Discovering fried green tomatoes: ‘Like running into a long-lost friend’

As summer winds down, our Discerning Diner finds an irresistible treat


By Elan Head

A couple of Saturdays ago, I ventured out of town to pay a visit to the Phoenix Public Market.

This is a neat event that runs from 8 a.m. to noon at the corner of Central Avenue and McKinley Street in Phoenix.

You’ll find lots of excellent local products there, including DeCio Pasta (made in our own Kyrene Corridor), superior spiced peaches from Cotton Country Jams and the most outstanding homemade eclairs.

I have to strictly ration myself to one of those eclairs a week--they’re seriously addictive.

Anyway, I took home a lot of good food that day, but the highlight for me was the green tomatoes.

Have you ever had fried green tomatoes? Personally, I knew the dish as a movie long before contemplating it as something to eat.

When I finally whipped up a batch on a lark, I was delighted to discover something quite unlike anything I’d ever eaten before: pleasantly sour and almost as addictive as those eclairs.

I think it’s because fried green tomatoes are so distinctive that rediscovering them late each summer is like running into a long-lost friend.

And their “season” does demand a few words of explanation. Because green tomatoes are nothing exotic — just red tomatoes picked before they’re ripe — they should theoretically be available before red tomatoes are.

Of course, in early summer, the promise of the first red tomatoes is irresistible, so no one’s going to pick them before they’re ready.

Late in the season, though, you’re going to get tomatoes that just won’t ripen before the first frost. And thus they’re eaten green, a richly metaphoric way to end the summer.

Green tomatoes are good in chutney, as ketchup and even in green tomato pie, but their best-known preparation is fried.

Fried green tomatoes are also incredibly easy to make, so if you’re lucky enough to score some green tomatoes, don’t be intimidated.

Here’s the drill: fill a frying pan with vegetable oil to the depth of a quarter-inch. Heat it over medium-high heat until the oil is very hot--as with all frying, having your oil sufficiently hot is key.

Wash and dry two green tomatoes and cut them into slices about one-third inch thick. Use your judgment here: if the slices are too thin, they’ll be mostly batter, but if they’re too thick, they won’t cook through.

Sprinkle the tomato slices with salt.

Spread a half-cup or so of cornmeal on a plate. (You can also use flour, but cornmeal will give a distinctive crunch.) When the oil is hot, press each side of each tomato slice into the cornmeal and quickly transfer to the frying pan.

Fry for a few minutes on each side, until the cornmeal crust is golden and crisp. Transfer to a plate lined with paper towels and sop up any excess oil.

That’s it! Enjoy them immediately as is, or with lemon juice or mayonnaise to accompany.

I like serving fried green tomatoes with basil mayonnaise, which is simply mayonnaise whirled in a blender with fresh basil, freshly pressed garlic, lemon juice and salt. If the mayonnaise is homemade, so much the better.

Fried tomatoes also make killer sandwiches, a la the vegetarian cookbook author Deborah Madison. To make them, spread slices of good, crusty bread with mayonnaise, top with fried green tomatoes and eat at once.

Happy eating!