Getting Fresh: Fry Those Green Tomatoes

As a Yankee girl, I was unfamiliar with the southern notion of fried green tomatoes until 1991, when the dish's namesake movie starring Kathy Bates, Jessica Tandy et al. was released. Watching "Fried Green Tomatoes" was a magical experience, a peek into a world about which I knew so little -- the South -- and I remember being both enchanted by the small-town intimacy of the Whistlestop Café and horrified by the racism.

Cornmeal-coated fried green tomatoes. (Kim O'Donnel)

Not until 1996, though, did I have my first up-close experience with a fried green tomato. I was working as a line cook at Cashion's Eat Place, where I become intimately acquainted with the deep fryer. One of the signature dishes on chef Ann Cashion's hand-written menu, was fritto misto, a classic Italian dish of fried seafood. But Cashion, who's from Jackson, Miss., added a southern twist to this dish with fried green tomatoes.

Cashion, one of the best teachers I ever had, was fanatical about the seasoned flour; she insisted that I taste the uncooked flour, ensuring plenty of salt and pepper, and man, if I sent out underseasoned fritto misto, there was hell to pay. Squid, shrimp and fennel also figured into this dish, all requiring different batter and frying protocols.

Unlike the rest of the dish, the green tomatoes called for cornmeal, with an egg wash to act as an adhesive. When sliced thinly enough and fried just right, the green tomato is a yin-yang of sweet and sour, crisp and tender, a strangely wonderfully melty morsel that is hearty enough to take on even more fat, such as bacon, aioli or homemade tartar sauce.

In the years since, I've had my share of fried green tomatoes in various restaurants here up north, but mostly I've been disappointed, unable to bite through still rock-hard green flesh. At market on Sunday, as I picked up a bunch of green tomatoes, my days at the fryer station came rushing back. It's time, girl, to fry up some tomatoes.

Last night I was flying solo for dinner, appropriate for a trip down culinary memory lane. Unable to remember Cashion's proportions, I sought out southern-fried advice from "Not Afraid of Flavor," a very reliable collection of recipes from Ben and Karen Barker of Magnolia Grill in Durham, N.C.

Instead of an egg wash, the Barkers call for a dip in buttermilk, which not only gives the tomatoes a lovely tang but tenderizes their stubbornly hard flesh.

Dip, dip went the tomatoes, now armored with cornmeal coating, and into a pool of hot oil in a cast-iron skillet they went. A few minutes on each site, and the tomatoes surrendered on the inside, while maintaining a crispy shell. I fried about six and ate every single one of them, and I noticed they get better as they cool.

And Ann, thanks for being so hard on me.

Got a fried green tomato tip or story to share? Do so in the comments area below.

Fried Green Tomatoes
Adapted from "Not Afraid of Flavor" by Ben and Karen Barker

1/2 cup buttermilk (KOD note: No buttermilk in the house? Use same amount of milk or 1 egg beaten with 1/4 cup water)
8-12 slices firm, unripe green tomato, ½ inch thick
1 cup coarse-ground cornmeal
2 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 cup peanut oil

Place tomatoes in buttermilk; depending on time, you may let them marinate for a few minutes or do a quick dip.

To make coating, combine cornmeal, flour, salt, pepper, cayenne and oregano. Drain tomatoes and dredge in cornmeal mixture. Tomatoes should be completely coated.

Heat oil over medium heat (preferably in a cast-iron skillet) - oil should be shimmering, about 350 degrees.

Dip tomatoes into oil, in small batches, until crisp and golden, turning them once. Each side will take 2-3 minutes. With tongs, remove tomatoes and allow to drain on paper towels or brown paper bags. Keep warm in a low oven until ready to eat.

By Kim ODonnel |  August 2, 2007; 9:49 AM ET Getting Fresh , Summer
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I love fried green tomatoes, but try to be healthy, so after I bread them, I place them on a baking rack and bake on high heat. They're not AS delicious, but they get good and crispy on the outside and I can eat more without feeling guilty!

Posted by: K | August 2, 2007 11:50 AM

Does anyone know if Green Tomatoes (unripe, I assume, not the heirloom type) have the same kind of antioxidents, vitamins, etc as red tomatoes?

Posted by: Anonymous | August 2, 2007 12:13 PM

I would think that green tomatoes (even unripe) would lack lycopene.

Posted by: antioxidants, vitamins | August 2, 2007 1:48 PM

Instead of a tartar sauce or aioli, I like to crumble goat cheese on top of my fried green tomaters, then drizzle a good balsalmic vinegar over them!

Posted by: Mandy | August 2, 2007 4:22 PM

I remember the first time my mother cooked green tomatoes. I wouldn't eat them, I didn't know that she was supposed to slice them, not chunk them. She coated them with flour and dumped them into the skillet and it became a sticky mess. Not until I was in my 30's did I realize that they were supposed to be sliced. My mother was a very good cook and don't know why she made this big blunder. I use a different coating for my fried tomatoes. I use a seasoned bread crumbs, Italian is very good for something different or other times I use a combination of cornmeal and flour and buttermilk/egg wash. Putting vinegar or anything else on a fried green tomato is just wrong.....must be a "northern" true southerner would do such a thing.

Posted by: Ponder Bleu | August 3, 2007 9:40 AM

My dad used to like green tomatoe pie. I tried to make one for him after my mom died but it just didn't taste the same as when she made it. I thnk I put too many cloves in it.

Posted by: Clueless cook | August 4, 2007 9:48 PM

I find that using a little bit of garlic salt adds a nice bit of flavour, and I also use a cornmeal/flour mixture. Fried green tomatoes are easily the best thing about summer!

Posted by: sarah | August 6, 2007 2:20 PM

Sorry, Kim, but you simply cannot make a true FGT in peanut oil. Reserved bacon fat is the only thing to use. My Pa. Dutch granny and all true Southern cooks would agree.

Posted by: George | August 7, 2007 1:27 PM

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