount olive oil. Look out for the statement 'marinated in extra virgin olive oil blend', a closer examination of the ingredients list is likely to identify canola oil or another highly refined oil higher in the list (and therefore in a larger proportion to olive oil). When canola oil was introduced to the retail market in the late 1980's, it was thought to be the perfect, cheaper substitute to olive oil, being high in monounsaturated fat and low in saturated fat. In fact, canola has enjoyed widespread use in the processed food industry not just as oil, but also pastry, margarine, salad dressings, spray oils and dairy spreads. Unfortunately, many people who are not aware of how canola oil is manufactured, still hold the belief that canola is a healthy oil.
Of course, unhealthy 'vegetable' oils are used because they are cheap. It's that simple. If you look hard enough you can find some products using 100% extra virgin olive oil or other cold pressed oils, but you must be prepared to pay for the higher quality oils that you are getting. Look for oils which are produced by mechanical means using an expeller and better yet are cold-pressed so that the temperature during pressing is controlled and the integrity of the fragile unsaturated fats is preserved. You pay more because this process of manufacturing oil is very inefficient in comparison to the 99% efficiency of chemical extraction.
A note about olive oil. . . extra virgin olive oil has not been chemically or physically refined; it is 100% natural oil squeezed from the olive fruit and therefore retains it's goodness. However, due to it's well known health benefits and subsequent high demand around the world, it is unfortunately prone to fraud. That is, deliberate adulteration where extra virgin olive oil is either blended with lower grade refined olive oils, or even mixed with other types of liquid vegetable oils . . .the very oils you are trying to avoid by choosing an extra virgin oil.
The take home message? Always choose a brand of extra virgin olive oil that you can trust. Admittedly, this is easier said than done. If you are lucky enough to know and source olive oil from a quality local producer, you'll no doubt pay for this privilege, but at least you'll have the peace of mind that you are consuming the real thing. Australia has very high standards when it comes to their locally produced olive oil, so it is a good choice in my opinion. But, there are a few things you can look out for when selecting your olive oil from off the supermarket shelf:
- the harvest date (pure olive oil has a shelf-life, it doesn't improve with age like wine)
- information about the specific region the oil comes from & the cultivars (not just the country)
- an ingredients list, or details about what the oils is composed of
- avoid 'light' oils, this does not refer to the fat content, but rather to the flavour and colour. To be lighter, it makes sense that the oil has likely been refined to some degree
My additional tip is to always check the label or ask the deli attendant for the list of ingredients when you are considering purchasing any food product in oil. If you can't avoid unhealthy oils, another alternative is to drain and rinse the oil from the product or better still make your own!
Making your own semi-dried tomatoes couldn't be easier I promise, and once you've tasted them you'll never consider purchasing the shop bought variety again! This recipe is also another way to handle an oversupply of homegrown tomatoes, in addition to the regular home preservation techniques such as making your own tomato ketchup, sauce and soup.
You can dry your tomatoes using an oven at it's lowest temperature or in a dehydrator, if you're lucky enough to own one, to preserve nutrients. If you're in a rush for your semi-dried tomatoes you can up the oven temperature, but know that you will be sacrificing some of the more fragile vitamins and phytonutrients in your tomatoes. All in all, whichever method you choose to dry your tomatoes, you should feel at ease that they are considerably healthier than shop bought. This recipe calls for extra virgin olive oil which I prefer to use for vegetable marinades because it is used traditionally. Other oils that I use in my kitchen include virgin coconut oil, which of course is not practical for this application owing to the fact that it is largely solid at both room and fridge temperature; cold pressed, extra virgin avocado oil, macadamia oil and sesame oil for Asian-style dishes.
fresh small-sized tomatoes (I like to use cherry roma) - preferably organic
good quality, cold pressed, extra virgin olive oil
fresh thyme leaves
fresh garlic cloves, thinly sliced
Celtic sea or Himalayan salt, to taste
freshly ground black peppercorns, to taste
If using an oven: Cut tomatoes into halves or quarters lengthways and lay them skin-down on a wire rack in a baking tray. Dry at the lowest heat in your oven to preserve more nutrition or if you'd like your tomatoes on the table a little quicker, brush them with a little olive oil and bake at 120C for 2-3 hours.
Dehydrator method: Cut tomatoes into halves or quarters lengthways and lay them skin-down on a drying rack. Place in the dehydrator for 10-12 hrs at 47C.
When the edges of the tomato halves have shrivelled (see photo above) or are dried to your liking, place them in a bowl and drizzle with good quality extra virgin olive oil. Season with salt & freshly ground black pepper.
Now flavour your semi-dried tomatoes with fresh herbs, I like to use fresh thyme leaves and thinly slice garlic. You can also try dried oregano and basil. Leave to cool before transferring to a glass jar or container. Pour some extra oil into the jar to coat the tomatoes well.
If you would like your tomatoes to last, it is a good idea transfer the tomatoes directly to a sterilised glass jar, a re-used jam jar will do the trick. Add your seasonings & fresh herbs and ensure that the tomatoes are completely submerged in the oil to avoid spoilage. It is possible for these tomatoes to last in the fridge for 2-3 months if done properly. Enjoy!
D. Gillespie, Toxic Oil, 2013
http://www.australianolives.com.au, Nine out of ten imported olive oil brands fail to meet the Australian standard, Dec2013