Friday, September 23, 2011

Hunt for Green October: Stalking the Pickled Green Tomato

Update 2012: Just sliced and brined this year's batch. (Thanks, Terry, for the tomato contribution.) Sliced them to better fit on sandwiches and I think I'll hot-process the jars so it's more accurate to Grandmom's recipe. Will keep you posted.

I really can’t put into words how good Grandmom Caroline’s pickled green tomatoes were.

First, forget everything you know about pickles. They’re like no pickle you’ve ever had. This ain’t no chow-chow, with five pounds of sugar in each jar. And those kosher green tomatoes you sometimes find at the supermarket? Feh.

No, sir. To paraphrase John Thorne, these are green tomatoes that died and went to heaven*. Crisp, spicy, garlicky and irresistibly tart. The perfect crunch, and intense flavor that goes miles deep. I could eat them by the quart. If I could get some.

There’s the rub. Grandmom Caroline passed away in 2000. And although I took time to watch both my grandmoms cook various dishes, peppering them with questions, I was lax on the green tomato assignment. Blew it off, if you must know. Never helped or watched the process in detail.

I was vaguely aware of strange tasks and pickle goings-on every autumn when she put up tomatoes. But I never paid close enough attention to learn the secrets. Secrets I thought would stay that way.

But there had to be a way. I knew the ingredients. Green tomatoes, garlic, celery, red pepper. It’s just a matter of figuring out a pickling method. It should be a no-brainer. Plus, it’s the age of the Internet, for Pete’s sake. Somebody probably already figured this out and posted it.

Off to Google.

Hmm. Lots of green tomato pickle recipes. None anything like Grandmom’s. Did she use a brine? Did she pack the jars with vinegar? Were they hot-water processed? As with most subjects researched online, I found an excess of information and a dearth of inspiration.

Gotta call mom.

“Mom. Hi. What’s up?”

“Not much. Putzing.”

She means “puttering.” I’ve often wondered what her reaction would be if she found out putz doesn’t mean putter. It means scrotum. In Yiddish.

“What’s up?”

“I’m trying to reconstruct Grandmom’s green tomato pickle recipe.” I was ready to launch into a battery of questions based on my Internet research. She never let me get that far.

“I have the recipe.”

“No way.”

“Yeah and I think I know where it is. Lemme find it and call you back.”

Why didn’t I just call mom first?

I don’t think 20 minutes passed before the phone rang.

“I found it. Do you have a pencil?”

“Sure. Go ahead.”

“Oh. Wait. This is Grandmom Emma’s recipe.”

My dad’s mom, Margaret Emma.

“Really? I didn’t even know she made green tomatoes.” Wish I could remember them. Not sure I ever had them.

“Oh, yes. They were delicious, too.”

Always the diplomat. Had I thought fast enough, I should have pinned her down to ask which were her favorite. Would blood win over marriage? Another day.

“Yup. It’s from 1961.”

“Older than me.”

“Do you have a pencil?”

“Yes, mom. Go ahead.”

Here’s the recipe I transcribed:
Choose green firm tomatoes
Slice thin
Layer and salt
Drain 24 hours
Drain very dry
Cover the tomatoes in white vinegar
Soak 24 hours
Drain again and squeeze dry. Be sure there is no moisture left
Pack in jars, in layers of tomato, garlic, well diced, oregano, olive oil, and ground red pepper. Be sure tomatoes are well covered in olive oil.
“Really. Olive oil?”


“Is that how Grandmom Caroline did it?”

“I think so.”

Hmmm. Olive oil in the jars. They’re pickled and marinated. Double threat.

“What about the olives?”

“What olives?”

“Didn’t she put olives in with the tomatoes?”

“Oh, no. Never. Just the tomatoes. And garlic. And celery.”

“Right, celery.” Not in Grandmom Margaret’s recipe. “No olives, you sure?”

“Pretty sure.”

Who would know for sure? Mark.

If there’s anybody in the world who liked Grandmom’s green tomatoes more than I it's my first cousin, Mark. Rang him up. Voice mail.

As soon as I finish recording the message, the phone rings. It’s Michele, the younger of my two sisters. A trained chef and Italian foodie.

“You were right,” she says. “There were olives in the jars with the tomatoes.”

