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Originally published Wednesday, October 8, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Green tomatoes are ripe for the eating

Green tomatoes are to be savored, not shunned.

The Oregonian

About this time of year in many gardens, opportunity hangs on the vine, ready to be picked — but it often isn't. I'm talking about green tomatoes. The abundance of unripe tomatoes left at the end of the season embarrasses and frustrates many gardeners. There are no cheers, bragging rights, showcasing or seeding, as with other garden accomplishments. You know what I'm talking about; the green-tomato harvest either doesn't happen or goes under the radar.

Why do we ignore these underage beauties? Probably because too few cooks know the epicurean diversity of green tomatoes. This is the season to change that.

To start your new culinary adventure, try this taste test: Take a 1/4-inch slice of a medium-size green tomato and sample it. Your taste buds will register a firm, fresh fruit with an immature tomato flavor and a hint of sweetness similar to a zucchini.

Now imagine these garden orphans in some delicious preparations; coated and fried until crisp for a savory appetizer or baked in a gratin under a luxurious layer of cheese and herbs.

To be successful when cooking with green tomatoes, follow these three rules:

Always choose "unripe" tomatoes, not just green ones. There's a big difference between tomatoes bred to stay green, and those that are unripe and green at the end of the season. Good examples of the "evergreen type" are Green Zebra, Green Moldavian and green cherry-tomato varieties. If you're buying green tomatoes at a market, talk to the grower or produce manager to be sure you're not just getting a ripe tomato that's a green variety.

Be sure to avoid the small ones. They will have a bitter or caustic taste and can ruin your recipe. Look for green tomatoes that are the size of an average ripened tomato and weigh 5 to 6 ounces or more.

Core a green tomato before use. Unripe tomatoes often have a woodier stem and a unique core piece. This hard, white core section is not always continuous with the stem, so you have to look for it. It's small, about the size of a pea and sits in the tomato somewhere within the top inch of where the stem attaches. You can see and feel a hard white piece that's different from the rest of the fruit if you slice a tomato in half.

When you're ready to bring your newfound appreciation into the kitchen, consider combining green tomatoes with other late-summer bounty such as zucchini, stone fruits, onions, apples and hazelnuts. Golden-brown, caramelized green tomatoes produce a deep, rich flavor that is perfect with sautéed nectarines, peaches and apricots. Even when baked, they hold their supple but firm texture and develop a delicate sweetness similar to an apple.

Many people think of green tomatoes as less desirable than their more outgoing red siblings. But cooks who understand these introverted green beauties can promote their richness, versatility and color appeal to the world. And if you really get a taste for them, you may just find yourself planting next year's tomatoes a wee bit later than normal ... just to guarantee a supply.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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