Friday, July 13, 2007

Green Tomatoes

Local tomatoes from the hothouse are available, and they are not bad. But they’re not the same as field tomatoes, are they? While we wait—or while you wait for your own garden tomatoes to ripen—green tomatoes have their own charms and uses.

Raw, green tomatoes are tart, even a little sour, and crunchy hard, almost like apples. These characteristics are, perhaps, what led frugal housewives to try them in a pie. Or perhaps their flavor, which reminds me of nothing so much as pumpkin. In any case, green tomatoes make very nice pie, either just sliced thin with sugar and traditional pie spices, double-crust or crumb top, or in the form of green-tomato mincemeat. Mincemeat, which contains lots of sugar and vinegar, is a preserved product—and green tomatoes do make fine pickles and relishes too. Pickling is a good option for the fall “crop” of green tomatoes, picked before the first frost.

I like green tomato pie. But I love fried green tomatoes. While both of these are often associated with Southern cooking—reinforced, perhaps, by the very enjoyable “women’s” movie Fried Green Tomatoes and the book on which it was based--they are old New England foods. I fry up a few green tomatoes early every summer here in Rhode Island, using our justifiably famous Rhode Island jonnycake cornmeal (see May 12, 2007 post and sources to left). Fried green tomatoes have a wonderful soft-firm texture and unusual, pure country flavor. They make an eccentric BLT or, with or without milk gravy, a nice side dish for homey meat and poultry dishes. Actually, I sometimes eat them on their own for lunch. I use the same basic recipe whether for a sandwich or side dish.

Rhode Island-style Fried Green Tomatoes

A touch of brown sugar takes the edge off green tomatoes, and adds dimension to a BLT made with a good smokey bacon. (Serves 4-5 as a side dish) 

4 medium-large unblemished green tomatoes
½ cup RI stoneground white flint cornmeal
¼ cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
¾ tea salt
few twists of the pepper mill
6-8 T unsalted butter
2 T fresh basil, snipped or chopped

Heat oven to 250 F. With a serrated knife, cut tomatoes into ½” slices and pat dry. On a sheet of wax paper, combine sugar, cornmeal, and salt and pepper with your fingers. Turn the tomato slices over in the mixture, pressing down to coat. Heat about 2 T of butter in a large skillet over medium heat and place in as many tomatoes as will fit without crowding. Cook slowly, adjusting the heat down if necessary (remember, sugar scorches easily), until a golden crust forms—3-5 minutes. Turn carefully, trying not to disturb the crust (not always possible; push it back into place), and cook another 3-5 minutes, or until the tomato yields to pressure. Add additional butter a bit at a time as necessary to keep pan bottom coated. Remove tomatoes to a plate and keep warm in the oven while you cook the next batch. You can eat them as is, sprinkled with a little fresh basil and additional salt and pepper if you like, or serve with this gravy or make yourself a green tomato BLT:

Milk Gravy for Green Tomatoes
Into the brownings of the pan in which you cooked the tomatoes, place another T of butter and, when it melts over medium heat, sprinkle in about a T of flour; stir with a wooden spoon. Slowly add a cup or more of milk (or half milk, half buttermilk) to make a fluid gravy. Season with salt and pepper and, if desired, a touch of nutmeg. Don’t worry about a little graininess from the cornmeal, or if the buttermilk (if using) seems to separate or even curdle a bit—it will all come together. Keep the heat moderate.

Green Tomato BLT

I like to use that Rhode Island favorite, the top-split hot dog roll, for this sandwich (but it’s not-for-first-date messy to eat, so use sliced bread if you like). Grill the sides of the roll in a little butter. Fill the insides with a little mayo (June 17, 2007 post) or thousand island dressing (as in the photo, a combo of homemade mayo, ketchup, chopped dill pickle, salt, and pepper), the fried tomatoes cut in half, cooked bacon, iceberg lettuce—local and virgenally white and crisp right now—and, if you want, a few large basil leaves. Yum. Use any extra dressing for an old-fashioned iceberg lettuce salad.

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