As with most topics, she’d already talked to mom and was has officially inserted herself into the discussion.

“Yeah, that’s what I remembered.”

As did she. And she successfully talked mom into confirming her recollection.

“Are you going to make them?”

“I am going to try.”

“Oh man. I hope they come out.”

The cell phone rings. It’s Mark.

“Call you later, it’s Mark on the other line.”

I grab the cell. “What’s up Cuz?”

“What’s goin’ on?” Mark’s been in Florida over 20 years but his accent sounds like he never left Trenton, N.J.

“I am trying to reconstruct Grandmom’s pickled green tomatoes.”

“Oh, man. They were killer.”

“I called you with a specific question but I think I got my answer. Just hung up with mom and Michele. Do you remember, were there olives in the jars with the tomatoes?

“No way.”

“Really. Michele and I remembered olives.”

“Nope. I used to help her with them. When she put up the olives we had to crack each one by slamming it with a heavy glass. She used to let us do that part when we were kids. But no, they were separate, never together in the jar.”

“Wow. That’s what mom said. But Michele and I remembered it different.”

“I know she did something with a brick.”

“Yeah, that’s the salting part.” I shared my theory about the salting. I imagine the salt pulled a lot of water out of the tomatoes, which the vinegar later replaced. That’s where a lot of the flavor came from. “OK, man, thanks for the help. If they turn out OK, there’s a jar with your name on it.”

“Can’t wait.”

Like most treats prepared by Italian grandmothers, when Grandmom Caroline made green tomatoes, she made them in mass quantities. She filled an enormous pottery crock. After salting, she’d put a plate on top and a brick on top of that. It’s an old home pickler’s trick. It both puts a bit of pressure on the tomatoes to encourage them to give up their juice – and keeps them in contact with the brine to develop flavor.

An ominous black sky heralded the next day. I figured I’d better get my greenies picked before it started raining. Pulled maybe three quarts from our small plot of three vines. Was hoping for more. Terry, my friend and brewing partner, agreed to donate his harvest to the project. After raiding his garden, I was way over the gallon mark – maybe two.

As soon as I had a free half hour I washed and cut them. I discarded any with bug holes or blemishes. I didn’t bother with trimming the cores except for the larger, woody ones. Although the Grandmom Margaret’s recipe says “slice thin,” I remembered Grandmom Caroline’s clearly – they were on the thick side, maybe 3/8 of an inch. That’s where I aimed.

In a short while I had a big pile of bright green beauties, ready for salt. It was at this point that I realized I’d never in my life tasted a plain green tomato. Fried, sure, but never one right off the vine. I expected bitter, like eggplant. But it was all tart. It basically tastes like a red tomato that’s had all its sweetness erased. No wonder the old Italians decided to pickle these. They’re already tart so it’s a perfect place to start.

I scrubbed an old wing bucket and tossed in a layer of tomatoes, maybe an inch and a half thick, and dusted them liberally with kosher salt. This continued – tomatoes, salt, tomatoes, and so on – until I’d filled one wing bucket and half filled a second. Each layer took about a tablespoon of salt – maybe a bit more towards the top as the layers got larger with the taper of the bucket.

Found some plates that fit the buckets without being tight. Put a plate on top of each tomato pile, then placed one bucket on top of the other. I figured I could use the weight of the second bucket to press the first. On the top bucket, another plate and a few river rocks, scrubbed and sealed in a zipper bag. I put the whole assembly inside a large Tupperware to catch any drips.

The next morning, things were looking good. An enormous amount of liquid had been released and each bucket’s fruits were fully submerged.

Tasted one. The texture had softened and they were well seasoned. I was pleased with the texture – confident I was on the right track.

I poured the salted tomatoes into a muslin bag. We use them to hold hops for homebrewing and it was the perfect container. Grandmom Margaret’s recipe was clear about getting rid of as much liquid as possible and the bag was easy to squeeze.

Gave the wing buckets a rinse and the tomatoes went back in. Since the salting had reduced their volume quite a bit, I thought they might all fit in one now and I was right. So, no need to assemble the stack as before.

A quart plus a cup of vinegar covered them nicely. The plate and rocks went back on top.

The next morning, the color and texture looked just right. I tasted one.

I literally laughed out loud. They were already amazing, even without garlic and spices. Lots of sour zing, plus a finish that was almost peppery. I think it was heat coming from straight vinegar. This was going to be good.

