When tomatoes are green
October shades into November, and one day is warm and the next cold. The sky might be bright blue, before it starts threatening rain. The table might be laid with some light and aromatic dishes, or it might groan with heavier, juicier and more succulent fare And in this chiaroscuro middle-period between summer and winter, the tomato, one of the few brave little plants that the distracted farmer has left on the vine, still does its best to ripen, without losing any of its beauty.
We don our wellies – because the ground is now soft, greasy and wet – and head out into the largely denuded plots of land, where the proud cabbages rear their heads among the bold artichokes, multi-coloured radicchio, and aristocratic sage. A few long-necked bulbs of garlic, a few straggling pumpkin flowers – it’s no surprise if the eye passes over the tomato plants, twined around their frames and trelisses, dry and withered, and hanging with green tomatoes.
Green tomatoes. One of nature’s acts of defiance, when the sun drifts ever further, grows ever cooler, and sets ever sooner. Picking green tomatoes is an act of recognising the magic in nature. It’s the most intimate of harvests, serenaded by the birds, brightened by the intense colours of the period, and mercifully free of the sweat and mosquitoes. The soil gets right under the fingernails, as we plunge our hands among plants that teem with slugs, snails and caterpillars.
Within minutes, the basket is bulging with these bright green orbs, which, being at the start of their lives, are as healthy as can be. Then we fill another basket. Then a third. We all meet up, laden with kilograms of tomatoes.
What to do with them? Cinephiles suggest frying them, in homage to the 1991 film Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café. They are indeed at their most decadent when fried, perhaps with those last pumpkin flowers and a bit of that sage, which is currently putting forth big new leaves. They are indeed delicious fried, especially if you keep the batter light, using rice flour plus beer or fizzy water.
But they’re also great stewed, ideally accompanying the slightly fattier, juicier meats to make for a marriage of perfect contrasts. And who could say no to spaghetti, sauced in green tomatoes and a touch of chili?
But even after that, we still have kilos of them. There’s nothing for it but to turn to the life-saving world of preservation. There are two great schools of thought when it comes to nursing our green tomatoes through winter: conserving and pickling.
Let’s look at the latter first. You dry the tomatoes and put them in a jar, submerging them in vinegar, with a dash of oil; those with spicier tastes might add a bit of chili or origano. Certainly, this is how I prefer to make use of my leftover green tomatoes.
Or we can make a compôte, which requires absolutely no additives: just some tomatoes, and half their weight in white sugar. And voilà: a nice, sophisticated jam, perfect both for cheeses and for tasty breakfasts. And wait till you’ve tried it on a bruschetta!
Ah, and while we’re on the subject of pickles and conserves, don’t forget to always sterilize the jars by boiling them in water once they’re sealed. After all, can you think of a more original Christmas present?