My recent quest for green tomatoes turned out to be far more complicated than I ever imagined. Perhaps you are wondering why I want green tomatoes. After all, most people prefer them ripened. Normally, I do too.
However, last fall I spent a few days in North Carolina touring the Biltmore and sampled some really great food while there. Of particular interest was a salad featuring fried green tomatoes coupled with ripe tomatoes. It was outstanding.
I visited in the autumn when the mountains were aglow with vibrant colors with the threat of frost on the horizon. No doubt, the green tomatoes were plucked from the vines so they would not be wasted, and then turned into the tasty treat of fried green tomatoes.
Boldly, I planned to replicate the farm-to-table food I sampled there, including the fried green tomato salad, in a cooking class.
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Normally, on a July day in Kansas, green tomatoes would not be difficult to find. Our plants would be loaded with green tomatoes, and some would even be ripening by now. Checking the two plants in my raised bed, I knew I was out of luck. One scrawny plant looked like it would not survive, and the other had lush foliage but not a single bloom.
My gardening friends told me that it was a hard year for tomatoes. One farmers market vendor explained that the early hot weather we experienced prevented the tomatoes from setting onto the plants. And the few that had set on were not ripe yet.
Undaunted, I asked him if I could purchase about a dozen green tomatoes from him next market day, carefully explaining that I had a roomful of students who wanted to learn how to use them in a recipe.
He looked at me, totally appalled that I would ask him to pick his tomatoes before they ripened, and shook his head. He was dead-set on seeing his few tomatoes ripen on the vine and had little sympathy for my plight.
After several phone calls following a trail of leads, I finally nailed down a source for green tomatoes. Now, at last, I can make the fried green tomato salad I sampled and will have some happy students.
Speaking of tomatoes — One of our readers has a question about storing tomatoes.
Q: I always store them in the refrigerator. Now I am hearing that tomatoes should be stored at room temperature. Which way is really better?
A: According to food scientist Harold McGee, refrigerating tomatoes damages the membranes inside the fruit walls, causing the tomato to lose flavor, and they develop a mealy texture.
Storing tomatoes at room temperature is the recommended method. However, if you do store them in the refrigerator, remove them a day before you plan to use them. The enzymes will reactivate and boost the flavor back up. Perhaps the best plan is to use those fresh ripe tomatoes right away while they are at their peak flavor.