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.