A year ago around this time I was driving 30 miles to a farm supply in Annapolis to buy a jar of something called "pickling lime." It's not that I will go to any lengths to find the most obscure ingredients, but I had a peck of green tomatoes on my hands and a recipe for pickling them that called for "pickling lime." I'd called every food and kitchen purveyor, every hardware store-- everybody I could think of in the area--and the closest jar of "pickling lime" was in Annapolis.
Well, it was worth the trip, because those were some damn fine pickles--sweet pickles made with lots of vinegar, sugar, mustard seed, allspice, cinnamon. I gave many jars to friends but had many more green tomato pickles to munch on throughout the year. In fact, I still have one jar in the refrigerator to dip into. I just have to remember to keep it within eyeshot, not hidden behind a bag of cornmeal.
So what is this "pickling lime," anyway?
Lime has been used in food processing for thousands of years. Derived from limestone, chalk or oyster shells, it was used by natives in Mexico and points south to treat dried corn, removing the tough husks and, once ground, turning it into something called "masa" that could be fried as tortillas. Unbeknownst to the Indians, the lime had the added nutritional benefit of making the niacin in the corn available for human digestion, preventing the wasting disease pellagra. This method of processing corn is now called nixtimalization.
Lime for pickling is calcium hydroxide. It has the effect of crisping vegetables by introducing calcium and reinforcing the naturally occurring pectin in whatever is being pickled. Since it is extremely alkaline, however, lime needs to be thoroughly rinsed out of the vegetables before the pickling process can begin. Otherwise, the lime will neutralize the acids that may be required to preserve the food, resulting in spoilage.
I'm not an expert in canning by any means. I feel much safer around recipes that call for lots of salt or vinegar or sugar. This particular recipe for sweet green tomato pickles comes from Fancy Pantry, a book we've turned to on a number of occasions for delicious preserves, pickles and sauces. You will need pickling lime, which is available on-line if you don't happen to have a farm supply or hardware store nearby that stocks a lot of canning items.
You will also need to process the pickles once they are in jars. I improvise when it comes to the tools for heating the canning jars and getting them in and out of the hot water bath. If you've never canned before, best to do some research and make any necessary purchases before you start cooking the tomatoes. I have to say that if I were to change anything about the way I approach this, it would be to buy a good pair of specialized canning tongs for handling the jars.
And just where do you get these green tomatoes? Why, from all those tomato plants in your garden that are beginning to fade, of course. Or check your nearest farmers market. Late in the season is when the tomato growers would be trying to get rid of their unripened crop. We had plenty. Some of the plants we set out late are still producing, but not much longer. And then I picked up a big bag of green tomatoes at the Washington Youth Garden here in the District of Columbia, where I am tending a small vegetable plot.
One note about this recipe: the lime soaking liquid turned out to be enough to process twice as many tomatoes as the recipe calls for. I don't know why. But since I already hand twice as many tomatoes on hand, I used it all. And if I'd been thinking clearly, I would have found a way to use the first batch of cooking liquid for the other half of the tomatoes. Perhaps I'll remember to do that next time.
For five pints of pickled green tomatoes:
4 pounds completely green tomatoes (do not use any that are showing even the slightest hint of ripening)
6 quarts water
1 cup pickling lime
1 1/2 pounds onion
5 cups cider vinegar
5 cups sugar
1/4 cup pickling or other non-iodized salt
3 tablespoons mustard seed
3 teaspoons celery seed
2 teaspoons whole peppercorns
2 teaspoons whole allspice
1 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
In a very large non-reactive mixing bowl (do not use aluminum), mix the pickling lime and the water. The lime has a tendency to not dissolve completely and collect on the bottom of the bowl. Not to worry. It will still do the job.
Cut the tomatoes into moderately thin wedges and place in the lime-water mix. Stir gently to coat all of the tomatoes with lime solution. Cover and let the tomatoes soak 24 hours, stirring occasionally to mix up the lime.
Following the soaking period, use a colander to rinse the tomatoes thoroughly in cold water three or four times to remove all the lime. Some of the tomato seeds with rinse out and collect in the sink. Again, do not be concerned.
Peel the onions and cut them into thin strips, a bit thinner than the tomatoes.
Combine the vinegar, sugar, salt, mustard seed, celery seed, peppercorns, allspice, turmeric, cinnamon and cloves in a processing pan or large heavy pot. Bring mixture to a boil and cook, uncovered for two minutes. Add the tomatoes and onions, bring to a boil again and continue cooking over moderate heat, pushing the vegetables down under the surface occasionally, until the tomatoes begin to look translucent, about 15 minutes. Be careful not to overcook them.
Ladle the hot pickles into clean, hot, pint-sized canning jars leaving 1/4 inch of headspace and dividing the spices among the jars (there will be lots of leftover mustard seeds). Use a dowel or the thin handle of a wooden spoon to remove any air bubbles that may be lurking among the pickles. Seal the canning jars with two-piece lids according to the manufacturer's instructions and process for 10 minutes in a boiling water bath (I use a pasta pot with built-in strainer for this, but there are special canning devices made especially for this purpose).
Allow the jars to cool, then label them. Let the pickles mellow for a month before consuming. And not to worry--you will want to be consuming these pickles as often as possible.