Saturday, July 12, 2008

Southern Summer Delicacy

Green tomatoes are one of those fleeting joys, one of the last of the seasonal items that you must learn to grab while you can, unlike the artificially year-round availability we have grown accustomed to with so many other fruits and vegetables. I can find a tasteless, perfectly round, evenly colored red tomato in the supermarket any old time. Green tomatoes, on the other hand, are available around these parts only to those who grow their own tomatoes, or who belong to a CSA or shop at the farmer’s market (though I came up empty-handed when I tried to obtain more of them at this morning's market).

Don‘t get me wrong. This isn’t a complaint letter. I like having something to look forward to. Green tomatoes are really nothing more than plain old-fashioned unripe tomatoes - perfect for those of us who get wildly impatient waiting for produce to ripen. If left to their own devices, they’ll turn red and get softer, but frankly, I like them just the way they are. Firm, almost to the point of crispness inside, with very little in the way of seeds and gel, and a tart flavor akin to wild apples, they have rightfully earned their place in Southern cuisine. But you already knew that, right? Everyone has read Fried Green Tomatoes, or seen the movie, or (come on) at least heard of them, though from what I understand, entirely too many people have never had the pleasure of enjoying this unexpectedly addictive dish.

Truth be told, I’ve only had them twice, and I'm firmly ensconced in the Deep South here. When The Carnivore and I were dating, he showed up after work one afternoon with a bag of vegetables from the garden of a mutual acquaintance of ours. When he reached into the bag though, and pulled out a succession of green tomatoes, I winced and reached for the Chinese take-out menu hanging on my fridge. “I’ll fry them,” he said. “I don’t know about all that,” I replied warily, wrinkling my nose up at both the thought of the tomatoes themselves and fried food in general. An hour or so later, of course, I was munching happily and wiping my greasy fingers on my jeans.

Last summer, when I discovered a couple green tomatoes in our weekly box from the farm, I excitedly lined them up like little toy soldiers on the kitchen counter, vowing to learn how to fry them. Two days later, when I finally had the time, I saw that an evil ripening ghost had snuck in and turned my green tomatoes red. So I made a batch of salsa with them instead and consoled myself with Mexican food for dinner.

And then a whole ‘nother year passed. See, green tomatoes are like that. Out of sight, out of mind, or some such cliche. Since I don’t pass them at the grocery store every week, I just don’t think about them, and then lo and behold, poof, suddenly there they were again. I was crouching in the big walk-in cooler at the farm, transferring my box of goodies to some bags when I came across something like eight or nine big, fat, firm-as-could-be green tomatoes. The Big Boy eyed them a little suspiciously at first, but caught on in a hurry when I told him I was going to fry them up into tomato chips. It’s all in the way you talk to a kid…

I mentioned my plan to my adventurous sister who had never had the pleasure of fried green tomatoes and she cheerfully invited herself to dinner as well. She and I both dug around for the right recipe, and I finally settled on one that I had clipped from the July 1997 issue of Fine Cooking. I can only assume that my mother must have found me some old issues at a yard sale, and that I hadn’t been holding on to this recipe clipping for eleven years, but honestly, there’s just no telling.

Now that I think about it though, I wasn’t even involved with The Carnivore yet in July of 1997, and I certainly wasn't reading cooking magazines in my spare time back then. I did run into him at a party Aviso played at in Normaltown late one night during the summer of 1997, and we did start dating a few months later…

Anyhow, that being neither here nor there – the recipe was so simple as to be nearly comical, and called for ingredients I already had on hand (unlike many of the ones which required buttermilk). I called The Carnivore to see if he had any tips for me: “salt the p-turkey out of the breading,” is, I believe, an exact quote, and then I commenced to frying.

Frankly, the biggest lesson I walked away with is that it takes more patience than I have to wait until the heat has dissipated before popping the fried slices of heaven into my mouth. I’m telling you, these things are flat-out addictive and since the ideal way to eat them seems to be standing by the stove and snacking as they come out of the skillet, the chef gets the biggest share (and ends up with a burnt tongue, or so I've heard).

I served them for dinner that night alongside a frittata made with leeks, kale and garlic from the farm, and a potato salad supplied by my brother-in-law who, for some reason, did not accompany my sister to dinner, though that was just as well, I suppose, because there were only two slices of tomato left over.

As Jamie Oliver said about something completely unrelated to tomatoes, “This is not Michelin star food. This is proper food. This is dinner.”


FRIED GREEN TOMATOES (serves four as a side dish, adapted from Fine Cooking)
  • 4 green tomatoes (about 1/2 pound each) sliced 1/2 inch thick
  • 4 tsp kosher salt, divided, plus a little more for sprinkling
  • 2 tsp freshly ground black pepper, divided
  • 1 cup stone-ground cornmeal
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2/3 or so cup of olive oil, divided
  1. Season the sliced tomatoes generously with 2 tsp salt and 1 tsp pepper.
  2. Combine the cornmeal, flour, and remaining 2 tsp salt and 1 tsp pepper in a small bowl.
  3. In a large cast-iron skillet, pour about 1/3 cup of olive oil, so that the oil is about 1/4-inch deep or so in the pan. Heat over medium heat.
  4. Dredge the tomato slices in the cornmeal mixture immediately before putting them in the pan (don't do this too far ahead or everything gets soggy), and yes, there is no need for an egg mixture - the cornmeal/flour mix clings wonderfully to the slightly moist tomatoes on its own.
  5. Carefully (to avoid getting splashed with hot oil) place a few tomato slices in the pan, leaving plenty of room between them, and cook in batches, until well-browned on the bottom (2 to 3 minutes). Flip the slices over and cook the other side.
  6. Drain finished slices on paper towels, and add more oil to the pan as needed.
  7. Serve immediately, sprinkled with extra salt.

No comments: