No longer blue over the green

August 28, 2002|By Cynthia Glover | Cynthia Glover,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It is a bittersweet thing. As summer speeds toward the finish line, the tomato plants in my garden give their all, producing scores of fruit that will never ripen as the cooler temperatures and shorter days of fall set in.

The sight of those hard, green nuggets used to break my heart. Perhaps that is because I can never get my fill of their juicy, sun-ripened brethren. Even the names of the plants - Early Girls, Big Boys, Linwoods, Purple Cherokees, Pink Niblets - set my taste buds tingling. Heirloom varieties especially provide such sensual pleasures in their wild colors and intricate balances of sweetness and acidity.

I make short work of the ripe ones. At the height of the season, I eat them sun-warmed from the garden, layered with buffalo mozzarella and fresh basil, pureed with fine olive oil into a cold tomato soup, coarsely chopped with marjoram and salt for a fresh pasta sauce.

I dry them, freeze them, stew and can them, do everything I can to extend their life on my table. And still, when I contemplate those green tomatoes clinging to the vine at summer's end, my greedy, tomato-loving heart begins to mourn. We are about to enter the paler seasons of fall, winter and spring.

And so, a few years ago, I decided to fight back, to seek ways of giving new life to the grand harvest of green tomatoes that would otherwise become compost. I recalled the fried green tomatoes a pal's mother served when I was in high school. A Southern classic, they were thick slices fried in a cornmeal-flecked coating, then baked with a little brown sugar just before serving. Delicious as that remedy was, I couldn't eat nearly enough of them to assuage the sadness of so much bounty going to waste.

Preservation, I soon realized, was the key. I worked my way through countless recipes for green tomato jam and chutney and ketchup and salsa. Finally, I found my solution in a simple recipe for green tomato pickles from Jeanne Lesum's Preserving Today (Alfred A. Knopf, 1992).

The formula calls for green plum tomatoes, sliced, but I use whatever I have in abundance. My favorite, to date, is made from large cherry or grape tomatoes, cut in half.

This year, I planted extra grape tomato plants in hopes of a bumper crop perfect for pickling. Now, the sight of those green tomatoes is one of the great pleasures of summer. And a shelf lined with pints and quarts of green tomato pickles serves to remind me that the rosy jewels of summer will be with us, once again, before too long.

Green Tomato Pickles

Makes about 4 pints

1/2 cup pickling lime

2 quarts water

3 pounds hard green plum tomatoes, sliced

1/2 pound small white onions, peeled and sliced

1 1/2 cups sugar

3 cups cider vinegar

1 teaspoon each of peppercorns and whole allspice

1/4 teaspoon whole cloves

2 1/2 inches broken stick cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon each of mustard seed, celery seed and grated crystallized ginger per pint of pickles

Stir pickling lime into water in a large bowl, taking care not to splash it on yourself. Add sliced tomatoes and onions, and let stand about 24 hours. Stir occasionally.

Drain and rinse the vegetables, drain again and soak in cold water to cover for 2 to 3 hours.

Drain vegetables in a colander while you prepare the syrup. Mix sugar and vinegar in a wide 4-quart saucepan. Tie the peppercorns, allspice, cloves and cinnamon in a dampened cheesecloth square 3 or 4 layers thick, or place them in a metal tea ball. Add the spice bag to the pan, bring quickly to a boil, and boil rapidly for 5 minutes.

Add the vegetables all at once, and cook about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, and timing from the point at which the syrup returns to the boil. Remove spice bag and spoon vegetables, boiling hot, into hot, sterilized jars. Add mustard seed, celery seed and crystallized ginger to each jar, and make sure the solids are covered by about 1/2 inch of syrup. They'll expand as they cool. Seal, cool, label and store for 4 to 6 weeks before using.

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