Out-of-season produce can be turned from sad to succulent with an oven stint.

Posted: March 01, 2012

You've tried to be faithful. In January, you wrote a check to the farm that runs your CSA, dreaming of ripe tomatoes come July. You've exhausted the supply of corn and green beans blanched and frozen last summer. You've even tried to embrace the curly kale and cabbage at the few year-round farmer's markets.

But only so much can be expected of even the most devoted locavore, especially this time of year. By March, those hard tomatoes, watery strawberries, and pesticide-coated grapes start looking pretty good.

But once you get that out-of-season produce home and bite into a strawberry whose red exterior belies the flavorless white flesh within, you'll remember why you signed on for deliveries from a local farm (or community-supported agriculture, CSA). But all is not lost.

There is an easy secret for coaxing robust summer flavor out of those tomatoes, strawberries, and grapes. Slow-roasting them for a long time at a low temperature drives off the water and concentrates the flavors. Sugars caramelize and acid emerges. Yes, the produce takes on a softened texture, but these roasted ingredients have many delicious uses that can bring an echo of August to February or March. It's no substitute for the in-season thing, but it can ease your winter cooking ennui.

The method is versatile: Preheat the oven to 250 degrees, toss your lackluster produce with a little oil as well as some salt and sugar to help draw out the juices, and arrange on a parchment-lined baking sheet before putting it in the oven for however long the transformation takes.

The accompanying recipes include directions on cutting your produce, how much salt and oil to use, and how long to roast, but this style of cooking could hardly be more forgiving. Results will vary according to the size of your produce and the quirks of your oven, but as long as you keep an eye on what's happening and taste from time to time, the end product will be much improved from the raw.

Take those tomatoes: After they've been roasted and stored in the refrigerator, you'll find yourself reaching for them often and eating them right out of the jar. Dense, juicy, and sweet, they compete with bacon for MVP in a wintertime BLT. Chopped, they make a lively addition to scrambled eggs or pasta.

If you saute a sliced onion in butter until soft, add two big cups of the tomatoes, cover with stock, and puree, you'll be rewarded with an almost-instant tomato soup. You can add a local touch by whisking in some cream from Lancaster cows just before serving.

Strawberries undergo an even more magical transformation. A relative of the rose, they fill your house with an aroma you'll wish you could bottle as they cook, shrinking down to half their original size and becoming tender and almost spreadable. These are wonderful over Brie (or cream cheese) on toast, spooned into your morning oatmeal, or swirled into pancake batter. Mixed with a softened pint of vanilla and refrozen, it will be the finest strawberry ice cream you've had. If you add a few spoonfuls of balsamic vinegar to the berries before you roast them, they make an elegant addition to sweetened and whipped mascarpone for a speedy (and fancy) dessert.

Roasted grapes are a surprisingly terrific side dish for roasts and chops, but they lend themselves to more casual uses as well. Once they've cooled, try spreading them on your peanut butter sandwich instead of jelly. Toss a few in a blender with a little minced shallot and your normal ratio of oil and vinegar for a vinaigrette that is far superior to a bottled salad dressing. Make homemade (and healthier) fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt by putting some roasted grapes in a small container and pouring the yogurt over them.

Once you've mastered the technique, other ingredients are sure to inspire you. Shallots and onions take well to the slow roast, and zucchini and carrots are worthy candidates, too.

By the time you've finished your off-season experimentations, ramps, at the very least, should be finding their way to the farm stand and your minor transgressions against locavorism will be forgotten - at least until next year.

Slow-Roasted Tomatoes

Makes 10 to 15 servings

5 pounds Roma (or plum) tomatoes  (about 16), cored and quartered

2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for storing the tomatoes

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 275 degrees. Line two rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper, and arrange half of the tomato quarters skin side down on each of the two baking sheets. Drizzle with the olive oil and season with the salt and pepper.

2. Transfer to the oven, and roast until the tomatoes are wrinkled and soft and much of their liquid has evaporated, about 21/2 hours. Rotate the baking dishes after about an hour to ensure even roasting.

