Fried green tomatoes – the myth and the reality.

From M., 22 December, fried green tomatoes – truth, or American myth?

Q: It looks as though I am store for a large tomato crop. I usuallly end up with some green tomatoes at the end of the season as they do not have time to ripen before the cold weather, but do not know what to do with them. I have heard of an American dish called fried green tomatoes, or is this a myth?

A: A myth? Oh, ok. I see. So our last “president” made up that thing about WMD in Iraq, and now Americans can’t be believed about anything, is that it? Give us a little credit. Ancient Greek myths revolved around angry and jealous gods turning boastful women into spiders or impregnating queens by coming to them as swans. We may not be a particularly clever people, but as myths go, even we can come up with something better than a fictional account of an unripe tomato made suitable for food.

There certainly is an American dish called fried green tomatoes. It’s a Southern specialty. As you observed, it’s a frugal way to be sure that the unripened tomatoes on the vine just before the autumn frosts don’t go to waste, but in the South, the green fruits are considered a treat in their own right. Sliced thickly, seasoned, and coated with cornmeal before being shallow-fried in oil or drippings, fried green tomatoes are a favorite side dish throughout the summer months. Dress them with pepper vinegar – made by storing hot chiles, like Tabasco peppers, in white (or sometimes cider) vinegar.

You may see recipes for deep-fried green tomatoes, dredged first in flour, then passed through an egg wash, before breading in the cornmeal coat. I don’t recommend this method for frying green tomatoes, partly because it isn’t traditional, and partly because the thicker breading tends to steam as the tomatoes cool, becoming soggy. A simple cornmeal coating is all that’s necessary for true Southern flavor. If you’re in another part of the world where American cornmeal isn’t readily available (say, Australia), look for polenta. It’s basically the same thing, for these purposes.

I’m also including a second recipe from the other side of the globe. In this regard I’m breaking from tradition and pointing you to someone else’s recipe – this one comes from the excellent chronicle of the Indian subcontinent, Mangoes and Curry Leaves, which I bought for my husband a few years ago. One night in October, he gathered two dozen or so green tomatoes from the cherry tomato plant in the back garden when we thought (mistakenly, as it turned out) that the nights were about to turn cold. He used them to make the Green Tomato Curry from that cookbook, which was one of the best Indian dishes I’ve ever eaten.

So there you have it. Two dishes, both real. I’ve eaten them both and can attest to their non-mythical status. Maybe one of these days it will emerge that an ambitious American folk hero turned a giant sequoia into a creamed turnip, but I doubt it.

Fried green tomatoes

In some quarters, a half-and-half mixture of cornmeal and regular unbleached white flour is traditional rather than straight cornmeal. Try it that way if you like – it produces a lighter coating. I like the thickness of the 100% cornmeal coating, but that’s just me.

three or four green tomatoes – totally green if you can manage it, with no red
salt and ground pepper
2 c cornmeal (or polenta) [substitute 1 c all purpose flour for 1 c cornmeal if you like]
vegetable oil, lard, or bacon drippings, or any combination of the three
Tabasco sauce (or another hot sauce), or pepper vinegar

Slice the tomatoes about 3/8″ or 1 cm thick. Season with salt and pepper. Spread the cornmeal in a shallow pan or wide bowl.

Place a cast iron skillet or large sauté pan over medium high heat and add about 1/4″ oil, bacon drippings, lard, or any combination of the three. Heat until the oil reaches about 350F/175C (a 1″ bread cube should brown in about 60 seconds).

Dip the tomato slices on both sides in the cornmeal, shake off any excess, and place in the hot oil. Do not crowd the pan. The oil should not cover the tomato slices. The weight of the tomatoes should press down on the cornmeal, forming a crisp crust. Adjust the heat as necessary to prevent burning but to maintain a hot enough temperature for browning. When the crust turns brown, flip and brown the other side. Drain on a rack over a pan and repeat until you have cooked all the tomatoes.

Serve with pepper vinegar or hot sauce.

Green tomato curry
Adapted from Mangoes and Curry Leaves, Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid.

My husband made this dish without the Maldive fish (we did have a suitable substitute, bonito flakes, but he wasn’t all that interested in using them), or the curry leaves (we have a source, but none in the house). It was delicious all the same, so if you’re worried about finding either ingredient, just leave them out.

If you grow cherry tomatoes, I strongly recommend using the green cherry tomatoes for this dish. They’re not as juicy and the creaminess of the sauce makes this simple dish seem really decadent.

2 tbsp vegetable oil
about 1/2 medium onion, fine dice
2 small hot green chiles, seeded and deribbed, minced
6-8 curry leaves
1 tsp bonito flakes, crumbled to a fine powder [readily available in the Japanese food section of any grocery and look like giant pencil shavings in a bag]*
1/4 tsp ground fenugreek
pinch turmeric
1 lb green tomatoes, diced about 1″ [I recommend cherry tomatoes, halved]
2 tsp salt [possibly less to taste – this may seem quite salty to you]
3/4 c coconut milk

Place a heavy pot over medium-high heat and, when hot, add the oil. Add the onion, chile, and, if using them, the curry leaves, and sauté until the onion is lightly golden. Add the bonito flakes (if using), the fenugreek, turmeric, tomatoes, and salt, and cook for about 15 minutes, until the tomatoes are tender.

Add the coconut milk and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until the sauce has thickened.

*The original recipe calls for Maldive fish, which is widely available in Sri Lankan and some Indian stores. Maldive fish is dried tuna that is shredded or crumbled to lend a smoky, savory taste. Bonito serves a nearly identical function and is much easier to find.

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