Fall brings only one loss for me - the tomato. No matter how many hundreds of them I may eat (stuffed or stewed, kebabed or gazpacheod), no matter how many gallons of them I preserve, I feel an enormous sadness when that first killing frost takes my tomato plants.
I realize then just how long it will be before I eat another firm but juicy tomato, red all the way through from a hot summer's sun. There's a flavor to the home or locally grown tomato that's unmatched by the store-bought, "hot-house" variety.
The tomato is the first vegetable I ever grew - it rated the one sunny spot in our tiny Capital Hill front yard.
Now we live on an old farm in Loudoun County where I have plenty of space, an enormous garden and visions of feeding the Third World. My tomatoes thrive, like most everything else here. Some years I never quite get them all staked, some years I forget to feed them, rarely do I track down that terrible tomato worm, never do I spray. The tomato persists - healthy, profuse, delicious.
Vine-ripened tomatoes even withstand that most difficult test, memory. My tomatoes taste every bit as good as those my great aunt used to serve as a summer afternoon's pick-me-up (she didn't much believe in giving children sweets). The tomatoes I buy at the Farmer's Market (before mine have turned red) taste just as wonderful as those my father, a giant with a gargantuan appetite, taught me to add to the snaps, the black-eyed peas, the saccotash on a summer's supper table.
Over the years as my tastes have grown more sophisticated, I've found different tomato dishes - subtle soft omelets, peppery hot gazpachos, cold capered eggplants. I have never learned, or wanted, to improve on its flavor. But here are some ways to prolong, briefly, the tomato's life:
Fall often comes in spurts to the Washington area. There may be one or two quick frosts followed by days, even weeks of sunny, mild weather. When the weatherman calls for that first freeze, try covering your plants overnight with old blankets or sheets.
You may have to put up with a few false alarms and some funny looks from your neighbors, but you can always pick your tomatoes in front of them and wonder (out loud, of course) why their plants are all shriveled and dead. If you do make it through that first cold spell, be sure to pinch off all blossoms and the tops of your plants. This helps them to put all remaining growth into producing fruit.
One way to beat a killing frost is to dig up your tomato plants (roots and all) just before a freeze and hang them upside down in a garage or root cellar. I'm not sure this ripening process works any better than whatever commercial growers do to produce those hard pinkish specimens they call tomatoes, but old-timers swear by it.
Even if the cold sneaks up on you, all is not completely lost. Make the best of it by picking all the remaining tomatoes - red and green. Ripe or nearly ripe fruit can be held for awhile in a shady, cool place (never a sunny window sill - the sun will cook all the vitamins out before they get to you). Even the hard green tomatoes can be enjoyed.
Some of my favorite green-tomato dishes are FRIED GREEN TOMATOES
This an old family treat that is delicious for breakfast or with grilled meats.
To serve two, wash and slice 3 or 4 tomatoes. Salt, pepper and dredge in flour (or a combination of flour and cornmeal). Fry in bacon fat or butter until brown and crispy. Drain on paper towels briefly before serving. GREEN TOMATO PRESERVES (Makes about 6 pints) 2 quarts green tomatoes 6 cups sugar 2 lemons 1 tablespoon powdered cinamon and/or ginger
Wash tomatoes, removing any spots. Slice thinly and mix with sugar. Let stand overnight.
Drain the juice into a heavy kettle and boil down until it becomes syrupy. Add tomatoes, lemons (seeded and thinly sliced) and either cinnamon or ginger (or a mixture of both). Simmer until tomatoes are clear and liquid has thickened.
Pack in sterilized half-pint or pint jars, seal and process by the water-bath method for 10 to 15 minutes. PICCALILLI (Makes about 8 pints) 2 dozen large green tomatoes (approximately) 8 to 10 large onions 8 to 10 sweet peppers (preferably red and green) 1 bunch celery 1 1/2 cups pickling salt (non-iodized) 5 cups sugar 1 1/2 quarts of white vinegar 2 tablespoons whole mixed pickling spices
Wash and coarsely chop tomatoes, onions and peppers, removing seeds, stems and any blemishes. String and finely chop celery ribs, reserving the leaves to add to spice bag. Mix the vegetables with salt in a large enamel or glass bowl and let stand overnight.
Drain vegetables and combine all ingredients in a large heavy kettle, adding pickling spices and celery leaves tied in a cloth bag. Bring mixture to a boil.Reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes.
Remove spice bag and pack relish in sterilized pint jars. Seal and process in boiling water bath for 10 minutes.