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Fried Green Tomatoes Say Fall - No. 245
A little technique goes a long way
WHEN I SEE GREEN TOMATOES IN THE MARKET, I’m reminded about those fried green tomatoes lovingly cooked at the late Betty Talmadge's farm about 25 miles south of Atlanta.
In the 1980s, Betty would stage these lavish dinner parties at Lovejoy for friends and business clients. And thanks to her cook Cile, she turned out the best Southern cooking including fried green tomatoes. I once walked into the insanely busy kitchen at Betty’s house, and there was Cile, pulling sliced green tomatoes from their bath of salted ice water.
She dried them off and dredged them in a mixture of seasoned white cornmeal and flour, and then fried them in a big iron skillet until crispy.
The front of the house might have been filled with movers and shakers, but the real action was happening right here in this kitchen, and Cile was making art—edible, crunchy, lightly salted, a real salute to fall.
One of my favorite gardening books, The Gardener's Wise Words and Country Ways, by England's Ruth Binney, advises gardeners to hold on to unripened green tomatoes at the end of the season. She chops and adds them to stir-fries. Or she wraps them individually in tissue paper and places them in a drawer or cardboard box with a few ripe tomatoes or a couple of bananas. The natural ethylene gas in the ripe tomato or banana jumpstarts the ripening process.
I never have to take such extreme measures to get my green tomatoes to ripen. I just place them in a sunny kitchen window and don't give them a lot of thought until those tomatoes ripen in a week and are incredibly delicious on a bacon sandwich. They are so much better than supermarket tomatoes, have a bit of a tough peel, yes, but you slice that off and cut the now-ripened tomato into pieces to top a salad.
Or you can cook with green tomatoes and skip the ripening altogether!
One idea: Make mincemeat
When I interviewed Beth Campbell of Belleville, Wisconsin for my book American Cake, she thought back to her youth on the family farm when green tomatoes triggered everyone into action. All hands were needed to grind tomatoes into mincemeat.
Beth was the oldest of six children, and she says big families meant plenty of people to feed. So nothing was ever wasted. She remembers down in the cellar along with the wood stove, there was a long wooden table with a hand-grinder attached to it.
"My job was to grind the green tomatoes so my mom, aunts and Grandma could make that mincemeat," she said, which her family added to cakes and pies all year.
"I remember the smell of the mincemeat cooking down ready to be put into jars for processing and the whole house filled with the wonderful smells of the end of the growing season, with winter not being too far away."
Why tomatoes stay green
The tomato seems a perfectly simple food. And yet, it’s not! To turn from green to red, think pigments. One is chlorophyll, which makes it green. And once the height of the tomato season arrives in mid-summer, chlorophyll dissolves and the pigments lycopene and carotene kick in to turn tomatoes red.
The tomato not only changes in color, it gets sweeter, softer, and ready for slicing.
But as the plant matures, and the days and nights in the garden get cooler, green tomatoes won't turn red on the vine. Which isn't a problem if you put them in the kitchen window to ripen over a week or two or like to cook with green tomatoes.
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A better idea: Fry green tomatoes & watch a movie
Cile’s green tomatoes were a thing of beauty. After frying, she would line them up around the sides of a colander so they drained and stayed crispy.
My friend and Southern food maven Nathalie Dupree thinks of green tomatoes as the food of fall, and she says they are best fried and eaten "right out of the pan." Nathalie likes a combination of cornmeal and flour on a pie plate for dredging, and sautés the coated tomato slices in butter—"I like the crisp edginess.’’
When the movie Fried Green Tomatoes was released in 1991, fried green tomatoes moved out of the home kitchen and into stardom. (You can find them on just about any Southern restaurant menu. But here’s the truth: They are best made at home.)
Based on Fannie Flagg's novel, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, the movie was about friendship and resiliency. And how it pays to reach out and do something nice for someone else if you are feeling down about your own life.
