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French Bread Caprese Pizza puts a family-friendly twist on a traditional Caprese Salad. (Photo by Jessica Karley/Forum News Service)

Jessica Karley: New spin on Caprese Salad a great way to use garden tomatoes

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All summer, I wait, not so patiently, for the first tomatoes to ripen in the garden. It's the time of year when they're the most lush, flavorful and abundant.

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Lucky for me, my mother plants a large garden, and I get to reap the benefits. But all of those delicious tomatoes seem to all be ready at the same time. It can be challenging to get them all used or preserved before they start to over-ripen.

When my mom delivers my first box of tomatoes, I immediately try to eat them all right away. She brings tomatoes of all different sizes, and they play an important role in my summer menus.

I use the larger sized and heirloom tomatoes in salads, sandwiches or for topping juicy grilled burgers. Roma or plum tomatoes are perfect in my sauces and salsas.

If I don't eat them right out of the box, the sweet grape or cherry tomatoes are fabulous topped with a small amount of olive oil, crushed garlic, sea salt and cracked pepper and roasted in the oven.

When they start to shrink and the skins turn a nice golden brown, the tomatoes actually become even sweeter because of the caramelization of the natural sugars.

Because of the sweet taste, I actually convinced my son — who recently declared that (gasp!) vegetables are for little boys when they are bad — that tomatoes are a fruit. Now, he likes them! Some days, I don't know how we are related. (Kidding, of course.)

One of my favorite ways to prepare tomatoes is to use thick slices for a Caprese salad. This type of salad consists mainly of tomatoes, balsamic vinegar and fresh mozzarella cheese. I knew my son would not attempt to eat that, but my sister told me about this fantastic idea she saw online. It's mozzarella baked on French bread and topped with freshly sliced tomato, basil and balsamic.

That night, I had some girlfriends over and we decided that French Bread Caprese Pizza was a huge success. My son gets his "pizza," and I get my summer tomatoes and a great appetizer for parties.

Once reality sets in and I realize I can't possibly eat all of the tomatoes, I start the preservation process. I like to dry the tomatoes in the oven, a process that is so simple, and it makes the house smell amazing.

After drying, the depth of flavor in the tomatoes is incredible, and they become nice and crispy. Here's a quick "get your nonvegetable eater to eat their vegetables" trick: Try calling them tomato "chips".

Little does my son know, he has actually been eating his vegetables every night for the past week. Aren't I a sneaky one?

I store some of them dry for as long as two months or freeze them for a midwinter treat. I also fill a few mason jars with olive oil, rosemary and a handful of the oven-dried tomatoes and store them in the refrigerator for one week.

These chewy, dried tomatoes are perfect to add in any pasta dish. The tomato "chips" can be brought "back to life" by covering them in a small amount of boiling water, then added to sauces and pastas, as well.

I'm guessing these tomato chips won't last too long in my house this year!

French Bread Caprese Pizza

1 large loaf of French bread, cut in half, lengthwise

½ cup butter, softened

2 cloves garlic, freshly chopped

1 teaspoon black pepper, cracked

½ teaspoon kosher salt

1 10-ounce package of fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced ¼-inch thick

2 large tomatoes, sliced ½-inch thick

¼ cup fresh basil, chopped

¼ cup balsamic glaze

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a small bowl, place butter, garlic, salt and pepper. Mash with a fork until well-combined. Spread mixture over the cut sides of the French bread. Lay slices of mozzarella over top. The cheese will spread slightly when it is baking, so don't worry about covering the entire surface. Place the French bread halves on a foil-lined baking sheet. Bake for 25 minutes or until cheese is melted and slightly golden brown on the top. Remove from oven. Cover with tomato slices and drizzle balsamic glaze over top. Sprinkle with chopped basil. Slice and serve.

Oven Dried Tomatoes (Tomato Chips)

2 lbs. roma or plum tomatoes (or any tomato), sliced ¼-inch thick

Olive oil pan spray

½ teaspoon kosher salt

½ teaspoon cracked black pepper

¼ teaspoon garlic powder

Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Spray 2 rimmed baking sheets with a good amount of olive oil spray. Lay tomatoes over top. Spray with small amount of olive oil spray, sprinkle with salt, pepper and garlic powder. Bake for 4 hours or until most of moisture is removed, yet the tomatoes are a rich burnt orange/red color. Remove tomatoes from the oven and let cool. Store in airtight bags, freeze or cover in olive oil and store in refrigerator.

Karley writes for the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald. She can be reached at everydaygourmetnd@gmail.com. Read her food blog at EverydayGourmet.AreaVoices.com.

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