Green Tomato Recipe - Salsa Verde

I started making this salsa at home when I overplanted tomatillos in the garden one summer and ended up with far too many. It’s an amazing garnish for stewed black beans and can easily be used as a dip for chips. Often, I’ll pour some in a small sauté pan and crack an egg in, effectively poaching the egg. I pour this over some toast for a delicious breakfast or lunch. It also makes a spicy and colorful stewing sauce for pork. With tomatillos as a braising liquid the meat will come out fork tender with a hint of heat from the peppers. In order to make this salsa pantry-safe, acid should be added. Tomatillos, while a more acidic fruit, vary significantly and therefore do well with the addition of lemon juice. Store-bought lemon juice is the way to go as the acid levels have been tested, unlike in fresh fruits. Because there is so much lemon juice, this preserve really needs time in the cupboard to mellow. If you want to make a fresh salsa verde, just omit the lemon juice and store in your fridge. The sheer versatility of the final preserve and ease of preparation make this a great one to try for a novice canner. It’s a great savory addition to any well-stocked pantry.

Tomatillo Salsa

Makes about 2 pints or 4 half pints | start to finish:  1 hour 2 1/2 pounds tomatillos, papers removed 2 poblano or pasilla peppers 1 jalapeno pepper 1 medium red onion, outer skin peeled and sliced into rings 2 cloves garlic 1 bunch cilantro, chopped (about 1 cup) 1/2 cups lemon juice 2 teaspoons salt Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Toss peppers and onion rings in olive oil to coat and place on a sheet pan. Roast in oven until charred and cooked through, about 20 minutes, turning occasionally. Add to bowl and cover to let steam and cool, about 20 minutes. Remove stems and seeds from peppers. Peel out skin of peppers. Roughly chop peppers and onions and set aside in a small bowl.

Meanwhile, cut tomatillos in half. Heat a heavy skillet over medium high heat until pan is hot. In dry pan, place tomatillos in a single layer, cut side down.  Don’t move them around in the pan, just let them sit and get charred, about 8 to 12 minutes. When fully charred, add tomatillos to small bowl and cover to let steam until soft. Add garlic cloves to the pan and char in the same fashion. Continue charring tomatillos and garlic until all are cooked and softened through.

In bowl of a blender, add peppers, onions, tomatillos, garlic, cilantro, lemon juice and salt. Blend at low speed until all ingredients are just combined. Pour into preserving jars. Using a damp, clean towel, wipe the rims of the jars, and top the jars with lids and rings. Process in a water bath for 15 minutes for half pints, 25 minutes for pint jars. Remove each jar with tongs and let cool on the counter. Once cool, make sure seals are secure. Sealed jars may be stored in a cool dark cupboard for up to one year.


Originally published in Edible Seattle, Sept/Oct 2010

Organic Tomatoes

sliced tomatoUC Davis, those smarties down in California, just released a 10-year study comparing the "Influence of Organic and Conventional Crop Management Practices on the Content of Flavonoids in Tomatoes".  Flavonoids are "plant secondary metabolites" and are commonly known for their antioxidant qualities. They also help the plant produce pigment which in turn attracts polliantors. You know, all the good stuff. You can read the study here, but in essence organic tomatoes contain higher levels of minerals.  The study compared conventionally grown fruits to those grown on organic plots over the course of 10 (!) years, and noted the nutritent content.  If you take the time to read, you will note that they attribute this to increased amounts of organic matter in the soil, and the decreased need to add manures (ie fertilizer) to the gardens.

This is exactly what I encourage urban gardeners to do at home - practice crop rotation!! And build up your soil.  It really does pay in the long run. Even those fancy scientists agree.


How & Why to Prune Tomatoes

Pruned tomato vineCome summertime, when the air is hot and the sun is high, everyone comes down with a little case of tomato-fever. I'm not sure how this plant entered such epochal proportions as to measure the success of a home gardener, but it has. It seems if you can grow a good tomato, you'll be awarded with some stamp-of-approval from the tomato gods. With that, here is one more demystified trick for you to consider. TOMATO SUCKERS are the small sets of leaves that grow between the main stem, and a leafy branch of tomato plants. These suckers, if left to grow, will be one more flowering & fruiting stem for the plant. These additional fruits will ultimately compete for nutrients from the plant, and over time lessen the chances of all fruit coming to delicious maturity. Our NW season, in particular, can not support such prolific tomato production. Our summers are not uber-hot or long, and so tomatoes do well with a little pruning.

Pruning tomatoes, in this case, refers to snapping off those little suckers.  When the leaves are still small (say, 3-4 inches) you can snap them off with your fingers. If you let them get much larger, it's best to use a set of sheers. Typically, starting mid-July after the plants have some good strong growth and the weather is consistently warm, I snap off suckers without pause from the top half (*) of the plant. Any new suckers coming up from mid-July on will likely not develop in to ripe tomatoes, anyway. (Remember - too short a season!) Additionally, I prune about 30% of the green leaves off the tomato vine, allowing for air to pass through, sun to shine on the fruit (helps with sweetness) and allows me to clearly see when tomatoes are ripe.  This has never caused damage to the plant or overall tomato production.

