Some garden chores we do without thinking much of it. You know the ones I mean — the weeding, cutting plants back, staking them, crushing caterpillars or looking for eggs on the underside of a leaf. But others have more weight because they are harbingers of their seasons. As we move ever more firmly out of summer territory and into the persistently nostalgic realm of fall we have been performing the requisite garden chores — sowing garlic, peas and broad beans, and tending the cool weather veg. And last weekend, I cast off my final moorings to summer as we gathered the green tomatoes.
The sun abandoned us last weekend and a chilly rain fell. At night, cold winds with ice on their breath rushed down from the mountain, and sent us in search of woolens stowed away months ago. We retreated to the warmth of the wood stove, with chestnuts crackling merrily atop its lid. I finally had to face it — no tomato was going to ripen in weather like this. Ali and I cut the plants down and gathered the hard green fruit. At the end of it, we had about 10 kilos. (The tomato plants had cheered up once the heat receded a bit, and when it started to rain a little on top of that, they started fruiting like mad.)
10 kilos is a lot of fried green tomatoes, but luckily we had other plans, too. While we were living in Nairobi, my mother learned how to make green tomato chutney, and it has been a staple of our pantry ever since. It is lovely, gingery, vinegary stuff that keeps forever — we have had bottles for years and they just mellow and mature, getting yummier as the time goes by. Somehow, years have passed since we last made chutney (last year, for instance, was not a banner year for tomatoes in our garden), so I told my mom that we would have to make a big batch. And boy did we ever — not once, but twice!
Let me be very clear about one thing here — my mom did all the work. My sole contribution to this process was to get all the ingredients and talk up the importance of having lots of chutney. That got my mom all fired up, and no sooner had I mentioned that I hoped we could get it done before the tomatoes started to ripen than my mother started chopping tomatoes. She made two batches of chutney, each using 4 kilos of tomatoes. Since you may have more or less than that, I am writing the recipe for one kilo, so that it can be easily multiplied or divided.
GREEN TOMATO CHUTNEY
1 kg. green tomatoes (I like to weigh them after I chop them)
65 g. ginger
100 g. garlic
500 ml cider vinegar
350-400 g brown sugar
1 T Garam Masala
1. Chop your tomatoes and mince the garlic and ginger.
2. Toss them in a non-reactive pot and add the vinegar and sugar. Simmer over low heat until the whole thing gets dark brown and thickens to your liking. You will want to stir it once in a while, particularly towards the end.
3. If, like us, you did not stir enough towards the end and it starts to catch on the bottom and get a bit scorched, don’t panic. Just dump it all out without agitating the bottom of the pot, and no one will be the wiser. As penance, you may eat as much of the burnt chutney as you can stand, but it’s not really necessary. Just soak your pot and let it go.
4. Stir in the Garam Masala, and add a bit more if you think it needs it.
5. Pack it in jars, eat it out of the pot, hoard it, give it away. (If you want to can it, you could do what I did and sterilize your jars, pack them and then process them in a water bath for 5 minutes.)
We ended up with 10 big (650 ml) jars of chutney and a few bowls for the table. Amazingly, it did not deplete the tomatoes, so I am pickling the rest.
I use the formula for sour pickles that can be found in Sandor Katz’s excellent book, Wild Fermentation. It is one of my favorite books about food because it is about so much more than just food (as if food weren’t enough!). He recommends a 5.4% brine solution, which is to my liking. The only change I have made is that I throw a few chickpeas in because that’s what folks around here do, and this is pickling country!
2 litres water
108 grams non-iodized salt
2 heads garlic
a pinch of peppercorns
3 or 4 chickpeas
vegetables — green tomatoes, for example. Cucumbers work too!
a handful grape, horseradish or cherry leaves (keeps things crunchy, but you can make respectable pickles without these)
1. Dissolve the salt in the water. Pack your jars — dill first, then everything else and cover with brine.
2. You need to keep your vegetables submerged in the brine. I can never find a plate that will fit into any of the jars that I use for pickling and I am sadly lacking in crocks, so this is what I do: I get a gallon sized ziploc bag and fill it about a third full with brine. Then I let all the air out before I seal it and I end up with a floppy brine bladder. This fits into any space and keeps everything in the brine and out of the air where it belongs.
3. You will most likely encounter scum while your pickles are fermenting. Skim it, and if you remove the brine bladder and it has scum all over it, it is easy to rinse off.
4. Depending on the weather, you could start tasting your pickles after 5 (hot weather) to 7 (cooler weather) days. When they are as sour as you want them to be, move them into the fridge (or if you have a nice chilly basement, that works too).
And lest I sound too gloomy about fall, let me close with a look at some of the good things about this season: