Thursday, August 15, 2013

Apple #647: Fried Green Tomatoes

I'm probably late to the party on this topic, but I had a fried green tomato for the first time ever this past weekend.  It was served on a grilled hamburger with crispy bacon and boy, let me tell you, that might have been the best hamburger I have ever eaten.  The crispy breading on the tomato merged with the crispiness of the bacon, and the flavor of the tomato melted with the flavor of the burger, and mmm, was that good.

Fried green tomatoes, with a fresh green one too.
(Photo from For the Love of Sunday)

But of course, as your intrepid Apple Lady, I had many questions about fried green tomatoes.  Yes, I saw the movie when it came out in 1991 and yes, I heard all about the fried green tomato craze at the time.  But the details of the dish never sunk in with me.  So now I have many questions.  First and foremost being, do you need special tomatoes or do you use regular old tomatoes that just aren't ripe?

The Tomatoes

  • Yes, "green tomatoes" means simply unripe regular tomatoes. 
  • You don't want to use the red, ripe, juicy ones because if you try to fry those, they'll just turn to mush on you.  They need to be green & unripe so they'll be firm enough to stand up to the battering & frying. 

Green tomatoes for frying.  Just like the red ones, except not ripe. Or red.
(Photo from The Forgotten Teaspoon)

  • But most grocery stores don't sell unripe/green tomatoes, so where do you find them?
  • Many people recommend farmer's markets.
  • You could grow tomatoes yourself and pick them before they ripen.
  • Some people say you can sometimes find them at Asian or Mexican grocery stores.
  • If you really can't find green tomatoes anywhere, go to your local grocery store and from among the red tomatoes, choose the palest, hardest, most-green-tinged tomatoes you can find.  Then when you prepare them for frying, salt the slices first and let them stand. The salt will draw out some of the moisture.  Pat them with a paper towel and then give the frying a shot.  They won't turn out quite as well as the fully green/unripe ones, but they might turn out OK.
  • If you are choosing from among red tomatoes, avoid the heirloom varieties ("green zebras") which stay green even when they are ripe.  These will be too mushy and seedy for frying.

The Recipes

  • As is the case with any much-beloved dish, there are a million variations on how to make fried green tomatoes.  Every recipe I've seen has a slight difference.  So here's a summation of some of the recipes I've come across.
Green tomatoes
  • 4 large, or 
  • 3 medium, or
  • 2 large

Slice tomatoes
  • in 1/2-inch thick slices, or
  • thinly for crisper frying.
  • And peel them, or
  • don't peel them

If the slices are especially moist, salt them. Let them stand about 5 minutes, then pat dry with a paper towel.

Green tomatoes, nice and big, sliced for frying
(Photo from La Bella Vita Cucina)

Dip the tomatoes in your favorite coating. Options include but are not limited to:
  • all-purpose flour, or
  • flour mixed with corn meal, or
  • flour plus Cajun seasoning

Next, dip them in your favorite goo.  Options include but are not limited to:
  • eggs, or
  • eggs & milk, or
  • buttermilk, or
  • eggs & buttermilk

Finally, dip them in your favorite crunchy coating. Options include but are not limited to:
  • corn meal (considered de rigeur for the Southern version), or
  • Panko bread crumbs, or
  • bread crumbs churned to a powder in your home mixer, or
  • corn meal and bread crumbs and salt and pepper, or
  • corn meal and bread crumbs and salt and paprika
  • corn meal and flour and cayenne pepper

Prepare the oil for frying.  You could use
  • olive oil, or
  • olive oil plus bacon fat, or
  • olive oil plus butter, or
  • vegetable oil, or
  • peanut oil, or
  • lard

Use enough oil to
  • make 1/4" to 1/2" worth in the skillet, or
  • come up the sides of the slices but not over them, or
  • coat the tomatoes completely

Green tomatoes, frying in a skillet. It looks like most people agree that the oil shouldn't cover the tomatoes.
(Photo from Kikipotamus the Hobo)

Put the oil in a skillet and heat to a medium-high heat in the neighborhood of 360° to 375°.  Drop in the coated tomatoes and let them fry for 3-5 minutes on each side. (Everybody seems to agree on these particulars.)  Let them drain on a paper towel/cookie rack, but don't let them cool too long.  They're best when they're still hot and juicy.

Green tomatoes, fried and cooling on a rack.
(Photo from Southern Living)

Recipes I consulted:
Slate's version, with Panko crumbs, olive oil & butter or bacon fat
Southern Living's version, with egg & buttermilk & cornmeal, vegetable oil
Allrecipe's version, with 4 tomatoes, eggs & milk & flour & cornmeal
Erika Kendall's version like her great-grandmother used to make, with buttermilk, Panko, & paprika
Simply Recipe's version, with flour, Cajun seasoning, and peanut oil
Kikopotamus' version, with corn meal and cayenne pepper
La Bella Vita Cucina's version, with buttermilk and Italian herbs, plus marinara sauce

Are Fried Green Tomatoes Really Southern?

  • While you're eating your fried green tomatoes, here's one last thing I found out about them.
  • Robert Moss, a food writer and culinary historian who lives in South Carolina looked into the history of fried green tomatoes. He first consulted Fannie Flagg's novel, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, and her Original Whistle Stop Cafe Cookbook.  They both said that, based on her family's history, Flagg thought that fried green tomatoes became popular during the Depression, when people were frying up whatever they had and eating it. 
  • But, Moss says, saying a food practice originated during the Depression is a bit suspect when you're talking about the South because "The Depression did not have nearly the crushing effect on the lifestyles of people in the South as it did in the rest of the nation for the simple reason that the Southern economy was already crippled from the agricultural disasters of the 1920s and had been, in fact, a wreck since the Civil War." 
  • In other words, people in the South were hit hard economically long before the Depression.  So if they were cooking food in a certain way in response to hard times, they would have done so long before the 1930s.

I don't know. Do these look especially Southern?  Or depressed?
(Photo from All Day I Dream About Food)

  • So Moss consulted more resources.  He looked at newspaper archives for recipes, and he consulted cookbooks that were published as far back as the 1800s.  He discovered that it wasn't until the 20th century that recipes for fried green tomatoes started showing up in Southern publications.
  • In fact, he says, it looks to him like the recipes first appeared in the Midwest and Northeast. Here's a timeline of some of the cookbooks he found that contained recipes for fried green tomatoes:
      • 1873 - fried tomatoes in The Presbyterian Cookbook, Dayton, OH
      • 1877 - fried tomatoes in The Buckeye Cookbook (I'm guessing that one's Ohio too)
      • the late 19th century - fried tomatoes in several other cookbooks from the Midwest
      • 1889 - fried green tomatoes in Aunt Babette's Cookbook, a kosher Jewish cookbook
      • 1919 - fried green tomatoes in The International Jewish Cookbook
  • So, he says, it looks like fried green tomatoes weren't originally Southern after all, even though now they're so pervasive in the South, "you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a platter of fried green tomatoes" in Charleston, and presumably in other Southern locales.
  • Many people took note of his findings and had various and differing reactions.  Some people proclaimed, "Fried Green Tomatoes are Actually Jewish!"  
  • Other people said, just because some Jewish cookbooks had recipes for fried green tomatoes doesn't mean that people in the South weren't also eating them in the 19th century. (A fair point, I think.)
  • Still other people said, tomatoes first came to the US via the South, so probably people were frying them green for centuries, and anyway, they're a staple of Southern cooking now, so there.
      • (That part about tomatoes coming to the US via the South is only kind of true.  The earliest known grower of the tomato in the US was Thomas Jefferson, who grew them on his farm in Virginia in 1781. A few years later, tomatoes were introduced to Philadelphia in 1789 by a French refugee from Santo Domingo, and then to Salem, Massachusetts in 1802 by an Italian painter.  So it isn't as if only Southern people ate tomatoes first and then the North slowly followed suit. It would be more accurate to say that tomatoes became popular in various locations throughout the colonies in the late 1700s to early 1800s.)
  • It would probably also be accurate to say that, while fried green tomatoes are considered today to be primarily a Southern dish, they have been popular in the past throughout the Northeast and Midwest.

Fried green tomatoes with Creole remoulade
(Photo from Baton Rouge Living)

P.S. Yes, tomatoes are a fruit.

Sources for the history stuff
Robert F. Moss, The Fried Green Tomato Swindle
Smithsonian, The Surprising Origins of Fried Green Tomatoes
Thehistoricfoodie's Blog, Fried Green Tomatoes
Baton Rouge Living, Southern Fried Green Tomatoes
Texas A&M Aggie Horticulture, The Tomato Had To Go Abroad To Make Good
Landscape Imagery, I Say Tomayto, You Say Tomahto

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