If this is your first year pruning, start small and be cautious. You'll get the hang of it once you observe how and when different plants set fruit. Our 'job' as home cooks and gardeners, is to produce the most luscious tomato for our table. Keep that in mind, and you won't have a problem getting rid of suckers and excess leaves. I'll post more soon about different tomato varieties and why/how some can be pruned more than others. For now, this is a great start.

One last note -some people (like me) find the leaves of tomato plants highly irritable to their skin. For this reason, I always, always wear gloves when dealing with tomato plants.

* I leave some suckers on the bottom portion of all my small tomato and cherry tomato plants. Because cherry tomatoes are smaller, they ripen faster and therefore, the plant can support more production.



June & July in the Garden

By now your gardens should be planted and sprouting and growing!  Summer crops got planted throughout May and June is now a month where all of us can take a big deep breathe and relax a bit as we wait for crops to come in.  This also gives us time to plan for fall - another big time of year for gardeners.  Tree fruit and edible perennials (artichoke, mustard plants, tea plants, etc) can be planted this fall - the last window to plant before spring. July is the month notoriously dedicated to tomato staking and supports. I'm not a fan of tomato cages, but instead I build a support system of bamboo in my tomato beds.  It's cheap and uber-efficient. These are also very important months for watering.  Whilst we typically consider July & August to be the hottest months (and they are!), days are actually getting shorter and plants will gradually need less and less watering.

Even if you're having cooler temps and cloud-covered skies, it's important to remember good watering practices. Namely, seed beds (those areas planted with seed) will need a constant misting so the soil stays moist and seeds are able to germinate. That means twice a day watering may be beneficial.  Keep an eye on the seed beds and make sure they don't go dry for extended periods of time (no more than 12 hours is perfect). This ensures germination!

For heat-lovers, especially tomato plants, it's smart to water in the morning before you leave for work. Watering in the morning leaves time for plants to soak it up before the heat of day and evaporation take over. Morning water also prevents a drop in soil temperature (which happens when watering in the evening) which the heat-lovers do not appreciate. You wouldn't like to go to sit outside in wet socks at night time, would you?  Same, same.

Follow these small steps to insure a greater harvest later in the summer!

You Say Tomato...

yellow tomatoI'm stealing this post from Shelley Lance over at Tom Douglas Restuarants because she is one of the most well-written voices in Seattle. An article by Barry Estabrook, about the way many of the field hands who pick tomatoes in South Florida are treated, published in the March issue of Gourmet magazine, is a real eye-opener.  The subtitle, ” if you have eaten a tomato this winter, it might well have been picked by a person who lives in virtual slavery,” will make you think twice if you’re tempted by those firm and tasteless globes sold in the supermarkets this time of year.  Even more horrifying is the thought that this virtual slave is laboring in the United States of America. Ninety percent of the fresh, domestic tomatoes we eat come from South Florida, and the largest community of farmworkers live in Immokalee, which, according to Douglas Molloy, the chief assistant US attorney based in Fort Myers, has become ground zero for modern slavery. In Immokalee, frightened, often undocumented field hands from Mexico and South America are grimly exploited by “independent contractors called crew bosses.”  Continue reading here......

Life of a Tomato

tomatoesIt's happening. Days are getting noticeably shorter and cooler. Tank tops in the garden have been replaced by long sleeve shirts and there is a certain chill to the air - the seasons are changing. In the garden, especially given this summer's cooler temps and late start, you've likely been staring at branches of green tomatoes with hopeful eyes and fingers crossed. While we can't control the sun, we can control the plant, and there are some late-season tips for getting the ripest tomatoes in the last few weeks of warm(ish) weather.

If you haven't been trimming suckers off your plant all summer, now is the time. Essentially the branches on the main stem, suckers can be snipped off without affecting the fruit. By doing so, you are in essence re-routing the plant's energy to making a full ripe fruit, not new leaves and branches. (That is a really simplified way of looking at it, by the way, but it works.)

To further encourage ripening, now is a great time to remove all the flower clusters on the plant, as well, and even the little green tomatoes. They really won't have enough time to mature, so you're not losing anything in the process.

My last tip is a tricky one that really depends on weather, so sometimes I use this, and other times I don't. You can try and kill the vines by cutting off their water supply. This stress to the plant causes them to ripen fruit (fascinating that plants can register when they die, so they hurry to get seeds made). Trouble is.....if it rains you run the risk of disease to the plant. It's a gamble, but in a cold year like this, it could be worth it.

If anyone has any other great tips, please feel free to comment. Be on the lookout in late September for green-tomato recipes. I'm certain that will be an upcoming post!