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Groundwork: Tomato swan song

Volunteers work the asparagus beds at Green Spring Gardens. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

The thermometer went down to around 40 degrees the other night, ruinous for the basil but the tomato vines at Green Spring Gardens soldier on.

Recipe Included

Just a month ago, you could pick plump red fruit that still radiated the sun's captured warmth, but now in pumpkin season you take the last of the tomatoes any way you can. The berries (yes, they're berries) ripen from the inside out, so any fruit that is just beginning to redden through the green can be picked and will finish indoors. It may not be as sweet as September's harvest, but it still will be full of that garden fresh flavor.

If frost threatens and you have tomatoes that have reached mature size, though firmly green, you can do one of two things: Try to ripen them away from the garden, or use them green. For ripening, place the fruit on a shelf indoors, cover them with layers of newspapers and add a ripe apple to the mix. The apple gives off ethylene gas, which is a ripening agent for tomatoes. Check them often and use them before they show signs of rotting, whatever the color. Some gardeners pull up whole vines and hang them upside down in a shed or garage, waiting for the fruit to ripen.

Green tomatoes have their own qualities -- not as mouth-wateringly delicious as vine-ripened fruit, but with an interesting acid flavor that can be put to good use. Read on for Cindy Brown's solution to the quandary.

Green tomato. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

The garden is humming along, the Asian greens are maturing, as are the summer planted cabbages, heading nicely. The lettuce is beginning to reach harvestable stage. The warm-season Malabar spinach, its vines climbing a netted trellis, is still delicious and beautiful, with deep purple stems and pink flowers. The deer have thinned it nicely. In the bed below it, Cindy and the gang have put in transplants of cabbages and kale in one of those risky experiments that often work. If the weather stays relatively mild until the end of the year, the cabbages will mature and head up. They will take a few degrees of frost, and it would require a prolonged cold snap below 25 degrees or lower to damage them. The kale is hardier and will grow through the winter.

There is something about the fall garden that is so rewarding: The soil is toasty and the air at times is crisp. But there's plenty of sunlight. Plants such as turnips and cabbages respond so well. "Even the fennel is beginning to bulb, which it doesn't do in the spring," said Cindy. The eggplants have been ripped out and in their stead, the gardeners have put in transplants of parsnip, parsley and endive.

The major task of the week, though, has been the renovation of the two asparagus beds at the entrance to the garden. One was planted seven years ago, the other a few years earlier, and they have not been performing as well as they should. Asparagus is a perennial with fleshy roots that radiate from a crown planted a few inches below the soil surface. Most of the foliage was cut back and the crowns dug and lifted. With the beds cleared of their inhabitants, the gardeners cleared all the weeds, loosened up the soil and added heaps of finished compost.

Asparagus crowns. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

The asparagus beds also have been invaded a bit by the roots of the adjoining hop vine, and some of those were hacked back for good measure. It will be interesting to see how the asparagus responds,and whether there will be a harvest next spring. The asparagus may take a couple of years to get over the shock of it all. The Sungold cherry tomatoes are still fruiting, and, being small, ripen quickly. Even in the cooling, darkening days of late October, the garden offers a piquant reminder of the summer.

-- Adrian Higgins

Cindy: I am getting nervous; the temperatures are dropping and my tomato plants are covered with green tomatoes. The likelihood of them ripening on the vines at this time of the year is slim unless the skin of the fruit has at least a bit of a blush. I used to dread this time of the year, but now that I’ve discovered the winey-sweet flavor green tomatoes add to a recipe, I embrace the dropping temperatures.

You can wrap all the green tomatoes in newspaper and store them in a cardboard box; waiting patiently until the fruit ripens before cooking them. But there are so many recipes that can be enhanced with the tangy fruit, why wait? Add chopped green tomatoes to ground beef and browned onions for a different-tasting pasta sauce or a green sloppy Joe sandwich. Layer them in a pie crust, top with mozzarella cheese and bake. Make Spanish rice with green tomatoes instead of ones. And, of course, for the large fruits, make fried green tomatoes (dip sliced fruit in buttermilk, coat with seasoned cornmeal and fry in olive oil).

Green Tomato Chutney
Makes five 8-ounce jars

After using all the good-size tomatoes, you are usually faced with a few bags of tiny, hard fruit. This recipe is perfect for using up those oddballs. It makes a wonderful sauce to serve with ham, turkey, pork and roasted chicken. Sweet and tangy is always a good counterpoint to rich, roasted meats.

Another great way to use chutney is on grilled cheese sandwiches; layer the chutney between the bread and cheese. Such a concoction almost might make you forget that the chutney heralds the end of home-grown tomato season.

MAKE AHEAD: The cooled chutney can be refrigerated for up to 1 week, or frozen for up to 6 months.

One 3-inch cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
2 tablespoons pickling spices
3 pounds green tomatoes, cored
2 medium Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and chopped
2 large sweet onions, chopped (4 cups)
1 cup golden raisins (may substitute dark raisins)
1 cup sultanas (raisins made from green grapes; may substitute golden raisins)
3 medium cloves garlic, minced
2 small serrano chili peppers (not seeded), stemmed and finely chopped
1 2- or 3-inch piece peeled ginger root, grated (1 tablespoon)
2 cups malt vinegar
1 cup packed light brown sugar

Have ready a large square of cheesecloth, a length of kitchen twine and clean, sterilized 1/2-pint (8-ounce) jars with new bands and lids, or heatproof plastic containers.
Wrap the cinnamon stick, peppercorns and pickling spices in the cheesecloth, then use the twine to tie the cheesecloth into a sachet; make sure the twine is long enough to hang over the edge of the pot (for easy extraction).

Combine the green tomatoes, apples, onions, raisins, sultanas, garlic, serrano chili peppers, ginger, malt vinegar and brown sugar in a large soup pot over medium-high heat; bring to a full boil, then reduce the heat and cook uncovered for about 1 1/2 hours, stirring frequently, until the mixture thickens to form a caramel-colored chutney. Remove from the heat; discard the spice sachet.

Ladle the chutney into the jars or containers, leaving at least 1/2 inch of headspace at the top. Let cool, then seal tightly and refrigerate for 1 week, or cool the chutney in containers, seal and freeze for up to 6 months.

Per tablespoon serving: 32 calories, 0 g protein, 8 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 3 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 6 g sugar

By Adrian Higgins  |  October 26, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork , Recipes  | Tags: Adrian Higgins, Green Spring Gardens  
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