Before putting them in jars, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to touch base with Aunt Gertie, Grandma Margaret’s daughter. My main question was treating the jars after filling. One recipe from the Internet was pretty close to my grandmoms’ technique, but it called for processing the jars in a hot water bath after filling.

Aunt Gertie confirmed my suspicion. Grandmom Margaret never did that. I am convinced it would cook the ingredients and dull the flavor. So I’d rather just handle them as perishable and keep them in the fridge.

Back to the muslin bag and squeezing routine to get them as dry as possible, out of the vinegar. I stuffed Mason jars. A layer of tomatoes, some diced garlic, celery dice, more tomatoes, a sprig of fresh oregano, a thin slice of hot chili pepper, more garlic and celery, then tomatoes to the top of the jar. Stuffed them in, tight.

I topped each jar with olive oil. The half-pints took about a half cup, the pints maybe ¾ of a cup. Grandmom would have let them age on a shelf at room temp, but I know there are potential bacteria issues with garlic in olive oil, so I decided to age them in the fridge.

After just a few days they were outstanding. As good as I remembered. Zesty, perfectly crunchy, garlicky as all get out. All enrobed in velvety richness of virgin olive oil. Oh, man.

Texted Michele. “You better call me. I have big news.”

The phone rang within seconds. I knew that would get her.


“What, what?”

“What news?”

“The tomatoes.”

“What about them.”

“They’re amazing.”

“That’s the news?”


“I thought you won the lottery.”

“I made Grandmom’s green tomatoes. That’s better than winning the lottery!”

You gotta have your priorities.

Here's the detailed recipe. (View photos,) The yield is roughly three quarters of what you start with. So a gallon of fresh green tomatoes will yield maybe three quarts of pickle. The celery helps fill out some of the lost volume and it also takes in the garlic and the sourness of the tomatoes in a very elegant marriage:
  • Choose green firm tomatoes. The smaller ones are preferable since they have less spongy pulp inside.
  • Wash well and dry.
  • Slice about 3/8 inch thick. They will shrink with salting. (Since my foray into this recipe, Mom corrected my slicing technique, in wedges. She remembers Grandmom slicing them in rounds, to make them easier to fit in a sandwich. They taste the same either way. I remember wedges, so maybe she did both?)
  • In a non-reactive container (pottery, food-grade plastic, etc.) add tomatoes to about 1.5 inches thick. Salt well with non-iodized salt. (I used kosher salt.)
  • Keep adding layers of tomatoes and salt.
  • Place a plate over them and weigh it down.
  • Let stand 24 hours at room temperature. The tomatoes will give up a large quantity of liquid.
  • The next day, drain the tomatoes and squeeze them as much as you can. Discard the brine.
  • Rinse the container, place the tomatoes back in and cover them with straight Heinz white vinegar. Do not use no-name vinegar and do not dilute.
  • Soak 24 hours more, room temp.
  • The next day, repeat the draining and squeezing. Squeeze them as dry as possible. Discard the vinegar.
  • Pack in sterilized canning jars, in layers of tomato, diced garlic, diced celery, oregano and/or basil and red pepper flakes or thin slices of fresh chili pepper. You'll need only a tablespoon or so of garlic for each pint of tomatoes.
  • Fill jars with olive oil, ensuring all the tomatoes are well covered.
  • Age a few days or a week and enjoy. I have since learned that Grandmom Caroline did process her jars in a boiling-water bath. That might lessen the bite of the garlic and increase the shelf life. However it's not necessary if you age and store them in the fridge.
*John Thorne coined the phrase to describe the wonderfulness of half-sour cucumber pickles in his 1984 pickling guide, The Dill Crock.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Frying Weeds with Uncle John

By Sal Emma

It started out a typical family get-together. A Sunday in May. Mom’s birthday. The usual cast of characters, packed around the long table in the basement, tucking in pizza, chicken, sausage and other treats typical to a big Italian family party.

What was unusual was the amazing weather. Parties in this house normally center around major holidays. And in this part of the world, major holidays equal miserable weather. Thanksgiving and Easter, cold and wet. Christmas, freezing. And Independence Day in New Jersey? Dogs spontaneously erupting into flames between doghouse and water bowl.

