Tomatoes harvested early can be a smash in dishes

October 08, 2003|By Rob Kasper | Rob Kasper,SUN STAFF

AT THE FIRST mention of the "f-word," frost, I was out in the garden yanking things. Then I scurried back to the kitchen to find cookbooks that offered recipes for this mound of suddenly harvested vegetables.

This was not my fried-green-tomatoes panic. That usually strikes a few weeks from now, when the hard, killing frost hits.

In normal years, the first batch of cold air, such as the one that swept into the region last week, delivers a mere glancing blow. It is a warning shot to gardeners, a signal that rather than let that three-quarters-ripe tomato come to fruition, they should grab it while the getting is good.

This, however, has not been a normal year for the garden. Instead it has been a herky-jerky year, with a few ups and a lot of downs. Early on, we had plenty of moisture but not enough sun. Things perked up a bit, then Isabel's winds slapped things around. About the only two groups that I can think of that have benefited from this year's quirky weather pattern have been lettuce growers and roofers.

So the other morning when I stopped by my plot in the community garden in Druid Hill Park, dressed, inappropriately, in a coat and tie, I picked anything that looked even close to ripe. Mostly, I grabbed tomatoes. The plants looked darn-near dead, but they were still producing reddish orbs. One benefit of having a garden is that it keeps you aware of subtle changes in the seasons. For instance, the days are getting shorter now and the drop in sunlight can be felt in the texture of the tomatoes. Some of my red tomatoes were harder than batting-practice baseballs.

But I picked them anyway, along with some cilantro, and carried them home and searched for tempting recipes. I found several intriguing ones in the cookbooks written by Mark Bittman. Bittman, who writes a weekly column called "The Minimalist" for The New York Times, is not a restaurant chef. He is a home cook. Over the years he has written half a dozen cookbooks, including one called How to Cook Everything. I talked with him by phone in Seattle where he was on tour, promoting the four-book paperback-version of the How to Cook Everything tome. One of the paperbacks covers cooking the basics, another is aimed at vegetarian cooking, another looks at holiday recipes and the fourth covers weekend cooking.

Tomatoes, even partially green ones, can still be a good ingredient to cook with, he said. A few years ago, he used a batch of frost-threatened green tomatoes to top a pizza. (Basically, this recipe calls for topping pizza dough with thinly sliced green tomatoes, tossing on some parmesan cheese and baking in a 500-degree oven for 10 minutes.) You wouldn't want to use half-ripe tomatoes in a salsa, but if you put them in a recipe that called for cooked tomatoes, the partially green ones would add a certain tartness to the dish, he said.

Indeed, the tomatoes that I sliced up and put in the recipe for red snapper roasted with tomatoes that came from Bittman's 1994 cookbook, Fish, were pretty rubbery. But they softened up in the oven, and gave the red snapper terrific flavor.

In a few weeks, when the big frost hits, I will probably try the green-tomato pizza.

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