As the temperature begins to finally cool down, the brief and glorious highlight of my year - tomato season - is not until spring later this year. Of course, that's still a long way off, but green tomato season can be anytime really.
With the exception of varieties that stay green as they ripen, green tomatoes are just unripe tomatoes. It's tempting to compare them to tomatillos, but since they're the fruit of entirely different plants, green tomatoes and tomatillos aren't actually all that similar in flavour or texture.
Tomatillos are pleasantly tangy and crunchy when raw, but raw green tomatoes can be pretty astringent — which makes them a poor substitute for both ripe, peak-season tomatoes and tomatillos.
Although they're completely safe to eat - and definitely not poisonous, as a popular myth suggests - we generally don't actively seek out unripe fruit.
You might wonder, then, why anyone would bother with green tomatoes in the first place. Forcing them into a ripe tomato- or tomatillo-shaped hole ends only in disappointment, but accepting green tomatoes as a distinct (and worthy) ingredient really pays off.
Unlike ripe tomatoes, green ones stand up to heat exceptionally well. This is why fried green tomatoes are so good: cooking them mellows out their raw, puckering tartness, which then becomes an excellent counterpoint to the salty, crunchy fried bits. Plus, their firm texture means they won't turn to mush in hot oil.
Fried green tomatoes are a classic for a reason, but they're not exactly groundbreaking; besides, I hate deep-frying stuff at home. Here are three less-common preparations for green tomatoes to tide you over until spring, any of which can also be used to make sad, crunchy, out-of-season supermarket tomatoes worth eating.
Pickled Green Tomatoes
Sliced into half-moons and plunged into a spicy-sweet brine, green tomato pickles are stupidly delicious. The brine plays up their natural acidity, and they retain that firm, almost-crunchy texture for months. When I spotted the first round of green tomatoes at the market in March, I knew what I had to do.
I use this New York Times recipe, which has you rest the salted tomatoes and onions on a rack overnight in the fridge.
This step is annoying but extremely effective; if you don't have the fridge space for it, the ice-covered maceration technique from this Smitten Kitchen bread-and-butter pickles recipe should do nicely.
I do recommend two changes: salt the brine to taste (I used about two teaspoons of table salt) and add some garam masala if you have it — the cardamom in particular is perfect with green tomatoes.
Once you've made your pickles, you can eat them straight out of the jar, put them on sandwiches, or use them like cornichons - green tomato tartar sauce rules. You can also chop them finely with fresh herbs for a flavorful chutney-like condiment (which is especially good on curry) or purée the slices with Dijon, oil, and a splash of brine for an intensely good vinaigrette.
Green Tomato Bouyiourdi
This classic Greek meze has a nearly unbeatable payoff-to-effort ratio; you barely need a recipe, but anyone who eats it will want one anyways. Here's how to make it.
Heat your oven to 220ºC. Roughly chop a green tomato and a hot pepper or two (I supplemented a poblano pepper with some dried árbol chiles), and thinly slice half an onion. Season the vegetables with salt and a glug of olive oil, then layer in a baking dish with thick slabs of feta.
Honestly, this could have done with way more olive oil.
Drizzle generously with olive oil (seriously, have at it) and a few pinches of dried or fresh oregano. Cover tightly with foil, transfer the dish to a sheet pan, and bake for half an hour; remove the foil and bake or broil until deeply browned. Serve hot with crusty bread, a salad, and cold wine or beer — or fried eggs and toast.
Even this bare-bones "recipe" is negotiable. Don't like onions or peppers? Skip 'em! Feeding a crowd? Spread the seasoned vegetables evenly on a foiled sheet pan, top with feta, olive oil, and oregano, then bake or broil. My neighbourhood Greek restaurant does both of these things: They top a single layer of thinly-sliced tomatoes with slabs of feta, drench the whole deal in olive oil, and broil under a salamander. It's bouyiourdi stripped down to its barest, most essential form, and it's incredible.
Green Tomato Upside-Down Cornbread
I'm a creature of habit when it comes to baking, but Stella Parks usually inspires me to try new things. Her recent upside-down blueberry muffin-cake hybrid recipe set the gears in my head a-turning: I had a bunch of green tomatoes and I love skillet cornbread more than most things, and those two things sure seemed like a perfect match.
Every so often, I feel completely justified in tooting my own horn. Now is one of those times. The green tomatoes retain enough of their shape and tang to be recognisable, while the butter and onions provide some much-needed richness.
The result: A tangy, savoury, upside-down cornbread cake. All you need is to make it is your favourite cornbread recipe (mine is Alex Guarnaschelli's skillet cornbread), butter, an onion of some sort, and green tomatoes.
Preheat your oven to 200ºC. Prepare your cornbread batter. Roughly chop two pounds of green tomatoes and thinly slice a medium onion, a very large shallot, or a handful of scallions.
Melt 3 tablespoons of butter in a ten-inch oven-safe skillet (I use stainless steel) over medium-high heat. Add the vegetables and half a teaspoon of adobo seasoning or salt.
Cook until the vegetables release most of their water and a rich fond develops, ten to fifteen minutes; riper, red-around-the-edges tomatoes will take longer to brown. Watch the pan closely (all that butter makes it prone to scorching) but don't stir it like crazy.
When the vegetables are nicely browned, sneak a taste and add more adobo or salt if needed. Add another pat of butter to the pan, swirl gently to coat the sides, and pour the cornbread batter right on top. Smooth the surface with a spatula or spoon and transfer skillet to the oven. Bake for 25 minutes, then test with a toothpick or butter knife; if the tester doesn't come out clean, give it another five.
To serve, run a butter knife around the edge of the cornbread and place a heatsafe plate on the skillet. Using oven mitts to hold the handle and the plate, carefully flip it over. Let the skillet rest on the plate for 30 seconds, then gently lift it up and off; the cornbread should unmold nicely. If not, scrape whatever's left into the pan back onto the cornbread. Serve on its own with sour cream and hot sauce, or as an accompaniment to a hearty, spicy stew.
Picking a few green tomatoes off the vine early in the season can help prevent a kitchen full of quickly-rotting fruit come August, but even if you don't grow your own, I hope these recipes inspire you to see the potential of underripe tomatoes. Patience can be overrated - and I think green tomatoes are living proof.