Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Cardoso Solution

Dear reader, near the end of the harvest season there is an overabundance of green tomatoes. As the weather grows cooler and the days shorter, these fruits don’t manage to reach full-red maturity on the vine. It’s better to pick them than to let the first frosts bite them. This is why in late September and through most of October, the market near Culinary Propaganda Headquarters is flooded with bushels of these green globes, usually priced quite modestly. Similar situations probably occur at markets and greengrocers near you. But how many fried green tomatoes can one eat? What else can one do with this bounty?

I knew no answer to this question until I encountered a force of nature called Mrs. Cardoso, my feisty Portuguese landlady. A few years ago, on a balmy late-September morning, not long after I occupied the apartment on the upper floor of Villa Cardoso, a one-litre jar with a green, vegetable-like substance materialized on the table on my terrace. On it there was a note that said:

There was no indication as to the exact nature of this concoction. Curiosity piqued, I wasted no time to crack open the jar and inspect its contents. As I removed the lid, an enchanting garlic and herb aroma, with a vinegary undertone, immediately tickled my nostrils and opened the salivary floodgates. I dug in, still not quite knowing what I was getting into. I removed a surprisingly firm, green, herb- and garlic-speckled disk from the jar, which I eventually recognized as a slice of tomato.

It tasted better even better than it smelled, and it had a wonderful crunch to it. It was hard to stop eating this. I went through a quarter of the jar in one go. I later offered some to Einar Einarsson, my roommate. Being from Iceland, he views most vegetables other than the potato with great skepticism. Though initially hesitant, he too quickly fell under the spell of the Mrs. Cardoso’s green tomatoes. Another quarter of the jar vanished in a matter of minutes. The remainder got decimated within a day.

I was hooked and I needed more. My upbringing prevented me from asking Mrs. Cardoso outright for another jar. I expressed gratitude profusely and flattered her excessively, hoping she would get the hint. It worked, but the second jar only lasted two days. I knew I could not go on supplicating for more, so instead I humbly asked Mrs. Cardoso to reveal the recipe. She was more than happy indulge this request. She invited me over and we made a new batch together so that I could see the process. And now, dear reader, I pass this knowledge on to you.

The recipe has never existed in written form, until now. Mrs. Cardoso makes her marinated green tomatoes by eye and, since I learned from her, so do I. The last time I made them (whilst shooting the accompanying video), I kept track of my use of the key ingredients to have a ballpark idea of the required quantities. Please understand, dear reader, that this method for preparing marinated green tomatoes is not an exact science. You must treat the recipe as an outline, not a chemical formula. You will try it a few times with a smaller batch of green tomatoes to get a feel for it. I enjoin you to adjust things as you see fit. In particular, the quantities of vinegar and of the different flavourings—garlic, chilli, and herbs—are flexible. You will reduce or omit any you don’t like, boost the ones that you do. I list the suggested quantities for 1 kilo of green tomatoes, for easy multiplication. I usually make it in 5-10 kilo batches.

  • a large stainless steel bowl
  • a kitchen towel
  • a vegetable peeler or pairing knife for coring
  • a chef’s knife for slicing and chopping
  • tongs or salad utensils for mixing
  • jars for storage

  • 1 kg green tomatoes
  • 5 tablespoons pickling salt or coarse sea salt
  • 2-4 cloves of garlic
  • 2-3 branches of flat leaf (Italian) parsley
  • handful of fresh basil leaves
  • handful of fresh mint leaves
  • 5 sprigs of fresh oregano
  • 5 sprigs of fresh thyme
  • 5 sprigs of fresh rosemary
  • 1-2 red Italian (or similar) chilies
  • 2 teaspoons of fennel seeds (optional)
  • ½ cup of white vinegar or white wine vinegar
  • ¼ cup of olive oil
A note about the tomatoes: This recipe must be made with under-ripe, hard tomatoes. Beware of tomato varieties that are green when ripe! Ripe tomatoes will lack crunch and they will probably turn to mush when you try to toss them with the other ingredients. I have tried marinating various varieties of tomatoes and I find this method works best with run-of-the-mill, round field tomatoes. I have tried green plum tomatoes (both Roma and San Marzano) and did not much like the results.

A note about the garlic: You will not use garlic imported from China, especially the ones sold four-for-a-dollar in the sock-like packages. I have no prejudice against the Chinese nation, and have nothing but admiration for their culinary traditions. It’s just the garlic they export seems to invariably lack potency and taste bitter. You will pony up for locally grown garlic if possible, or at the very least for good quality garlic from one of the warm and bountiful parts of your continent. Here in North America, that means California. The cloves should be hard as rock, creamy white (not yellowish!) on the inside, and sticky to touch. It will no doubt cost you more, but your obedience will be rewarded.
  1. You will wash and wipe dry the tomatoes. You must core all of them with the peeler or pairing knife.
  2. You will slice the tomatoes about 0.5 cm thick. Place them in the stainless steel bowl and sprinkle salt as you go along. The idea is to sprinkle some salt over all of the slices.
  3. You will cover the sliced and salted tomatoes with the kitchen towel. You will leave to cure for 24 hours.
  4. You will drain the fluid that has leached out of the tomatoes. Do this either by holding them down in the stainless steel bowl using a lid or a large plate or by transferring them to another bowl using a slotted spoon.
  5. You must now strip all of the fresh herbs, except the parsley, from their stems. You will peel the garlic cloves and stem the chili.
  6. You will finely chop all of the herbs, the garlic, and the chili. Use you chefs knife or a mezzaluna to do this. Chop, chop, chop. It must be very fine.
  7. You must put the chopped herbs, garlic, and chili in the bowl with tomatoes. Add the fennel seeds, if using. Pour in the olive oil and vinegar. Toss the tomatoes to thoroughly mix together all of the ingredients.

The tomatoes are now ready to eat. Whatever you don’t eat right away, you must pack tightly into sterilized jars and store in the fridge. They will keep for months.

You can enjoy these as a side dish or as a condiment. In the latter role, they are versatile: they go well in sandwiches, with cheeses, meats, or both! I love to use them on grilled pork chops with cheese. Brine a pork chop, fry it in butter and olive oil or grill it. After you’ve cooked one side, turn it over and cover it with slices of sharp cheese (aged cheddar and gruyere work nicely) plus a few slices of marinated green tomato on top. Be sure let the cheese melt and mingle with the meat the tomatoes. As with all meats, when it’s cooked, remove from the pan or grill and be sure to let it rest a few minutes before digging in. This allows the boiling juices inside the meat to settle.
Good appetite.

PS. You will follow Szef Bartek on Twitter @SzefBartek.