Readers offer a way out for a writer in a pickle

November 02, 1997|By Rob Kasper

FROST AND ITS aftermath are big concerns for Marylanders, at least for the ones I come in contact with. A few weeks ago, for instance, I wrote that the only tasteful way to get rid of the mounds of green tomatoes that occupy Maryland households every fall is to fry them in lard.

Friends of the green tomato reacted quickly. They called, they wrote, they stopped me in the street. "Pickling," they protested. "You forgot about pickling the green tomatoes."

One caller, who referred to himself as "Horseradish Joe" -- a reference to the cherished root he cultivates in his East Baltimore back yard -- described the pickled green tomatoes he makes every year as "yummy good. There is nothing like getting up on a cold morning and eating a plate of fried eggs and pickled tomatoes," he said.

Seymour Attman, proprietor of the venerable Attman's Delicatessen on East Lombard Street, called to say that pickled green tomatoes were traditional delicatessen fare.

And Z. Merle Nicewonger sent a letter saying that the green tomatoes he pickled in his home in northeast Baltimore County were such a hit with his family that he even shipped some across the country to his pickle-deprived daughter in Oklahoma City.

While Joe and Nicewonger provided me with instructions, Attman gave me a taste of the local history of pickling.

"We used to put green tomatoes up," Attman told me, recalling the pre-World War II ritual his family once went through. "A farmer would come by [the delicatessen] with a couple dozen bushels of green tomatoes. We would buy them, and mash the garlic [that went in the pickling spice] wrapping it in an apron and hitting it with one of those sledge hammers, the kind they break cement with."

Attman no longer pickles his own tomatoes. The ones he sells -- 95 cents for a big one, three for $1 for the small ones -- at his East Baltimore deli come from a New York pickling house. They sit in brine at the counter next to the pickled cucumbers. A pickled tomato is a different taste from a pickled cucumber, Attman said. Some folks seem to pick their pickle -- tomato or cucumber -- according to their mood. The tomato, Attman said, is a bit sweeter than the cucumber.

The two pickling recipes I got seemed to address two groups of pickled-tomato eaters. The one from Horseradish Joe was passed along in a conversation. It called for pickling big batches of tomatoes in a salt-water mixture sitting in a 5-gallon plastic bucket. The other, from Nicewonger, came in a neatly typed letter. It called for pickling tomatoes with vinegar in a 1-quart, sterilized glass jar. When Joe called, he gave me step-by-step instructions, including a tip on where to buy 5-gallon plastic buckets. My friendly neighborhood doughnut shop, he said, gets its doughnut mixture shipped in such buckets. After the buckets are empty, you might be able to get your hands on one, for as little as 50 cents, he said.

Joe told me that after I got a bucket and cleaned it out, I should put some whole, clean, green tomatoes in it. Then I should add two gallons of water, half a pound of kosher salt, two or three bulbs of garlic and a package of pickling spices. The spice package, Joe said, is "about the size of a pack of cigarettes." If I had some fresh dill, I could toss it in the mix as well, he said.

Keeping the tomatoes submerged in the brine was important, he said. A good way to keep the tomatoes down, he said, was to place a large plate on the bobbing tomatoes, then weigh the plate down with a large, clean rock.

The tomatoes sit in the brine for 10 days to two weeks before they are ready to eat, he said. He assured me that if I got "a terrible-looking green scum" in my pickling bucket, I shouldn't worry. Just skim it off and throw it away, he said.

Nicewonger's approach to pickling seemed smaller in scale and neater in technique. There was, for example, no mention of scum. His recipe follows:

Pickled green tomatoes

Makes 1 quart

4-6 green tomatoes, less than 24 hours off the vine, sliced into quarters

1 teaspoon pickling spice

1 teaspoon mustard seed

1 tablespoon prepared horseradish

2 teaspoons dill seed

1 cup white vinegar (5 percent acid)

2 tablespoons kosher salt

2 cups water

Put pickling spice, mustard, horseradish and dill in the bottom of a sterilized 1-quart jar. Pack jar tightly with tomatoes. In saucepan, combine vinegar, salt and water. Bring to a boil. Pour mixture over tomatoes, filling jar to overflowing. Clean lip of jar and seal. Store at room temperature for two to three weeks before opening. Refrigerate after opening.

Pub Date: 11/02/97

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