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Kitchen Improv: Low-Oven Dehydration

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If there's one thing Shiftwork Bites taught me, it's how to improvise. From poaching eggs in a coffee maker, to the space management required to cook in 25 square feet, I learned how to make do with limited resources, both in terms of space and equipment. I try to incorporate those lessons into my cooking on a regular basis, finding ways to do things that might not be immediately obvious. Over the next few posts, I'll explore some of these make-do techniques and how you can employ them at home.

When I was about 12 years old, Ron Popeil was my hero. "Slice a tomato so thin, it only has one side" was pure gold to me, and I watched his late-night shills incessantly. Of course, that doesn't mean that I wanted his products. While I always got a little thrill watching Ron samurai slash a pineapple to ribbons with a Six Star Showtime Knife right after cutting through a frozen brisket, I never really felt compelled to charge those three easy payments of $13.33 to my mom's credit card. Except, of course, for the Ronco Electric Food Dehydrator. (Just kidding, mom.)

Flash forward to the summer of 2012 and a pile of zucchini. Everyone who's ever participated in a CSA knows the feelings of resigned horror that hit about halfway through the summer, when the fortieth pound of summer squash arrives on your doorstep. The utter bleakness of another stir-fry of zucchini, or another loaf of zucchini bread, had me wracking my brain for something, anything different to do with zucchini.

My mind returned to those late nights spent watching Ron weave his delicious magic on stacks of vegetables, creating delicious and kid-friendly snacks out of seemingly everything kids hate. Certainly, I could dehydrate my way to zucchini deliciousness. As I saw it, dehydration could help solve both of the basic problems I have with zucchini: texture and lack of flavor. Dehydrating, I figured, would concentrate the flavor as well as render the texture more interesting than the wan and watery norm.

Lacking an actual dehydrator, I turned to the oven. Dehydrators, after all, are usually nothing more than a small electric heating element and a fan for air circulation. I turned my oven to its lowest setting (170° F), stuck the squash in and waited. I checked on them every few hours so that I'd be able to pull them when they'd reached a pleasant result. Eighteen hours later, the squash had a dense, meaty texture, and interesting flavors reminiscent of various green herbs (zucchini) and nutty hay (yellow crookneck), with an unexpected meaty punch underneath. I was hooked.

Once I got hooked, I didn't just want to go the jerky and apple chips route. I wanted to see what I could make, what I could repurpose, what I could transform. I started looking, as ever, to the things I might otherwise throw away, hoping to find them a delicious use through the alchemy of dehydration.

Juice a bunch of citrus for cocktails? Strain out the pulp, spread it on a perforated sheet pan and dehydrate it into crispy citrus tuilles. They come out with a wild wallop of citrus flavor, sans acid, buoyed by a surprise dose of roasty, caramelized notes. I'd planned to turn them into a terrific garnish for a peach soufflé, offering a boost to the flavor and a crunchy contrast to the ethereal texture, but ended up eating all of the whisper-thin crisps out of hand. They were that good.

After pureeing and straining a bunch of peppery tomato gazpacho, I found myself looking at all the solids in the bottom of my sieve. I tasted them. They were good, but a bit mild. After a dozen hours in a low oven, they had all of the zing of the fresh thing, but with an incredibly rich and meaty quality. Bright, savory and delicious. I ground the dried gazpacho in a mortar and pestle, and have been using it to add a bright tomato flavor to dishes well into the reign of the mealy hothouse winter tomato.

I forgot about some whole cucumbers I was drying, and came back to find disturbingly dessicated, tiny little mummy fingers where my cukes had been. I thought about tossing them out, but then I grated one on a microplane. It was spicy and delicious, reminiscent of cardamom, long pepper and grains of paradise.

I tried dehydrating some spent citrus shells. They wound up inedibly bitter. I steeped them in some coconut milk and, while I don't think it will ever work in large quantity, it was quite interesting in small doses.

Left with a pile of peels from a Kabocha squash, many still filmed with flesh, I gave them a turn through my MacGyvdrator. The results were earthy and sweet tasting, and found their home alternately ground up and added to a togarashi shichimi blend, and infused into some cheap blanco tequila. The fiery, spicy, floral flavors of the togarashi highlighted the earthy sweetness of the dehydrated squash. The tequila took on a lovely aged quality, tasting of wood, caramel and vegetal-sweet squash, with a not insignificant tannic quality. I've been working on some cocktails to highlight the tequila, with a martinez variant showing promise.

My latest experiment is dried Miso. Spreading it thin on a perforated sheet pan, I'll leave it in until it's completely dry, and use it as a savory seasoning on pretty much everything. I'm also dabbling with dehydrated cocktails, just because I like doing ridiculous things. I'll let you know how that goes.

The thing to remember about dehydrating things in an oven is that no two experiences will be the same. Since I moved, I'm having to adjust to a new oven, and it's been throwing off the process. It runs a bit hotter, so I end up with barely cooked items instead of dehydrated items. I've had luck, oddly, running the convection setting at the lowest temperature, which also speeds up the process. Often, when things are getting to hot, I'll prop the oven door open a crack for a portion of the process. It's all about trial and error. As long as you're checking on the process periodically, and not so invested that a failed experiment would be a catastrophe, it can be a lot of fun. And occasionally delicious.

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