Thursday, October 11, 2012

Making dilled green tomatoes

The last of the tomatoes from the garden
Sometime in October, it happens. The frost comes, and suddenly your tomato plants are drooping and have blackened leaves. It's time to pull them up and put your bed to rest for the winter. Yet what do you do with the tons of green tomatoes you probably still have left on the vines? Dill them!

Don't use this one
I pulled up all the plants, then carefully went over each branch to make certain I had pulled every green tomato off the vines. The bowl above was the result of my final tomato harvest, a happy sight. Green tomatoes can be fried, or made into relish, chow chow, salsa, or any number of other delicious things. My favorite is always dilled green tomatoes, though. The recipe can be made from any kind of green tomato, too: roma, grape, cherry, beefsteak, etc. I mix them all together. Be sure to go through each and every tomato separately and make certain that you only use the perfect ones. If there's a blemish or mark or split, set it aside.

Cut them up
All the tomatoes should be cut. Little ones, like this one, can be cut in half. Larger tomatoes can be sliced or quartered in the most convenient way. I try to use a wide variety of shapes and sizes, while keeping each piece bite size. Cutting the tomatoes not only makes them fit better into the jars during the canning process, it allows the brine to touch all the parts of the tomato, in and out, which makes them quite tasty. Stick with green tomatoes, too, by the way. Orange or red ones will become mushy, while the green ones stay crisp.

Aren't they beautiful?
I love the way my hands smell after I've been working with tomatoes for a bit. They are very earthy, the smell of autumn to me. The cutting up of the tomatoes, which were mostly cherries in my case, was rather meditative and I found myself getting into a rhythm and singing along with my Pandora station.

All cut up
The variations of color in green tomatoes is huge. Some are almost pink, while others are dark green. Still others are pale and almost sea-foam in hue. Once the tomatoes are all cut up, you can set them aside while you make the brine and clean up the mess that sometimes happens when you're sorting through tomatoes fresh from the garden. You can even salt the snail you accidentally brought in, and discover that they really do bubble and that you think you can hear them screaming...

My favorite cookbook!
You don't find a lot of recipes in modern cookbooks for green tomatoes. This is because we've become a nation of pre-ripened tomatoes. No one buys green tomatoes, and if you grow them yourself, you probably try and encourage them to color up. You might even have stuck the greener ones into a paper bag with a banana, trying to get the ethylene to ripen them for you. The work-around for this is to turn to older cookbooks. I use my favorite McCall's Cook Book , which was put out in 1963. It has a variety of ways to use up green tomatoes, and a large array of other useful recipes that you won't find in anything made after 1990. My copy is getting old and ratty, but I don't want to give it up!

The original recipe
Keeping in mind this is an older book, I checked out my new version of Putting Food By, and verified processing times. In 1963, they said to process the jars "as manufacturer directs." Not very helpful! But Putting Food By says that tomato pickles should be processed for 10 minutes (for pint jars) in a boiling water bath.

Salt in water
The brine is made by mixing together 2 cups of white vinegar with 1 cup of water and 2 tablespoons of salt. It's a very simple brine; you bring it to a rapid boil, then reduce the heat and simmer it for five minutes. The acidic scent of the vinegar is very pungent, burning the nose slightly. I used the fan on my stove to keep the fumes to a minimum. When boiling vinegar, never use an aluminum pot (unless it's coated). Use steel or cast iron instead.

Tomatoes in the brine
When the simmer is finished, add your cut tomatoes and bring to a boil again. Turn off the heat, and then it's ready to spoon into the jars. Speaking of the jars, they should be in your water bath canner, upside down with a couple of inches of water in the bottom. Bring the water to a low boil, then turn it down to keep the jars hot and ready for you. There are racks (like the one in this Canning Kit ) to make getting the jars in and out easier, or you can use a jar lifter like I do. Just don't stick your hands in there - it's hot!

The tools: cookbooks, jar lifter, hot pad, spoon, ladle
Take a hot jar out and set it on a steady surface. I like to put mine into a metal bowl with a flat bottom to minimize mess if I spill. Use a Wide Mouth Funnel to get the tomatoes into your jars. I used pint jars and one jelly jar for these because I wanted them to be for gifts at Christmas and Yuletide. Jelly Jars are very pretty with their diamond pattern, and hold a couple of servings worth of tomatoes, just perfect for being wrapped up.

A filled jar
In each jar, before adding the tomatoes and brine, put a split clove or two of garlic and a small head of fresh dill (or a half teaspoon of dry). Using a slotted spoon, put the tomatoes into the jar, then top it up with brine. The tomatoes should be about 3/4" from the top of the jar, and the brine should completely cover them. A good rule is to add the brine until it touches the bottom of your funnel. Use a long knife or plastic tool to release any bubbles in the jar, top up with brine as necessary, then put on a hot lid and ring. Put your jar right back into the canner, right side up this time. Repeat this process until all your jars are filled.

Jars in the canner
When all the jars are filled, lidded, and in your canner,  you'll need to add more water. For water bath canning, you want to have an inch to an inch and a half of water over top of the lids. Sticking a finger into the water (before it's boiling!) you should be able to get almost to your second knuckle before touching the jars. Bring the heat up to a boil, and once the water is boiling, put the lid on your canner. If you're using a pressure canner like I do, be careful not to lock the lid in place - this is not a time when you want the pressure to build up.

The finished product, looking awful nice!
Once the lid is on your canner, set your timer for ten minutes if you're using pint or smaller jars, and 15 minutes if you're using quarts. When the timer goes off, turn off the heat and wait for the boiling to subside, then take off the lid and use your jar lifter to take the jars out. Set them neatly and carefully on a counter or other flat space where they can be undisturbed for at least a couple of hours, until they are cool to the touch. I always put mine onto an absorbent dish towel, which protects my counters from the heat and keeps them from dribbling water all over.

If you want to give your canned dill tomatoes as gifts, you can try your hand at decorating them. It's pretty easy, and there are lots of ways to do it. Some people like to sew fancy 'hats' for the jars, held on by ribbon or string. Others will use stamps to create little tags and tie them on with seasonal ribbon and appropriate decorations like jingle bells. You might enjoy making lid labels using scrapbooking or wrapping paper. There are dozens of ways to do it, and you're limited only by your imagination (and your budget).

 To fill 5 pint jars, you will want to follow these directions:

  • 3 lb medium green tomatoes, washed
  • 2 cups white vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons salt
  • 3-6 cloves garlic, peeled and split
  • 5 fresh dill springs or 1/2 teaspoon dried dill per jar
Remove any stems from your tomatoes, and cut into bite size pieces. Cherry and grape tomatoes need only be split in half. In a saucepan, combine vinegar with 1 cup water and the salt, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, for five minutes. With a slotted spoon, ladle the tomatoes into the hot jars. To each jar add 1/2 clove of garlic and a dill sprig. Fill with the vinegar brine to within a half inch of the top. Add the lid and ring, and process for 10 minutes for pints, 15 minutes for quarts.
-- Adapted from Dilled Green-Tomato Pickles from McCall's Cookbook 1963 Edition.

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