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Ever since Fannie Flagg wrote "Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe," I have wanted to write a column about green tomatoes. Considering how late my tomatoes started producing this year and the abundance of green tomatoes still on my vines it seems an appropriate time to address this subject.
Green tomatoes have so many uses that they should never go unpicked. Everyone has plenty of green tomatoes at the end of the season. My favorite use of green tomato is to store them to ripen later in the season. Mature green tomatoes that are slightly white on the bottom can be picked and stored at about 68 degrees F. to ripen properly. Don't place tomatoes in direct sunlight or in the refrigerator. Fresh picked tomatoes will not ripen below 50 degrees F. or keep well above 80 degrees F. Methods for storing are almost endless, but I've used these methods or gleaned them from other gardeners. One excellent storage method utilizes fruit boxes. These have dividers that separate the fruit and are just the size for medium to large tomatoes. Place the tomatoes in layers until the box is full. Then store them in a cool area. For long-term storage, keep tomatoes below 50 degrees F. in an area with low humidity. Bring several out at a time and let them sit at room temperature to finish ripening.
Some gardeners prefer to pull the entire vine, hang them upside down in a shed or other sheltered area. I tried this method once but was not pleased with the results. The soil and dead leaves falling all over the cellar made a real mess. You also have to check the tomatoes frequently. As they ripened they fell to the floor and were smashed.
To store red tomatoes, choose commercial type tomatoes with a tougher skin. Pik Rite, Pik Red and other canning-type tomatoes store for up to two months in the refrigerator. Pick the tomatoes as they turn pink at the end of the season. Wash tomatoes and dry them well. Put them in the refrigerator in an area where they are not touching one another. Tomatoes can store from now through Thanksgiving and even until Christmas.
The best storage tomatoes I've had are the Long Keeper. Gardeners have kept these until February and March the following year. I must admit that my test was not very scientific because I ate all of mine before I had a chance to see how long they would really last. Long Keepers plants are available from local growers in the spring, or seed is available from Burpee Seed Company. The fruits are orange when you pick them in the fall, but the inside flesh is red and tasty.
If your green tomatoes are not ripening properly, wrap them in pieces of newspaper or put them in a brown paper bag. To further speed ripening, slip an apple in the bag. The ethylene gas emitted by the fruit and trapped in the bag speeds the ripening process.
Although these tomatoes won't have the full sun-ripened flavor of those ripened during the growing season, they make a reasonably tasty treat. This imitates the process done commercially. Tomatoes purchased during the winter are picked green, then shipped, then given a dose of ethylene gas to turn them red.
In my opinion, these home-ripened tomatoes are better because taste is not the primary concern of commercial tomato breeders. They concentrate on developing tomatoes that can be picked, loaded onto a truck and travel hundreds of miles. After a trip to the store they must still look good enough to sit on a grocery shelf for several days.
One problem with picking green tomatoes right now is that the recent rains have cracked many fruits around the stem end. While cracking is not harmful, it makes storage more difficult because molds and other fungi develop in the cracks. Use severely cracked tomatoes for another purpose. Although fried green tomatoes are not extremely popular in this area, they make a tasty treat for green tomatoes. Use a batter suitable for frying eggplant or other vegetables. Green tomatoes can be processed into other dishes, including green tomato jam, mince meat, relish and probably best of all, green tomato salsa. Green tomato salsa is also made from tomatillos, but if you have no tomatillos, green tomatoes are an excellent substitute.
The booklet "Salsa Recipes for Canning" has green tomato salsa recipes and is available at the USU Website at http://extension.usu.edu/htm/publications/publication=9284&custom=1 . If you can any tomato products, use recipes that are tested and approved. Freeze non-tested salsa recipes to prevent danger of spoilage or toxicity.
Green tomatoes make reasonably good compost if you can find no other use for them. But with so many uses, it is worth trying another alternative. Whether you prefer your green tomatoes fried, candied, stewed or stored, pick them now and get many months of enjoyment out of your favorite crop.