Green Tomato Salsa

Earlier this summer, I described the avalanche of  produce that nearly overwhelmed the tiny congregation of St. John’s Presbyterian Church, where Fred serves as a parish associate for the arts and I now serve on the garden committee. God was blessing our efforts. He (or She) was returning me to my farming roots, though it would have been nice if He (or She) had not caused me to look quite so much like an ancient mountain woman in the process.

But now He (or She) has decided to bless us with weeks of bright sunny days without a rain cloud in sight. We were also blessed with an abundance of tomato plants along with a generous helping of ignorance. Thus, close planting, a failure to prune, and the lack of rain all combined to produce plants that eked out only green tomatoes, which brooded on the vines until, depressed by their own failure to ripen, they flung themselves to the ground and rotted in despair.

Next door, however, the peppers were having quite the merry fiesta. They lived in a flourishing village that basked in the sun and was clearly up to something in the evenings, judging by the abundance of baby peppers that popped up with alarming regularity. (The proximity to all this merriment probably contributed to the tomatoes’ demise.)

What were we to do? Earlier in the summer we’d dreamed of tomato sandwiches, of winter shelves lined with rows of home-canned summer tomatoes, of freezers packed with homemade tomato sauce. But our hopes were dashed along with those of the pitiful green tomatoes who could not bring themselves to turn red.

I found a solution recently in this salsa, just in time for the green tomatoes that other gardeners with happier plants will soon be harvesting. It’s roughly based on a tomatillo recipe from Rick Bayless’s Salsa That Cook. While I’m not sure about the wisdom of substituting tomatillos for green tomatoes regularly, it worked quite well here. The salsa packs quite a bit of heat, but you can adjust that by using fewer peppers.

After one day, the brightness and the heat of the salsa had mellowed and the roasted flavor came to the forefront. If you want the salsa hot, I recommend serving it the same day; if you’d prefer a more mellow version, wait 24 hours before serving.

The salsa is wonderful with fish or shrimp as well–a serving suggestion is below. I can only hope the little green tomatoes have found their purpose in life now.

Green Tomato Salsa

Makes about 4 cups

A dozen small green or partially red tomatoes
6 serrano or other hot green peppers (more or less to taste)
1 large yellow onion, halved and sliced
Kosher salt
Sugar (about 1 tsp., or more to taste)
Cream, sour cream, or any kind of South American cream (Mexican, Honduran, Salvadoran) (optional)

Place oven rack about four inches below the broiler flame. (For me, this is the second slot from the top–do not place too close to the heat.) Set tomatoes on baking sheet. Roast with broiler on high about six minutes on one side, then turn and roast for an additional six minutes. The tomatoes will be dark brown to black. Set aside to cool, about 20 minutes.

While tomatoes are roasting, place a sturdy skillet on a medium high flame (no oil). Remove stems from the peppers. Place peppers in skillet and roast until blackened in spots, about 10 minutes.

Cut up onion while peppers are roasting and set aside. Once tomatoes are done, remove them to a bowl. Lower oven rack to the middle level. Set oven temperature to 425. (It should already be preheated from broiling the tomatoes.) Scatter the onions over the baking sheet (no need to wash it) and bake, stirring every few minutes, until translucent and blackened or dark brown in spots, 10 – 15 minutes. Let cool for a few minutes.

Place whole peppers and onions in food processor and pulse, scraping down sides of bowl regularly, until ingredients are minced. Add whole tomatoes (peels, cores, and all) and pulse until finely chopped. (Add water if it is too thick.) Add plenty of salt and sugar to taste. Serve immediately with chips for a very hot salsa or wait 24 hours for a more mellow version. Add cream if desired–it will mitigate the heat.

Shrimp Tortillas with Green Tomato Salsa

Serves 2 — a good way to use the extra salsa!

