JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald photos
JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald photos
If you’ve ever shared one of my homegrown tomatoes with my husband, Frank, consider this an apology. I’m sorry you had to listen to him whine about the dollars spent coaxing a Better Boy slicer to ripen before the first frost.
He tells a woeful tale of pumping holy water uphill to raised beds that have been warmed with heat lamps and amended with platinum dust.
It’s a lie, of course. We don’t own a heat lamp.
Most years, we celebrate our first bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich in mid-August, if we’re lucky. No matter when I put them in the ground, most of the tomatoes I grow prefer to mature right around Halloween. So, like many in Durango, I pick them green, wrap them in pages of The Durango Herald and stack them in cardboard boxes to gradually ripen.
Last year, I skipped the ritual. Instead, I picked all the remaining green tomatoes the day before the first hard frost and made green tomato relish, using my friend Heather Bryson’s recipe.
I’ll die before I eat all 6 pints of relish.
This year, I thumbed through pictures of green tomato pie and green tomato cake – and it was punishment enough to keep me from planting tomatoes at all.
Local gardener Shirley Ivey actually made one of these green tomato pies, but admits to an initial dearth of courage. She watched the wallflower pie sit in the fridge for a couple of days, contemplated tossing it but then gave it a taste because she had gone through the bother of baking it.
“It was actually pretty good. I was surprised,” Ivey said.
Ivey takes her tomato-based baked goods to work, where she usually impresses her colleagues. But initially, the resourceful gardener and cook struggled to put her green tomato harvest to good use.
“I didn’t want to waste so many tomatoes, so I started looking for ways to use them,” she said.
The veteran baker combed the Internet for recipes. She experimented, recently creating a gluten-free, tomato-based chocolate cake, but she wasn’t satisfied with the cake’s crumbly texture.
Wrapping green tomatoes and letting them ripen “off vine” works only when there are no cracks or blemishes, she said. Too many are likely to rot before they ripen.
Lynn Rosetta Kasper of “The Splendid Table” considers green tomatoes a delicacy with dozens of uses – especially when the tart, green crunchiness is showcased in a Mediterranean-influenced salad.
But the versatility does not stop there, she said. In a recent telephone question-and-answer call-in with an audience guest, the American Public Media food show host said: “Anything you can do with an apple in a dessert, you can do with a green tomato.”
Durango plein air painter Elsie “Mana” Siapno has a deserved reputation as a great Southern cook. The Tennessee-born, 85-year-old says she spends less time in her Durango kitchen than when she was cooking for three children, but she still enjoys making spiced peaches from the bounty provided by her backyard tree. And when she’s lucky enough to get a half-dozen green tomatoes, she’s at work making fried green tomatoes, a treat she learned to enjoy while attending boarding school in Tennessee.
“I understand Southern cooking. I like to select firm, slightly pink tomatoes and dip them in a buttermilk wash and a cornmeal flour mixture with slightly more cornmeal than flour,” Siapno said. “I don’t have a recipe, but I can tell you the options. I’m glad that younger people are growing their own gardens and eating something fresh.”
Siapno adds a pinch of hot pepper or paprika to traditional salt and pepper seasonings but says chile powder, Italian, Cajun or Bay seasonings are equally good seasoning options.
Twenty-year-Durango resident and tomato grower Janet Kenna said she’d rather wait than eat a green tomato.
She credits her Illinois father, who at 90 years old “still eats tomatoes with mayonnaise and salt” with teaching her to appreciate the nutritious fruit.
Kenna placed a half-dozen tomato plants in her garden the first week of May, protecting them from late spring frosts in walls of water. The early, hot summer and extended growing season contributed to the best harvest she has seen in 20 years, she said.
Kenna estimated that her husband, Matthew, processed tomatoes “a dozen times at least,” cooking them, “6 pounds at a time.” She has a freezer full of salsa and frozen marinara, after picking the first ripe treasure in July. She shares the bounty with friends and neighbors who live close to the family’s home on East Fifth Avenue.
Cherry tomatoes are good to enjoy fresh in salads and whole in cassoulet-style entrees.
Still, when the weather forecast called for frost, “we saved every single one” Kenna said, describing how she packed green tomatoes 4 inches deep in brown paper grocery bags and set them in the cool garage to ripen.
Kenna checks them every few days and estimates that the family of three will still be eating homegrown tomatoes “weeks into November.”