As I write this column, the first day of fall is just a couple days away, yet it's still feeling like summer. The afternoon temperature has climbed into the 90s and the tomato vines are still bearing fruit, but I know that somewhere around the corner, a killing frost is coming. According to the National Weather Service, the average first frost day for Springfield is Oct. 16, although they say there is a 30% probability that it may happen sooner, which it did on Sept. 23 back in 1995.
Unpredictable fall weather can cause tomato plants to freeze before all their fruit is ready to pick, but you don't have to throw these tomatoes into your compost pile. If you know that the temperature will drop below freezing, you can attempt to protect the plants and their fruit, or just harvest your unripe tomatoes early. Often, an early frost will be followed by a few more weeks of warm weather, so it might be prudent to cover your plants with old sheets or to wrap their cages with bubble wrap.
When you anticipate sustained cold or very cold weather, it's best to harvest all the fruit and relocate it to an indoor storage space. Your tomatoes will continue to ripen indoors if you store them in a humid location where temperatures stay about 68 degrees F for two to three weeks. You can also pull up the entire plant and hang it upside down in a sheltered location to continue the ripening process. You can make your tomatoes ripen faster by placing them in a paper bag with a ripening apple or banana. These fruits emit ethylene gas which speeds up the ripening process. You can also individually wrap your nicest tomatoes in newspaper, place them in a cardboard box and store them in a dry, dark spot. They should be ripe within a month.
If a surprise frost catches you unprepared and your tomatoes are already frozen when you pick them, give them a quick wash in cold water and place them on cookie sheets in the freezer until the entire fruit is solid, then move them to freezer bags. Do not allow the tomatoes to thaw before storing because the cellular damage caused by a heavy frost and thaw creates an increased risk of spoilage.
If you harvest more green tomatoes than you anticipate being able to ripen for use in your salads or sandwiches, you can still use them in their unripe form. Green tomatoes can be pickled or made into condiments like salsas and relishes. You can dredge the pickled tomatoes in cornmeal and pan-fry them. Fried Green Tomatoes are a classic Southern dish. A recipe for Fried Green Tomatoes can be found here: https://www.illinoistimes.com/springfield/state-fair-food-fix/Content?oid=12473988
Green Tomato Ketchup
This condiment pairs well with savory, fatty dishes. It is a delicious burger topping or dip for French fries. It also can be used as a chutney to accompany curry dishes.
6 pounds green tomatoes
3 large onions
4 large celery stalks, with leaves
¼ small green cabbage
3 cups apple cider vinegar
1 ½ cups maple syrup
3 tablespoons sea salt
3 tablespoons pickling spice
4 tablespoons yellow mustard seeds
Quarter the green tomatoes and slice into thin strips. Chop the onions and celery.
Thinly slice the cabbage, then cut into small pieces.
Transfer into a large pot and add the cider vinegar, maple syrup and salt.
Bring to a boil and turn down the heat to a simmer. Stir frequently until the tomatoes fall apart and the cooking juice thickens, approximately one hour.
Grind the pickling spices in a spice grinder and add them to the pan, along with whole mustard seeds. Continue cooking for another 15 minutes.
Carefully purée the mixture in batches in a blender. Be careful blending hot liquids. They tend to splatter. Fill the blender only one-third full and cover with a towel. Alternately, purée the mixture in the pot with an immersion blender.
Taste and add more salt, vinegar and maple syrup as needed.
Cook for another 5 minutes then immediately pour into sterilized jars, leaving a ¼-inch head space. Wipe the threads clean with a paper towel and attach the canning lids. Do not overtighten.
Place the jars into a water bath canner, covering with at least 2 inches of water. Bring to a gentle boil and process for 15 minutes. Properly sealed, the jars will keep in a cool, dark place for up to 6 months. Refrigerate after opening.
Pickled Green Tomatoes
These pickles can be enjoyed on their own, but they also can be made into a delicious relish by adding some sliced sweet onion. It's especially good on a piece of fish.
Adapted from South: Essential Recipes and New Explorations, by Sean Brock
3 ½ pounds green heirloom tomatoes, sliced into ½-inch-thick rounds
¼ cup ½-inch-thick slices jalapeño peppers (with seeds)
1 ½ teaspoons coriander seeds
¾ teaspoon fennel seeds
¾ teaspoon yellow mustard seeds
¾ teaspoon black peppercorns
1 ¼ cups apple cider vinegar 1 ¼ cups rice vinegar
1 ¼ cups water
1 cup sugar
1 ½ star anise pods
1 green cardamom pod, cracked
1 fresh bay leaf
Sterilize three 1-quart canning jars, along with their rings and lids.
Divide the tomato slices, jalapeño slices, coriander seeds, fennel seeds, mustard seeds, and peppercorns among the jars, packing them in tightly.
Combine the vinegars, water, sugar, star anise, cardamom pod, and bay leaf in a large nonreactive saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat, stirring to completely dissolve the sugar.
Strain the mixture into the jars; discard the solids.
Wipe the rims and threads clean, place the lids and rings on the jars, and tighten the rings.
Cool the jars to room temperature, then refrigerate the jars and allow the tomatoes to cure for 1 week before eating. Tightly sealed, the tomatoes will keep for up to 2 months in the refrigerator. Note: For longer storage, the tomatoes can be processed according to the instructions for the recipe above.