Thursday, August 01, 2013

A late-summer, end-of-summer treat: fried green tomatoes.

I did not learn to make these when I was growing up. As far as I can remember, my Sainted Mother, being more or less a Yankee, never fried a green tomato, let alone okra or the leftovers of grits that had been left to become solid in the refrigerator.

At some point in the last ten years, though, I learned to make fried green tomatoes. They're not economical--very few people have enough tomato plants that finding a use for them is necessary, at the end of the season. They're not Paleo, or Atkins, or Clean--they're something you make as a special treat, to serve with fresh mozarella or shrimp or sausages, or just on their own, as soon as they come out of the pan.

They are purely Southern, in the sense that some version of FGTs extend from West Virginia all the way to Arizona. They are best made with green tomatoes found, by chance, at the farmer's market: the kind you get at the grocery store don't have enough flavor. Grab a half-dozen or so, stock up on cornmeal and breadcrumbs and fat, and go at it.

(This recipe can be made gluten free by the substitution of rice flour for the flour and gluten-free breadcrumbs for the breadcrumbs. Don't waste your money on panko; get the cheapest breadcrumbs you can find at the grocery store, or make your own from heels and odds of bread you've stored in your freezer. A blender helps here.)

You will need:

A large frying pan. Cast iron is best, but anything NOT non-stick will work.

A spatula or pancake turner.

Two large plates and a shallow bowl.

A fork. A knife. A horizontal surface onto which to slice the tomatoes.

Salt, breadcrumbs, cornmeal, pepper, at least three eggs, and a whole lot of oil or Crisco. Also four to six green tomatoes, the most symmetrical and greenest you can find.

To begin:

Obtain your tomatoes. Wash them briefly under cold running water and slice their ends off. Be miserly in slicing off the blossom end, as it's the most tender part, and promiscuous in slicing off the stem end. Green tomatoes have not yet formed a tough core, but who wants to eat stem? Now slice the tomatoes.

Some people swear by thick slices, at least a half-inch. I find I get better results with thinner slices--anything from a quarter-inch to almost paper-thin, depending on my mood and skill with the knife.

After slicing your fruit, lay them flat on a large plate or cutting board and salt them. You don't have to go nuts with the salt; this step is meant to draw out the extra juice and keep the breading from getting soggy. While they're sweating on the cutting board or plate, set up your breading station: on the first plate, dump a good amount of plain flour. On the second, dump equal amounts of breadcrumbs and corn meal, mixed well. I use a blender to do this because I am FANCY.

In the shallow bowl, mix up as many egg whites as you can scrounge up. Do not use whole eggs for this; the fat in the yolk will make your tomatoes soggy.

Now melt some Crisco (or lard) or heat up some vegetable oil (not olive!) (not butter!) (bacon grease is okay and traditional) in your frypan. You want it hot enough that a little pinch of flour sizzles when you toss it in there. Keep the heat at medium or medium-high. A half-inch of melted fat in the pan is the right amount. Too much and you'll end up with soggy, greasy tomatoes. Too little, and the fat will suck off all the cornmeal and burn.

Take your sliced tomatoes and pepper them. Press them gently into the flour. You want them coated with flour on each flat side. Don't worry about the edges where the skin is; they'll take care of themselves. (I do not recommend shaking the tomatoes with flour in a bag, as this will cause the innards of the tomatoes to fall out. Take the time to press them into the flour and you'll be much happier.)

Now dip them into the egg white. This will make your fingers gooey. Coat them with the breadcrumb-and-cornmeal mixture and set them aside in a single layer to wait for frying.

When the fat is hot, place five or so tomato slices into it. You want them to be uncrowded and in a single layer. Let them sit and sizzle until you see that they're beginning to get brown up the sides. Turn them carefully and allow to sizzle for a couple minutes more--the second side takes much, much less time than the first.

Remove to paper towels, (or do what the finest cook I know does: use slices of cheap white bread in place of paper towels. Use those bread slices to drain everything from bacon to fish, and then, at the end of a week or so, grill them by themselves and serve them with lots of ham gravy) and drain.

