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Green tomatoes
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The old south
There is poetry to fried green tomatoes. They suggest the sleepy old South and the romance of another era on the farm. They embody the bounteous secret spoils of home gardening and hint at the possibilities of vegetarian decadence. That is, if they aren't fried in bacon. But everyone knows that they're best in bacon drippings. Fried green tomatoes evoke much more than just plain old unripe tomatoes, breaded and cooked in a cast iron skillet until golden brown.

Unripe tomatoes are green, firm, and tart. Since the mainstream reintroduction of heirloom tomato varieties, there has been much gushing over the joys of super sweet, juicy tomatoes. Sometimes, those very ripe tomatoes are overrated, and kind of mealy and mushy. Even so, nothing is better than a salad of vine-ripened tomatoes made with the juiciest Brandywines, or a mayonnaise and tomato sandwich with perfectly ripe Romas. Unripe tomatoes have their place in the kitchen as well. Unripe does not mean un-delicious. Look at green mangoes, green bananas, and green papayas.

In New England, green tomatoes can be enjoyed from the farm stand or your own garden from early summer to December. When you hear weather reports about the first frost, pick all the unripe fruit to eat green before they freeze on the vine.

Fried green tomatoes became common everywhere when Fannie Flagg's 1991 book "Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café" was made into a popular film. In Flagg's book, cook Sipsey Peavey fries her green tomatoes two ways. The first is as simple as it gets: She rolls slices of tomatoes in white cornmeal and fries them in bacon drippings. For the more decadent version, Peavey dips the tomatoes into eggs, rolls them in flour or bread crumbs, gently fries them in the bacon fat, and then tops them with milk gravy.

I tried both. The egg and flour style is delicious and comes out golden and crisp every time. It makes sense for juicier tomatoes because, in fact, you can't taste the tartness beneath the batter; and the milk gravy is definitely overkill.

The cornmeal dredge is beautifully plain, and gets downright crunchy in the pan, but it only works with very firm tomatoes. Dipping the tomatoes in milk and then dredging them in dry breadcrumbs is a good compromise. To make them, choose fruit that is just beginning to blush orangeish-pink with plenty of jelly around the seeds. The greenest, apple hard, unripe tomatoes should be left in a sunny spot to ripen a little bit more.

While they are not as authentic, heirloom varieties like Emerald Evergreen, Green Pineapple, and Green Zebra - these are green when fully ripe - actually make some of the tartest, spiciest, juiciest fried green tomatoes of all. Eat them hot out of the pan accompanied by sweetened iced tea. -- JONATHAN LEVITT

Recipe: Fried green tomatoes

(Wendy Maeda / Globe staff)
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