Green Tomatoes: An End-Of-Summer Bonus
I have a waste-not-want-not approach to pretty much everything in life. Lemon peels get tossed in a jar to infuse into limoncello, worn bed sheets are ripped into rags, and nothing thrills me more than to freestyle a stellar meal from a shelf full of random leftovers (a game known, in my house, as Iron Pantry Chef). But the flip side of this thrifty Depression-era mentality is that any sort of egregious waste seriously bums me out. Like green tomatoes.
Ripe red tomatoes are all soft juicy flesh and a balance of sweet, sour and richly savory flavor that screams summer. Green tomatoes are barely the same animal.
An autumn garden can be a thing of beauty. Sure, your early-summer crops have come and gone. But apples are dripping off the trees, vines are laden with ridiculously large squashes and melons, and tomatoes are everywhere. Then the days get a bit shorter, a nip bites at the edge of the air, and you know that all of that lush promise is going to stop delivering. As soon as the frost descends, those tomato plants are done for. Vines shrivel up and pounds of green tomatoes plop down to rot. But, ever the spendthrift, I can't let them go (especially after all the hours I've spent watering and weeding the damned things). Sure, you can try to ripen them indoors, but even under the best conditions (left on an uprooted, withering plant that you've stashed in your basement, or wrapped in brown bags with some ripe fruit to give off some ethylene and convince the green ones to realize their destiny), the results are still pretty lackluster. So I start hunting around for green tomato recipes.
Most Americans are familiar with fried green tomatoes, where the under-ripe fruits are dredged in a flour or cornmeal coating and pan-fried to a delicious crisp. But there are only so many fried green tomatoes one can (or, likely, should) eat. Luckily, there is a trove of recipes, from Indian chutneys to American pickles, that make good use of the garden's detritus.
The flavor of green tomatoes is significantly different from that of their fully ripened brethren. Ripe red tomatoes are all soft juicy flesh and a balance of sweet, sour and richly savory flavor that screams summer. Green tomatoes are barely the same animal. Green tomatoes are firm (though they'll soften upon cooking), moist but hardly dripping, and sour to the point of astringency. These characteristics keep you from popping a raw green tomato in your mouth, but they prove to be a boon in cooking.
With their firm flesh, green tomatoes stand up well to pickling (although they're not as common as cucumber pickles, the fermented garlicky green tomato pickles were a beloved staple of my childhood deli visits). They also do well when baked, providing a bit of moisture without collapsing into mush, and their firm texture and sour-sweet flavor allows you to swap them for tart green apples in recipes from cakes to pies. Their bright flavor also works well in sauces, and in the beloved fried green tomatoes, it provides a juicy counterpoint to all that crispy coating.
Sometimes my efforts to avoid waste lead to some truly terrible ideas (in case you're wondering, using leftover oatmeal as the basis of a cookie does not work — at least not the way I did it). But these green tomato recipes are all, thrift aside, delicious recipes in their own right. Yeah, it's hard to ever get truly excited about the harvest season drawing to a close. But green tomatoes offer a savory way to soften the blow.
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