Continue in this way until the fat starts to smell like burning cornmeal. When that happens, stop everything. Take the pan off the heat and let it cool for a half-hour or so (your tomatoes will wait, I promise), then pour the fat out of the pan and replace it with clean fat. This step is essential. Otherwise, you'll end up with burnt-tasting FGTs.

You can eat them out of hand. You can layer them with slices of good mild cheese, or grate a tiny amount of good hard goat-cheese over them. You can cover them with shrimp or ham or sausage gravy. You can, if you like, layer them in a casserole with fresh sliced zucchini and ripe tomatoes and a little grilled eggplant and call it Southern Ratatouille, but I won't eat it.

They are best eaten as they are, with extra salt if you need it, off a plate, on a porch or in a kitchen in the middle of the dog days, below the Mason-Dixon line. You can fry okra or catfish if you have any cornmeal left over and feel very virtuous about not wasting food. I layer them with fresh mozzarella if I'm feeling fancy, or throw them into a roll with mayo, lettuce, and cheese and call it an FGT po-boy.

But most often I eat them as they come out of the pan, crisp and tangy and citrusy. These are the perfect bridge food between the humid hot horrible summer days of August and the crisper fall days to come. Enjoy.


Celeste said...

They are plain delicious with just salt, but I have to tell you of a dipping sauce I've been served with them. Simply, it's mayonnaise with horseradish and grainy brown mustard stirred in. Something different, if the mood ever strikes you.

messymimi said...

My Sweetie grew up eating these, and taught me to make them. You are right, they are some of the best comfort food the South has to offer.

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

Sounds delicious!

bdaiss said...

Oh dear sweet Jo. Green tomatoes may be a "luxury" down there in the south, but up here where summer is short, the nights are chilly, and yet we still haven't given up hope of gardening, we often find ourselves with an abundance of green tomatoes we just can't bear to let go. My family actually has become sick of green tomatoes in years past: FGTs, green tomato pickles, green tomato relish, etc etc.

And most definitely best straight out of the pan, hot and crispy.

JA-RN said...

My mother used to put brown sugar on top, otherwise cooked the same

Corpus Callosum said...

I've never been a fan of tomatoes but you've made this sound really, really good. Why should we not use olive oil though? Is it just because it's non-traditional or is there a specific reason? I know that butter would burn.

Jo said...

Corp, olive oil and butter both have too low a smoking point. Corn oil is good, generic "vegetable" is good, peanut is best. There are still holdouts for the bacon-grease or lard camp, which both have their merits.

A tomato fried in bacon grease is absolute heaven.

Wendy said...

Fried Green Tomatoes are certainly not a southern thing. We've had them as meals since before I was a possibility here in Pennsylvania, where the tomato plants will take over your garden in half a heartbeat. Unfortunately, while I used to like them, for some reason I can't stand to eat them anymore, but will cook them up for my husband and parent and content myself with an onion sandwich.

memune said...

these are one of the few things from my southern childhood that I still will eat, nay, yearn for. I grow extra tomatoes just for me and my neighbor (she's from Jersey, so the gospel spread at least that far north). I drain them on a layer of clean dishtowels set over newspaper - dishtowels in the wash, newspaper on the compost.

The Husbandnator and I differ as to whether a little beer should be added to the batter; I add a smidge of bacon fat to the fryin' stuff.
You can also make green tomato pickle out of the last little ones that don't have time to ripen before the front hits. Not quite the same, but still yummy.

Karen Hall said...

I just learned how to make fried green tomatoes! I grew up in the south and in the summer they were as plentiful as fresh corn. I got several recipes I tried and didn't care for and out of desperation one day I tried Betty Crocker cornbread mix!! It was awesome! Kinda sweet and crunchy!! Yum!

Anonymous said...

Mercy me, my dear woman. If you're gonna spend these dollars at the calorie bank - BACON. Fry up a pound or two of bacon, the commence with the frying of the batter-dipped green pieces of glory.

Mrs. Higrens said...

I've read this at least 2x and each time my mouth begins to water.

When the tomatoes are cut just right between thin and thick, and cooked just right, and melt into your mouth between the crispy outer layers? HEAVEN.

Nursery said...

How we love fried green tomatoes. We go to a local cafe Pubelos' and they fix cheese grit with them. Talk about good!

Anonymous said...

Fried okra is the best, fried in cornmeal.