The weather introduced a whole new topic of argument into this already argumentative clan: windows or air conditioning? Those of us still clinging to the brain cells we were born with know that in this part of the world, nice days are few and far between and it would be an affront to God to destroy the naturally moderate air through electric sterilization.

Of course the louder camp won the day – the shrill and demanding – those totally dependent on electric motors for sustenance. Every window and door closed tight on this, the most beautiful day of the year.

Trouble is, there’s no air conditioning in Mom’s basement. Even without it, the air-haters continued their campaign against oxygen. The one door that was bringing in outside air was bolted and sealed, sparing us from certain horrors of exposure to the atmosphere.

There we sat, in a damp, clammy, airless cinderblock vault, with only a veneer of waterproof paint separating us from icy groundwater, slowly perking its way towards the Delaware River. Perfect conditions for last year’s turnips and potatoes. The skin on the back of my neck nearly crawled off.

Before the pizza was cold, I planned my escape.

“Hey, Uncle John. Wanna go get some cardoons?”

He paused in mid-bite.


“Right at the end of the street.”

He finished his pizza in one gulp. “Let’s go.”

He stood up and announced “I better finish this sausage before we leave.” With that, he speared a link from the serving bowl and shoved it whole into his maw.

This was a classic Uncle John maneuver. The incorrigible class clown, my dad’s brother will do anything for a laugh, even if it involves risk of injury or indigestion.

With an audience, nothing is off limits. This is the guy who once dropped his pants in the middle of a kitchen filled with relatives, prompting Grandma Margaret to slap his cotton-clad hindquarters with all her might. He straightened and fastened his belt, explaining that he was only fixing his socks.

He typically ends a family meal by shoving inordinate amounts of food into his mouth, be it meatballs, cookies or cake – whatever is in easy reach at the moment. This has been ongoing for more than six decades. We once witnessed him end a meal by eating the paper from a chocolate cupcake, washing it down with strong coffee.

John’s serious about food. When we were little, there were often more people at Grandmom’s house for Sunday spaghetti than there were chairs to go around the assortment of tables scattered throughout the kitchen and TV room. This situation usually prompted brother-in-law Joe to suggest that the kids eat first, rather than jamming elbows with the whole crew.

Sunday after Sunday, John’s stock response to Joe's suggestion never wavered: “F*** the kids.”

Can’t say I blame him. The spaghetti was al dente, the sauce was hot and the hand-rolled meatballs were at their peak of tender, yielding perfection. In hindsight, he was right. F*** the kids.

Though seemingly just another line to get a laugh, his rejoinder belies a true passion for good food. John is a throwback to another time, when nothing was wasted and little was processed. He goes out of his way for the out-of-the-ordinary, like scrambled eggs with calf’s brains or braised pig’s feet. Chicken’s feet simmered in tomato sauce are a favorite antipasto. A masterful cook and gourmet, he might eat unusual food. But he’ll never eat bad food.

Since it was such a nice day, I suggested we walk to the field. Uncle John showed little enthusiasm for that plan. Since my car was penned in, my brother tossed me the keys to his $80,000 Mercedes. Well, on second thought, maybe driving wasn’t such a bad idea.

John rode shotgun. My 13-year-old, Gordon, climbed in the back, about to witness an age-old tradition kept alive by a dwindling few food-crazy Italians like the two nuts from a common gene pool in the front seat.

We were there in 60 seconds.

In Mom’s neighborhood, the cardoons grow on the edge of a particularly hazardous suburban intersection with no room for parking. I handed John my pocketknife and dropped them off, circling until the harvest was compete. On my first return pass, John had nearly disappeared, crawling through waist-high meadow grass. Gordon faced the road, looking for cops. And I saw that he clutched the prize – what would have looked like bunches of celery to the untrained eye. My eye knew better. John was working quickly.

Circling around again, I cringed to see a police car headed in their direction. Not that they were doing anything wrong. They were just picking weeds on a small plot of neglected public land. Trouble was, it looked like they were burying a body. To my surprise, the cruiser cruised right by, never even giving the foragers a glance.

On the third pass I stopped. The boy’s armload had increased several fold. They jumped in and that one-of-a-kind pungent, earthy cardoon musk filled the sedan’s plush interior. One whiff and I’m back 30 years, sucking them down in Grandmom’s kitchen.

