This morning, I picked my day’s supply of ripe tomatoes and found myself excited by the number of green ones left on the vine.
Some, naturally, will ripen – we have a lot of warm weather left in the season. But some will never ripen and then I can make my mother’s recipe for pomodori verdi sott’olio.
I can’t wait though and so I pick a dozen or so green tomatoes and search my exercise books in which I have written my mother and auntie’s recipes.
Sadly, neither of these formidable women is with us, but I can hear their voices, feel the touch of their hands, laugh at their mock indignation as I ask if I can process a dough in the food processor or warm the milk/oil/water in the microwave. I know better, of course, but I love the way they draw themselves up to their full height of one and a half metres, deliberately and slowly wipe their hands on their aprons, shake their heads disapprovingly and then laugh as it dawns on them: “Mi stai prendendo in giro?” they’ll ask in exasperation.
The recipes are scrawled across the pages, arrows realign ingredients into their proper order, stains declare the popularity of the various recipes. If they are written in my aunt’s hand, then they are peppered with q.b., quanto basta. Loosely translated, this phrase means “as much as is necessary”. No, it’s not all that helpful as an instruction but it reminds me that my favourite cooks were instinctive, self taught. They didn’t cling to recipes but cooked “all’ occhio” - until it ‘looks’ right. They made daily masterpieces out of produce from their gardens, inventing, and reinventing, dishes with deep flavours but few ingredients.
This recipe is of that tradition – thriftily using produce that was not perfect but making a condiment that would take them through autumn and then winter, reminding them of the warmth and bounty of the summer garden.
Don’t skimp on the salt, otherwise the tomatoes may go mouldy.
POMODORI VERDI SOTT’OLIO – GREEN TOMATOES PRESERVED IN OLIVE OIL
I started with just under 2 kgs green tomatoes, sliced
1/4 cup salt
3 cups white wine vinegar
1 cup white wine (or use water)
2 cups extra virgin olive oil
4-6 garlic cloves, cut in slivers
2 tsp dried oregano
1-2 whole red chilli per jar (if you like)
Put the cut tomatoes in layers in a large colander, sprinkling salt in between each layer. Cover the tomatoes with a plate and leave overnight in the sink. Squeeze the tomatoes gently and put them into a large glass or stainless steel bowl. Mix together vinegar and wine and pour over the tomatoes. Make sure the liquid covers the tomatoes. Cover with a plate and a weight and set aside overnight or at least 8 hours. Drain in a colander and then weigh down, in the colander, for a couple of extra hours to make sure the tomatoes are quite dry.
Now you are ready to play with the flavours for keeping the tomatoes in olive oil.
Mix olive oil, garlic, oregano – you may like to substitute chilli, fennel seeds and/or black pepper or add some pitted olives for earthiness.
In the meantime, sterilise some small jars and their lids. I wash them first with detergent, then rinse them thoroughly and dry them in a low oven.
Press the tomatoes into the jars, making sure there are no air pockets by pressing them down with the back of your hand. Pour the oil mixture over the green tomatoes, making sure they are well covered. Remember, olive oil itself does not preserve the tomatoes but merely keeps the air from affecting the tomatoes. Keep the jars in a cool dark cupboard until ready to use. As you use the tomatoes, top them with olive oil if necessary. After I open a jar, I keep them in the fridge. Unopened, the jars will keep for several months.