3. Let the tomatoes cool on their baking sheet before layering them into pint jars, drizzling oil between the layers to help keep them separate and prolong their storage life. Keep in the refrigerator for two weeks or in the freezer for up to six months.

- From Joy Manning

Per serving (based on 15): 43 calories, 1 gram protein, 6 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 2 grams fat, no cholesterol, 163 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.

Winter Tomato Bruschetta

Makes 4 appetizer servings

1/2 cup roasted tomatoes (loosely packed), chopped

2 tablespoons minced red onion

1 tablespoon chopped tarragon or basil leaves

1/2 teaspoon red wine vinegar

1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling over bread

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

8 slices toasted Italian bread or baguette

1 garlic clove, peeled

1. In a mixing bowl, combine the tomatoes, onion, tarragon or basil, vinegar, red pepper flakes, and 1 tablespoon of the oil and toss to blend. Season to taste with salt and pepper and reserve the bruschetta topping.

2. While still warm, rub each slice of toasted bread with the whole garlic clove, and drizzle generously with extra-virgin olive oil. Divide the bruschetta topping evenly among the garlic toast slices, and serve immediately.

- From Joy Manning

Per serving: 92 calories, 2 grams protein, 12 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 4 grams fat, no cholesterol, 118 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.

Roasted Strawberries

Makes 6 to 8 servings

2 pounds strawberries,  stemmed and halved

1/4 cup sugar (or to taste, depending on the sweetness of the berries)

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon melted butter (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 275 degrees, with a rack in the middle position.

2. In a large mixing bowl, combine the strawberries, sugar, salt, and butter (if using). Using a rubber spatula, mix gently to combine. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, and arrange strawberries in a single layer, cut side down.

3. Roast the strawberries until they are about half their original size and the juices have thickened to a syruplike consistency, about 2 hours. (Especially large strawberries may take 21/2 hours.) Rotate the baking sheet after about 1 hour to ensure even roasting.

4. Let the berries cool on baking sheet, transfer to an airtight container, and refrigerate up to one week or freeze up to six months.

- From Joy Manning

Per serving (based on 8; without butter): 60 calories, 1 gram protein, 15 grams carbohydrates, 12 grams sugar, trace fat, no cholesterol, 75 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.

Winter Strawberry Shortcake

Makes 6 servings

1 cup all-purpose flour

11/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon sugar

3/4 cups heavy cream

1 pint roasted strawberries

Whipped cream, for topping

1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees and place a 10-inch cast iron skillet in the oven.

2. In a mixing bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar and whisk well to mix. Add the heavy cream and stir with a fork until just blended. Knead by hand until all the flour is incorporated, about 30 seconds.

3. Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and pat into a disk about 3/4-inch thick. Using a 2-inch biscuit cutter, punch out biscuits, re-rolling the scraps, to make 6 biscuits. (If you don't have a biscuit cutter, you can use the rim of a drinking glass or just cut the dough into rounds or squares with a knife.)

4. Place the biscuits on the hot cast iron skillet, transfer to the oven, and bake until light golden brown, about 12 minutes. Let cool, and then split each biscuit with a knife.

5. Arrange the biscuit halves over six plates, and place a heaping spoonful of the roasted strawberries over each biscuit half. Top with whipped cream and serve immediately.

- From Joy Manning

Per serving: 202 calories, 3 grams protein, 24 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams sugar, 11 grams fat, 37 milligrams cholesterol, 110 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.

Roasted Grapes

Makes 6-8 servings

2 pounds red seedless grapes, stems removed

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, toss the grapes with the olive oil, salt, and pepper, if using.

2. Arrange the grapes in a single layer on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Roast until the grapes have wilted and given off much of their juices, about 45 minutes to 1 hour.

3. Let cool on their baking sheet, transfer to a airtight container, and refrigerate for one week or freeze up to 6 months.

Per serving (based on 8): 108 calories, 1 gram protein, 21 grams carbohydrates, 18 grams sugar, 4 grams fat, no cholesterol, 150 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.

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