Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Tomatoes! Get ‘em while they’re green!

Fried Green Tomato
This was an enormous just-ripening Striped German tomato, the flower end of it fully yellow, the rest still green.
I sliced it rather thin, dredged it in flour, then beaten egg, then panko crumbs.
It was totally delicious. I had the leftovers for breakfast this morning.
Greasy, salty, hot and crispy on the outside,
and al dente sourness inside. Mmm.

A year ago about this time, Leo and I were in a little hamlet called Hot Springs, in North Carolina, the town that straddles the Appalachian Trail on the one hand and boasts a beautiful place called the Mountain Magnolia Inn on the other. Different clientele, you might say.

It was our daughter Isobel's birthday and we took her and boyfriend-in-law Jesse to the Inn to celebrate. By far the most interesting item on a menu that did not lack interesting items was a fried green tomato and lobster appetizer. Rustic and elegant – down-home and up-town. I envisioned medallions of lobster tail alternating with medallions of fried green tomatoes. Instead, the chef used claw-meat, which was cheaper, to be sure, and just as tasty as the medallions would have been, if not as intuitively beautiful. But appearance hardly mattered, since we ate on the sweeping veranda and the lighting was less than brilliant, unless you count the moon and stars pointed to by the tall pointed mountains. As a matter of fact, it was an interesting experiment not to know what you were putting in your mouth until your tastebuds went into effect. How good are YOUR tastebuds.

I had not a bit of trouble recognizing the taste of a good fried green tomato – I could do it in my sleep! Greasy, salty, hot and crispy on the outside, and al dente sourness inside. Mmm. One of my favorite things. Another is fried eggplant, treated just the same way – dipped in flour, then egg, then flour again or crumbs – and fried in... oh, butter and olive oil or lard or coconut oil, until crisp and golden outside and puddeny on the inside. The difference between the two is that texture as well as the taste: the tomato’s tang is recognized in the back of your throat; the eggplants’ with a slight puckering of the roof of your mouth.

A platter of fried green tomatoes, fried eggplant, fried zucchini blossoms, and fried okra, with basil leaves and nasturtium blossoms tucked in here and there would seem a very good thing. With one caveat – it’s pretty, but it takes too long to fry each of these things, while the ones already fried sit on newspaper, cooling and uncrisping. Each one of these foods should be eaten hot, straight out of the pan, with a good shake of salt.
Olive oil is a very good oil for frying. Somehow people worry that it can’t stand extreme heat. Well, no fat can stand extreme heat for very long, nor can our innards, but olive oil is sufficient – if the miracle of an extra virgin olive oil by any name could ever be deemed only ‘sufficient’ – to most tasks. Adding butter to it creates more complicated taste and a good color.

Eugene Walters, who styled the movie Fried Green Tomatoes some years ago, suggests frying in olive oil and bacon fat, and he likes to use celery seed and dillweed in the flour binder. Another time he suggests using truly hard green tomatoes and coating them with mayonnaise before dipping them into toasted breadcrumbs. My grandmother always used smashed saltines as a coating.

If you love fried green tomatoes, but no one else does, yet, I suggested this in my book, Tomato Imperative! “Make a private treat for yourself of a fried green tomato in the middle of a hot summer day. Take the plate of slices with a big napkin and a good book out to the hammock, and if there’s anyone else around, particularly children, even picky eaters, pretty soon they’ll come nedging along and asking, “Whatchoo doin’? Whazzat yer eatin’... all alone?” And then they’ll want a taste, and then you’ll have to get up and fry another tomato.”

This year, of course, our entire crop of tomatoes is imperiled by the dratted Black Death, or more precisely Late Blight. I thought I was escaping it, having planted an heirloom Striped German along with a newfangled Sweet Olive miniature tomato together in a sunny spot in rich soil. They were mammoth, with multitudes of green tomatoes on them, when suddenly I spotted a wrinkled leaf, then the black spots, the bruises on the stems, and finally, looking closer, the incipient black sores on the tomatoes themselves. Oddly enough it was the miniature, hybrid, tomatoes that showed the blight first. But since the two plants were so intertwined, I just picked off leaves and diseased tomatoes in order to save the heirloom. I harvested a lot of the Sweet Olives, one or two ripe Striped Germans, and finally picked all of the green Striped Germans, which had finally succumbed, trimmed them of bad spots, sliced the rest and fried ’em up. Yumm.

I’m not quite sure how Grandma, of good northern European stock, learned to take such satisfaction in frying green tomatoes. It seems to have remained a southern technique, probably an African one, brought forth to utilize New World foods such as tomatoes and cornmeal and, from the ubiquitous pig, lard. But since she did, the mere thought of the taste of them brings to me a stab of excitement, of nostalgia for long-lost times and loved ones.

Most northern people pickled green tomatoes, made them into chutneys and mincemeat, and there are recipes for that. But I think that come early season or end of summer, people through the centuries have been tossing a few chopped green tomatoes into soups and stews, paellas, risottos, and/or pastas – depending upon their culture of origin – without thinking about it too much or writing it down in a recipe to pass on to future generations. There lies the danger that, as youngsters spend less time learning from their elders, this kind of unwritten wisdom will disappear from culinary practice.
Green Tomatoes
Farmers' markets are good sources for green tomatoes. At this peak season
time of year, if you don't find any, ask the farmer.
S/he'll be sure to bring some to you.

Still need a recipe? How about some guidelines, a technique? Let’s start with one large green tomato with just a blush, somewhere on it, of incipient pink. Core it. Slice it about a third of an inch thick. Dredge it in flour and tap off the excess. Dunk it in beaten egg, tap off the excess, then dredge in seasoned flour, crushed saltines, cornmeal, or fine bread crumbs. If you have a bag of Panko around, try that. Gently tap the slice again, then place on a folded newspaper, preferably one with my column on it. Let them dry a bit, to create a harder coating, as you heat a sauté pan over medium high heat. When the pan is hot scoop about a tablespoon of butter into it and pour in an equal amount or a bit more of olive oil. You want a little depth to the oil on the bottom of the pan.

When that is hot, place the slices into the hot oil, maybe turn the heat down a bit – you want the coating to become crisp and golden in the same amount of time it takes the inside to become tender. After 3 or 4 minutes – watching carefully – turn the slices and allow them to cook just the same way. When they’re done, sprinkle with salt and eat them!

If there are more slices to be fried, run the pan under hot water to get out the burned bits, wipe with a paper towel, and start all over again with new butter and oil.

Now do the same with eggplant. Ditto Okra.

But this is not brain surgery. The other night I had no eggs, but I did have green tomatoes that needed to be used before they got ... gasp... ripe! So if I couldn’t do the traditional flour, egg, flour coating without eggs, what would I use to make those slices crisp. I remembered cornstarch, and poured and thumped a quantity into a used plastic bag, along with a quantity of flour and salt. The result? Best Fried Green Tomatoes ever.

Bon, as they say, Appetit!

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