Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Mystified: Fried Green Tomatoes

I suppose it was inevitable that I would eventually come around to love fried green tomatoes. You don’t come from a Southern family and not have some genetic predisposition towards fried chicken, grits, and fried green tomatoes, and my family is about as Southern as you get (my dad grew up in the north part of Louisiana and Mississippi, my mom in the southern part of Virginia). My dad used to tell me about the kinds of things his aunts made for dinner when he was young: whipped potatoes as light as down made without a single electric appliance, only a wooden spoon; greens cooked to the point of disintegration in pot likker; lemon meringue pies with piles of meringue that were so high they had to crane their necks to see one another across the table. And of course every time my grandmother came to visit she’d make pralines. Real pralines with fresh pecans she’d brought with her that were, as I recall, merely pools of brown sugar and butter studded with whole pecans. I know there was more to them than that, but I still remember the grainy almost gritty texture of the praline, and the meaty heft of the nut as I bit into one. That doesn’t sound very nice, but I assure you, they were sublime.

I fought fried green tomatoes for years, even refusing my sister-in-law’s urging to try the very best ones in the whole world at Kudzu Café in Atlanta (a restaurant that has sadly closed its doors). I wasn’t wild about raw red tomatoes, and I was pretty darned sure that raw green ones—even if they were technically cooked—weren’t going to go over well. This just goes to show, I think, how wrong one person can be. Last week when we got several green tomatoes in our CSA share, I couldn’t really think of anything to do with them but coat them in cornmeal and fry them. I can’t even put my finger on what changed my mind. Generally I can trace my whims to a specific incident or occurrence that drove a small wedge in the sheer rock face of my refusal to accept the food I was so vehemently rejecting, and later caused my stubborn resistance to cleave in half. But not in this case.

I have now come to the conclusion that the reason to grow tomatoes is so you can have an endless supply of fried green tomatoes. They require some fiddling--what with dredging them in flour, dipping them in buttermilk, and then dredging them in corn meal--and of course you do shallow fry them, so they’re not the healthiest of fare, but oh my. Tangy and firm in the middle, light crisp crust on the outside, I never dreamed they could be so good.

Although I ate a fair number at dinner, the next morning the memory lingered on, and with the enthusiasm that only a new convert shows, I took a chance and heated the leftovers up for breakfast. I was pleasantly surprised; usually fried things aren’t as good when reheated. Their crust tends to get mushy, and the overall quality suffers. I wouldn’t say the tomatoes were as phenomenally good as they were the night before, but I didn’t push them off my plate either. I used the toaster oven and I think that may have had something to do with it; if I’d microwaved them they’d have gotten soggy for sure.

The recipe I used was from the Food + Wine annual cookbook for 2007 (which means it was published in an issue in 2006). Originally it was a fried green tomato salad, with the tomatoes served over frisee with bacon with a warm vinaigrette. In retrospect, this would be very good too, although my worry is that the vinaigrette would sog the crust of the tomatoes and make them just a shade less spectacular. In this case we used the recipe for the tomatoes only and let the rest fall by the wayside. Interestingly, since then I have gone through my cookbooks to find possible variations on fried green tomatoes to see if there’s another version out there I want to try, and they seem to all be almost identical. Flour, eggs (or buttermilk or milk), and cornmeal. It doesn’t appear that many people have deviated from that formula. I still have some more research to do, but preliminary findings suggest I’ve already got the perfect combination of ingredients.

Now I’m delighted that we planted all our tomato plants so late; originally I was in a fret that I wouldn’t get many red tomatoes. With the very chilly start we had to summer out here, we didn’t get the plants in the ground until almost July 4th. This means that by the time frost is threatening I’ll have at least several dozen green tomatoes, and a watertight reason to eat fried green tomatoes at nearly every meal for as long as they last.

Fried Green Tomatoes
adapted from Food + Wine Magazine, August 2006
makes about 12 slices, or two dinner servings + two breakfast servings

4 large green (unripe) tomatoes, sliced crosswise 1/2 inch thick
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
Cayenne pepper
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon water
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1 teaspoon dried thyme
Canola oil, for frying

In a large bowl, combine the tomatoes with the garlic and olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and let stand for 10 minutes.

In a pie plate or shallow bowl, combine 3/4 cup of the flour with salt, pepper and cayenne. In another pie plate, whisk the eggs with the water. In a third pie plate, combine the cornmeal with the remaining 1/2 cup of flour and the thyme and season with salt, pepper and cayenne. Line a baking sheet with wax paper. Drain the tomatoes. Working with 1 slice at a time, dip the tomatoes in the flour, tapping off any excess, then dip in the beaten egg and then in the cornmeal; press to help it adhere. Transfer the breaded slices to the prepared baking sheet.

In a large skillet, heat 1/4 inch of canola oil until shimmering. Fry the tomato slices in batches over moderately high heat, turning once, until golden and crisp, 5 to 6 minutes per batch. Transfer to a rack lined with paper towels to drain. Sprinkle tomatoes with salt.


Brent said...

how do you have time to read through all of those cooking magazines!!

I recently had to cancel my subscription to Food & Wine because it was just so depressing that I couldn't keep up

Anonymous said...

I dislike raw tomatoes and had the same fear of fried green ones. Until I ate one this year. Just goes to show anything tastes good when you batter dip it and fry it!


TD said...

Brent--mostly i read them during my commute. i take a ferry to work, so i don't have to "drive" and i have half an hour or so of uninterrupted time to read. what gets backed up is the tearing out and filing of recipes! you should see the stacks of magazines i have! my husband keeps saying they're going to topple over and squash a child one of these days... :)

E--i'm tellin' ya: calamari. altho i'm coming around on raw red tomatoes, i'm still not fully there, but fried green ones are OK in my book now!