You’re probably wondering what the hell cardoons are, anyway. For starters, they’re not cardoons. The cardoon is a kind of wild thistle that grows in warm places like Italy and California. It’s closely related to the artichoke and prized by both Italians and Japanese. The plant that Italian-Americans call carduna is known to botanists as Arctium minus or common burdock. Also related to artichoke – and just as delicious.

Hunters and fishermen know it for its broad leaves and seedpods – the spiny “hitchhikers” that fasten themselves in great numbers to outerwear and dogs, hitching a free ride to new territory.

When I was a kid, the neighborhood was thick with them. But most of the spots the burdock loved has been replaced by asphalt and irrigated lawns. Yet they hang on, staking their claim on any undisturbed bit of scrubland they can get their long taproots into.

As I admired Uncle John’s handiwork, he seized an opportunity for a laugh, biting off the top of one stalk in a feigned test of tenderness. “Ach! They taste like dog piss!” he exhorted, before spitting the contents of his mouth out the window.

The window, however was open only a crack, as none of us could locate the window buttons in the stylemobile. Only a fraction of his spittle made it out. The lion’s share clung in a pattern of bright green spots on the pricey German safety glass. By the time we completed the minute drive back to mom’s, I could hardly see through tears of laughter and stomach pain.

John headed to the kitchen to tend to the cardoons while I washed the car window, succumbing to another attack of furious laughter. When motor control returned, I joined him, scrubbing the stalks and boiling them in salted water until they softened and turned bright green. I whipped eggs, crushed in some garlic cloves, and seasoned breadcrumbs with grated cheese and pepper.

We rooted around the cupboards until we found the perfect skillet, as big as a manhole cover. For the next hour, I breaded and John sautéed, filling Mom’s kitchen with a generations-old aroma of freshly fried road weeds as we traded stories of Grandmom Margaret, the venerable, irreverent coal miner’s wife who had taught us to cook them. Had she been here, she’d have surely observed that the eggs were “fresh from the chicken’s ass.”

We carried them to the airless root cellar to savor the fruits of our labor. Hands reached to grab stalks of unique flavor – something like asparagus, something like the heart of an artichoke, encased in a crunchy crust of pan-fried golden crumbs and cheese. This, from a plant the USDA classifies as a “noxious weed.” What do they know? We gorged.

If Grandma Margaret had been there, I know what she would have said, inspired by the laxative effect of eating freshly cut wild greens: “Tomorrow, you’ll fill the bowl.”

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Your e-mail is racist

Your e-mail is racist.

One of the chain e-mails I received this morning gave me pause. It was typical anti-Obama fare from one of my conservative Republican friends. Obama lacks experience. He’s just a community organizer who hit the big time. He doesn’t know how to run an organization or balance a budget. Etc.

The source opined freely about Mr. Obama’s lack of presidential fiber, his Marxist rhetoric. And like many flywheels from the political right, its author went out of his way to refer to President Obama as Barack Hussein Obama. (Hint: he’s a muslim and a terrorist.)

In all, just more uninspired, unremarkable GOP talking-points invective.

And patently racist.

Save the “Hussein” mention, in substance the e-mail made no inflammatory remarks about race. It was above board and without bigoted overtones. It never even alluded to the fact that Mr. Obama is half African-American.

But racist it was. The e-mail was quoting a speech made by Congressman Allen West and his subsequent defenses of the speech on TV and radio.

Allen West, you see, is a black guy. How do I know? The e-mail creator went to the trouble of wrapping the text around a headshot of the Florida Republican.

That picture was speaking 1,000 words, loud and clear. “See …” I could hear it, yelling. “See. Even black people think Obama’s doing a crappy job. Even this black guy went out of his way to call him a Marxist terrorist. If a black guy is willing to criticize Obama, he must truly be evil.”

Why else would they bother to include his photo? If it had originated from Trump, Boehner, Gingrich or Gohmert, do you think for a second they would have taken the time to code in a photo?

My friend who sent the e-mail is not a racist. I doubt for a minute he harbors any ill will towards Mr. Obama over the fact that he was born half black. But the work of the e-mail’s original creator is another declaration of hate, a celebration from those bigots who revel in the thought of a black man criticizing a black President of the United States.