There are green tomatoes - those unripened red tomatoes - and there are green heirloom tomatoes. Each has a special place in the culinary world.
For the home gardener or the farmers' market shopper, it may seem a bit early to be thinking about green tomatoes. But if you love to fry sliced green tomatoes that have been dipped in an egg wash followed by a flour mixture, they are part of late summer.
Some folks consider fried green tomatoes a southern dish or a Gulf Coast favorite, when in fact it's just a way to use that deluge of green tomatoes late in September, when the cooler days and nights make ripening slower.
Unripe and ripe traditional tomatoes.
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Green tomatoes should be harvested before the first frost with the stems on, advises The Tomato Festival Cookbook by Lawrence Davis-Hollander (Storey, $16.95). Wash and dry. Discard any fruit with bruises. Put the green tomatoes in shallow cartons packed with straw or shredded paper and keep in a cool place (temperature between 55 and 70 degrees).
Green tomatoes may also be used in a mincemeat-type pie with a variety of seasonings. Green Tomato Pie in The Village Baker's Wife by Gayle and Joe Ortiz (10 Speed Press, $19.95) is described as having "no true taste of tomatoes ... just the combination of sweet, tart, and spice."
Whether you make fried green tomatoes, green tomato sandwiches, green tomato chutney, or green tomato pie, the green tomatoes must be cooked.
Green heirloom tomatoes, on the other hand, remain green when ripe and don't need to be cooked. One variety is Aunt Ruby's German Green, which Mr. Davis-Hollander says is the best, with large fruit and an excellent spicy taste.
Green Zebra is also very good, but is smaller and striped. In Fig Heaven (Morrow, $19.95), Marie Simmons pairs Green Zebra heirloom tomatoes with fresh figs in her recipe for Fresh Fig and Green Tomato Salad with Basil. (See recipe on Page 2.) She recommends watching for these heirloom tomatoes in produce stores and farmers' markets.
How do you know if green heirloom tomatoes are ripe? "When folks think of green tomatoes, you're thinking of an immature red tomato, which are solid to the feel and must be cooked," says Bob Jones of the Chef's Garden in Huron, Ohio.
"An heirloom green tomato can be from cherry size to golf ball size to very large that could go one to one and a half pounds per fruit and are vine-ripened but stay green. If you feel that tomato, the immature red would be firm; the ripe heirloom green tomato would be soft to the touch. Most of the old heirloom varieties ripened on vine will be soft. That's why you don't see many vine-ripened tomatoes in the supermarket because shelf life is so short."
Other varieties include Evergreen and Green Velvet. "We grow a Lime Green Salad tomato. We grow a Green Grape, which is a cherry-sized tomato," Mr. Jones says. "These seeds can be purchased in seed catalogs, and you can grow your own and have garden fresh. It's a little late to do it this year, but not too late to try them and plan for next year."