Friday, November 9, 2012

A deciding moment for green tomatoes

 The last few nights, the the weather forecast is for near freezing, and pockets of the neighborhood are white with frost. Soon it will be curtains for all the tender annuals.

Like many tomato growers, I like the basil/tomato combination from a culinary perspective, but there's an additional reason to grow basil near your tomatoes.

Basil is even more tender than tomatoes.The leaves start to drop weeks before the tomatoes are harmed by the cold.

When the leaves near the top start to turn brown, or the stems look hideous like the one to the right, I know it will soon be cold enough to bring in the last of the green tomatoes.

Here is what a tomato plant looks like when it is first touched by a hint of frost, but hasn't gotten cold enough to succumb. The leaves are curling, the fruit start to go translucent. After a real frost, the fruit will freeze, and when it thaws its a mushy, blackening mess.  Before that happens, it's time to bring in all the usable tomatoes, ripe or not.

Tomatoes - just tickled by frost. The one to the right is further inside the greenhouse, and was unharmed

As I pick the tomatoes, I practice triage. Some of the tomato plants have gone crazy with the recent rain, sucking up so much water that their fruit is badly cracked. 

Slugs and earwigs immediately move in, and the fruit is inedible. To humans, anyway. The chickens love them. Who else gets excited to have rotten tomatoes thrown at them?

Here Aurora stands guard over a bunch of the juiciest of the lot, keeping the ducks and the lower ranking hens at bay.

The remaining tomatoes are of all sizes and degrees of ripeness. I try to pick tomatoes gently, and not pile them up. They are fragile.

I sorted the tomatoes. 

Those with cracked skin, minor blemishes, or very wide stem ends (like the red tomato at the top) will not store well. They are too attractive to fungus and fruitflies.

Very green ones, or ones that have not reached full size, are unlikely to ripen. They work for green tomato recipes (fried, chutney, pickles, salsa) but I won't try to store them.

As Shakespeare says "ripeness is all".  I think that over and over to myself as I harvest, and it makes me sad. It's not an inherently sad phrase - it's what you make of it. But right now, I think about being harvested too soon, or being past one's prime.

Fall is that kind of season. I try instead to think "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness". That sounds much better.

The remaining tomatoes, the best of the best, are set aside to ripen. I wipe off any dirt, make sure their skins are intact and blemish-free, and set them one tomato deep in boxes lined with newspaper. This way, if one tomato does start to spoil, the paper will protect the ones around it. I organize them so they are together with tomatoes of similar ripeness. 

Tomatoes don't belong in the fridge. They need a moderate temperature in the fifties or sixties. We in Seattle think of that as room temperature. I store mine in the basement just to get the out of the way. I check on them every week or so - more often if I need tomatoes. The big red tomato in the center of the picture will be ripe almost immediately. And because it has such a deep dimple in its blossom end, it will probably start to go bad soon after. I make a mental note to use it soon.

I make the real greenies and a few of the redder ones into green tomato salsa. It's tangy and sour when it's first made, but mellows over a few days and is delicious with corn tortillas and goat cheese.


1.5  kilos green tomatoes (a little over 2 pounds)
1 very large red onion
4 cloves garlic
4 jalapenos or to taste
1 t salt
2 t cumin
Cilantro to taste (I think 2 T is standard, but I like about 1/2 C)
1 C vinegar or lime juice

Cube the tomatoes and onion into small dice. Crush and chop the garlic. Carefully (rubber gloves recommended) seed and chop the jalapenos. 

Place all ingredients in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil and cook for ten minutes at a gentle boil. 

Cool slightly and process in a food processor if desired. Processing makes a better sauce for dipping tortillas. 

Recipe for Green Tomato Pickles

This isn't really a recipe, but it's a great idea my friend Portia taught me.

Eat a jar of your favorite kind of pickles. Save the juice.

Cut green tomatoes into quarters and put them in the juice.

Refrigerate and serve after a week or so. They are really yummy.

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