Tricks to frying green tomatoes on a movie set
As the movie was filmed in the heat of the summer in Juliette, Georgia, Atlanta food stylist Cynthia Hizer was called into action to fry those tomatoes and style all the other food the movie required. I once tracked down Cynthia—we used to work together at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution—to see what she remembered about frying so many green tomatoes!
Laborious, she recalled. And frustrating. On set, the fried tomatoes appeared gray, so Cynthia and her assistants had to first soak them in green-tinted water to brighten up their color. And then they dredged them in a mixture of flour, sugar, and cornmeal, froze the slices, dredged them again, and then fried them in a big cast iron skillet until golden. She recalls frying them only on one side, placing them on the platter fried-side up, and this way they stayed firmer longer on set.
While recipes differ as to how to best prep tomato slices for frying, Nathalie adds that it's important to choose really green tomatoes, not those that are starting to turn red, which softens their texture.
Cile told me she soaked them overnight in salted water in the fridge or at least for a few hours. Cynthia says she often uses buttermilk for soaking. And then after frying until crispy on both sides in about an inch of hot oil, and draining around the sides of a colander (or on a rack set on a sheet pan) so they stay crispy, the options are up to you.
You can serve them with a sprinkle of salt and pepper, shower them with chopped fresh basil or parsley, cut them into cubes and add them to salads like croutons, or stack the fried green tomato slices alternating with ripe red tomato slices. If you smear some homemade pesto, Boursin, or soft goat cheese between the slices, the stack stays together and is delicious!
It was good to remember Cile’s fried green tomatoes all these years later. Nothing sets memories in stone like getting into the kitchen while someone you admire is cooking. Watch them, take a photo and some mental notes, and write those notes down as soon as you can. This preserves old recipes like fried green tomatoes so we can keep them fresh and resilient for another generation.
Do you fry green tomatoes? Do you love/hate to fry? What old recipes matter to you?
Have a great week!
- xo, Anne
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That famous plum torte—you know the recipe!—just had a 40th anniversary, and I made it with nectarines, and on Thursday, you can, too! Not a subscriber? Join us as we roll into fall with the Thursday favorite recipes.
Fried Green Tomatoes
The easiest trick in the book is to peel the tomatoes before slicing, and that lets the breading stick to the sides.
Makes 12 to 18 slices, serving 4
3 to 4 medium-size green tomatoes
Salted ice water for soaking
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup white cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Peanut or vegetable oil for frying
1. Peel the tomatoes, and slice them into about 4 nice slices each. Set aside. Place cold tap water in a large mixing bowl and stir in about 2 teaspoons kosher salt. Add a couple cups of ice cubes. Place the tomato slices in the salted ice water, and place the bowl in the refrigerator overnight or at least 2 hours.
2. When ready to fry, remove the bowl from the refrigerator. Pour off the water, and drain the tomato slices. Pat them dry with paper towels. Place the flour, cornmeal, salt and pepper in a shallow dish or pie plate, and stir to combine. Dredge the tomatoes in the mixture, coating well on both sides, as well as on the outside peeled tomato edges. Place on a baking sheet in the fridge or freezer while you heat the oil.
3. Place enough oil in the skillet to measure 1 inch up the side of the pan. Heat over medium-high heat until 350ºF, or until a pinch of the cornmeal mixture sizzles. Remove the tomato slices from the fridge, and carefully drop three or four slices at a time into the hot oil. Fry until golden brown on each side, about 2 minutes per side. Remove the slices to a colander or wire rack to drain. Once drained, keep warm on a baking sheet in a 200ºF-oven while you continue frying the rest of the tomatoes.
How to Make a Tomato Stack:
For each stack, carefully spread Boursin (or goat) cheese onto 3 fried green tomato slices and alternate them and 3 slices of red ripe tomatoes. Top with a fourth fried green tomato slice, and drizzle good olive oil over the top. Scatter the top with chopped fresh basil, pesto, crumbled feta, you name it!