Impending frost presents two options: panic or be a daredevil

October 14, 2001|By Rob Kasper

IT IS AN ANXIOUS time of year. It is the last gasp of the growing season, when gardeners play the game of chicken with the impending frost.

The game goes like this: When you hear the words "heavy frost possible" you can either high-tail it to the garden and start grabbing things like a crazed shopper who has five minutes to fill a grocery cart. Or you can sit tight, convinced that this is a bluff, a false alarm. You assure yourself that if you don't panic and jerk plants out of the ground, there is a good chance that in the next few days those pink tomatoes will turn red, rewarding you with a few final prizes.

Over the years I have taken both tacks. As soon as the north wind has turned nasty, I have scooted out to the garden and picked anything faintly edible. As the sun set and I rolled a wheelbarrow full of green stuff from the garden, I have felt smug about winning a skirmish. "Ha," I have said to Mother Nature.

But a few hours later, when I got the harvest home and tried to figure out what in tarnation I was going to do with pounds of rock-hard produce, I began to wonder who really had won this battle, who was laughing now.

In other years, not only have I refused to run scared, I have also refused to move. Scoffing at weather reports that told of approaching cold fronts, I remained in my easy chair, confident that the predicted frost would somehow skip over my plants.

A few days later, when I showed up at the garden, I found that the frost had indeed paid me a visit. The garden was as brown and fragile as a piece of peanut brittle. The eggplant had shriveled. The basil -- a real wimp in cold weather -- had dropped to the ground. There might be one or two red tomatoes clinging to the ropy vines. But they had that disappointing, mushy flavor, the same unsatisfying taste delivered by green tomatoes that have been wrapped in newspaper and ripened in a darkened basement.

This year I am playing both sides of the frost line. This week I foraged some green tomatoes and handfuls of fresh herbs. But I also hedged my bets and left a few things lingering on the vines.

As for cooking the green stuff, I took a new approach. Instead of dipping sliced green tomatoes in an egg wash and then frying them in oil -- or, better yet, in lard -- I sprinkled them with herbs and baked them.

It was a fresh look at the green-tomato harvest. Moreover, it used some of the mounds of basil, which, in a fear-of-frost moment, I had yanked from the ground.

Baked Green Tomatoes

Serves 4

2 large tomatoes, sliced horizontally and seeded

1/2 cup finely chopped onion

1/2 teaspoon minced garlic

1/2 cup finely chopped basil leaves (see note)

1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves (see note)

1/2 cup coarse bread crumbs (or chopped pine nuts)

1 tablespoon olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

Arrange the tomato halves, cut side down, on paper towels and let drain.

Preheat oven to 450 F.

Combine remaining ingredients in a bowl. Place the tomatoes, cut side up, in a baking dish and fill each half with breadcrumb mixture. Bake until the tomatoes are golden on top but still hold their shape, 10-15 minutes.

Serve right away or at room temperature.

Note: Instead of basil and thyme, use chopped fresh bay leaf, tarragon, cilantro or oregano combined with 1/3 cup fresh parsley.

-- From Smith & Hawken Gardeners' Community Cookbook by Victoria Wise (Workman 1999)

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