Green tomatoes are a hallmark of early September, and in our family, Labor Day is the day to make my grandmother's delicious piccalili!
So, what's piccalilli you say? Ooh, just a great way to use up unripened tomatoes, combining them with red peppers, onions, vinegar and pickling spice. Piccalilli is absolutely wonderful served with a Sunday pot roast, a sweet touch of late summer alongside the most wintry of meals.
Not having the gumption (i.e. time and energy) to grow our own tomatoes this year, I relied on my local farm for the bounty you see above, and did they ever come through! I got the call at 4:00 on Sunday afternoon: my 20 lbs. of tomatoes were harvested, and I could come get them anytime. Well, with green tomatoes you don't waste time (as you don't want them to turn red!) so I ran over to pick them up - but first I dug up my grandmother's recipe to check on the rest of the ingredients.
The above recipe is a photocopy of the original card (which is tucked away for safe keeping); this copy is taped into my journal from August 2005.
Next, I called my mum, and asked her to come over straight away, because piccalilli must be started the night before.
First we washed and chopped up the tomatoes along with the red peppers and onions. With a glass of wine by my side it felt like an Ina moment. ;)
We poured salt over the vegetables and they were left to "sweat" overnight.
And on Labor Day morning, it was time to stew! We added some celery, a quart of vinegar and a pouch filled with pickling spice - and, finally, 7 teacups of sugar. Yes, teacups! I use the same Irish teacup my grandmother did to ladle in just the right amount of sugar. Bill asked me if I ever checked to see how much sugar was actually in a teacup, so as to get a more accurate measurement, but I actually like the not knowing. One family's recipe will undoubtedly be a bit sweeter (or less) but that's where the tweaking comes in. :)
The smell is incredible as it cooks.
Once, when my grandma was talking about her childhood memories, she spoke about piccalilli. I wrote about it in my journal:
"Oh sure, at that time of year the whole neighborhood smelled like piccalilli because everyone was using up the last of their tomatoes. At every stove there was a pot bubbling away ..."
What a nice memory ... one rich with tradition, rhythm and comfort. It's been years since housewives have had to grow and make do with their own, but I think it's a skill and a tradition worth (pardon the pun) preserving.
The smells and tastes of late summer might have changed since those days, but really, only if we let them. I love the thought that my boys will grow up remembering a bustling kitchen on Labor Day, the house filled with that distinctive, sweet-spicy smell. Next year I hope to add to that memory, a backyard tomato garden - because nothing beats the rustic smell of tangled vines and warm soil ...
Allright, enough reverie ~ back to the present we go. ;)
Once the piccalilli was cooked, we poured it into hot, sterilized jars:
Now, I've always wanted to do a little jar topper, and so this year I made a point to pick up some fabric for just this purpose. If I was a true seamstress (which, alas, I am not), I would have scraps on hand to choose from. Instead, I bought a few "quarter flats" from JoAnn's. I liked the reds, pinks and greens ...
I wasn't sure if the fabric should be laundered first but I did iron out the wrinkles. (Note the conspicuous lack of an ironing board, lol!):
It took a few attempts to figure out the right size circle to cut. I used pinking shears to give the edges a nice finish:
And by the end of the day, the jars were done - filled and lined up on the sill.
Now, it feels like September. :)