16 large shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 tsp. olive oil
2 – 3 cups Green Tomato Salsa, above
3 – 6 tbps. half and half
Grated mild cheese to taste (we used plain old cheddar, but Mexican queso seco might be better)
6 small corn tortillas

Heat oven to 350. Place tortillas on baking sheet and set in oven to warm. (You will need to check on them frequently to make sure they don’t crisp up–once they are warm and soft, turn off oven and let them sit.) Heat olive oil on medium high heat for a few minutes. Add salsa and cream. Heat, stirring frequently, until mixture begins to bubble, about 5 minutes. (Add more cream if it looks like it might burn.) Add shrimp and cook just a few minutes, stirring frequently, until shrimp have just pinkened, adding more cream if necessary. Remove tortillas from oven. Spoon shrimp mix into tortillas, top with spinach and cheese, fold over, and serve.

Granny’s Dressing Recipe (Because You Need to Start Planning for It Now)

I’m intimidated when I think too very much about our holiday dressing (turkey dressing, that is, not what we’re wearing). Thus it was that in the hustle and bustle of the holidays I was unable to face writing about it. But today, as others slog through post-Christmas sales and I sit here at 1:14 p.m. in my embarrassingly cute new kitty pajamas, I feel I can begin to describe it.

We’re not stuffers in my family–we cook our dressing in a pan once the turkey is done. But what intimidates me is this: Preparations for the event begin in the spring, when the sage in my mother’s herb garden begins to grow.

My Granny (not Mammaw of potato soup fame, who was my father’s mother) apparently grew and dried her own sage for the sake of holiday stuffing. The things my grandmothers did for the sake of food–wring the necks of chickens, grow tomatoes and herbs, and bravest of all, pluck eggs from beneath laying hens–would make Martha Stewart wish she were back in jail. In fact, that last job of egg gathering is the most fearsome task I can remember facing as a child. I don’t think I ever did it, actually, so terrified I was to reach underneath that fat feathered body, my tender wrist just inches below that sharp beak. Being too chicken (dear God, please don’t let Fred see that pun), I would lurk about until the hen had left her nest unguarded before sneaking in like a weasel and making off with the eggs.

Anyway, for the dressing, which is moist and very flavorful. One note of caution: This recipe is hopeless without good sage. If you know of a place that sells exceptionally good dried sage, you might be able to cheat and use that as a substitute–but if you think you can squeak by with the grocery store variety, try another recipe. You can’t cheat with canned turkey broth either–you have to siphon the fat off the bird. But I have yet to find a dressing I like better.

Good luck. If you actually try this on your own, please let me know next year.

Granny’s Turkey Dressing (serves 10, with leftovers)

In the spring:
Plant 5-6 sage plants.

In the fall:
Harvest sage and dry for at least 2 months. Alternatively, buy some fresh sage in August and let it dry in a brown paper bag.

At least one week before Thanksgiving:
Buy a loaf of white bread and allow to get a little stale. Granted, given the amount of preservatives in your typical loaf of Wonder this could take more than a week, but you can always remove it from the package to hurry the process along–provided, of course, you don’t have lard-butt cats who will leap onto the counter top, wrestle the loaf to the floor, and eat it.

Day before:
Make a pan of cornbread. Any recipe will do.

Crush sage by rubbing it together. Remove stems. You will need at least ½ cup and probably more.

Melt 1 stick butter in skillet. Finely chop 1 large onion and 1 bunch celery in food processor or by hand. Saute onion and celery in butter until soft. Refrigerate overnight.

2 hours before mealtime:
Crumble cornbread and several slices of the white bread into a large bowl. Siphon as much broth from turkey as you can with a turkey baster. Resist temptation to make jokes with your lesbian relatives/friends. Pull off and shred about ½ cup dark meat, the cooked liver and other giblets. Add to bread. Add celery and onion, 2 or 3 eggs, 1/2 cup sage, and salt and pepper to mixture. Add broth to moisten. Mix by digging your clean hands into the mess and squishing it together.

Taste the mix. Add more salt. Add more sage. Taste again. Get someone else to taste it. Argue about whether or not it needs more sage. Add more sage. Have everyone taste it again. Add some pepper. Add some salt. Keep adjusting ingredients until all tasters are relatively happy, except the one who thinks it needs more salt, which you can always add at the table anyway. The mix should be the consistency of very thick cream of wheat or oatmeal.

Put dressing into large (9 x 13 or so) casserole. Bake at 350 for about an hour. It should be very moist but golden on top. Slice into squares no larger than 2″ and serve. Makes a fabulous lunch, breakfast or dinner the next day.