Recently, a gift of two green tomatoes sparked a deep hankering: for fried green tomatoes and their elemental deliciousness, and their evocations of deep summer visits to the South long ago. There I’d hole-up in a bare-bones cabin and cook with the simplest of ingredients — bacon and cornmeal figuring into many impromptu meals — including whatever generous neighbors would give me from their garden. Five ingredients — a green tomato dredged in cornmeal, salt and pepper and pan-fried in some rendered bacon fat — yield the most basic form of the dish, for my money better than the heavier battered style that seems to be everywhere online.
Those 5 simple ingredients, which I keep in my NYC larder, made for a singular lunch that soothed and heartened me. I hadn’t quite realized how much a cooked green tomato tastes faintly of warm pie apples and gooseberries, perfection within a smoky cornmeal crackle. And how intensely they made me feel the summer day.
(Note: I hungrily fried and ate the greenest tomato before photographing it for this little story; the second with a blush of ripening would provide a second solitary feast after it found its way into a photo.)
I prefer fried green tomatoes as-is, straight out of the pan though there’s a lot you can do with them. Food writer Jessica Harris loves fried green tomatoes as the tomato in BLT’s. JoAnne Clevenger, owner of New Orleans Upperline restaurant uses them in all sorts of preparations, including Eggs Benedicts and as a base for her shrimp remoulade.
The wonderful little scandal is that the fried green tomato’s historical roots appear not to be southern at all. According to Robert F. Moss, author of The Fried Green Tomato Swindle and Other Southern Culinary Adventures, recipes for them first appeared in local Midwestern and Northeastern cookbooks quite possibly with links to Jewish immigrants. Still, there is no doubt in my mind that if you have some green tomatoes you’re going to try frying them in the best way you know how. In the South that would likely be with cornmeal and bacon fat.
If you want to evoke big Southern visions with your fried green tomatoes, check out the movie by that name (you can rent it here). Or read Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, the novel that inspired it (and possibly the belief that fried green tomatoes’ roots lay in the South.)
Recipe: Fried Green Tomatoes
For equipment, you need a skillet in which the dusted tomatoes won’t stick, such as 10” seasoned cast iron or nonstick.
Serves 1, can be scaled up
A handful of cornmeal. Medium coarseness like Bob’s Red Mill will give a nice crackle
About 1 tablespoons rendered bacon fat* (Pancetta fat would be delicious as well))
Sprinkle the cornmeal on a dinner plate. Add some salt and a few grinds of pepper and stir with your fingers to combine.
Slice the tomato(es) crosswise into slices about 1/2-inch thick. Dredge each side with the cornmeal mixture, pushing it around so the cornmeal sticks. Tap off excess and place on a plate. Repeat with all the slices.
Heat the skillet over a medium flame and add about a teaspoon of bacon fat; swirl it around as it melts. When a speck of cornmeal sizzles in the hot fat, you’re ready to add the tomatoes. Arrange the slices in the pan leaving a little space around them. Turn the flame down slightly if necessary. It’s too hot if the fat starts to smoke; it should just bubble around the edges of the tomatoes. You want to cook the tomatoes fairly slowly and leisurely so the hard tomatoes will soften by the time the cornmeal has formed a nice crust. Add a little more fat around the tomatoes as necessary.
Peak under the slices occasionally to see how they are browning. When they are a deep golden brown, carefully flip the tomatoes with a spatula. Continue cooking until the bottoms are brown. Drain them briefly on a paper towel. Eat at once.
*How to Render Bacon, Pancetta or Ham Duck or Goose Fat
To render means to cook a fatty meat or skin slowly until the fat liquifies and can be separated from any flesh, skin or cartilage. Then it can be strained into a clean jar and kept on hand (in the refrigerator) for use in cooking. You can render the fat from bacon, pancetta, a real cured country ham such as prosciutto or Smithfield, or from a goose or duck to add marvelous flavor to a dish.
The yield of different fats varies greatly. Here is a rough gauge:
Bacon or Pancetta: 1 ounce yields 1 tablespoon fat. 1 pound yields 1 cup (8 ounces) fat;
Double Smoked Bacon: 1/4 pound yields about 3 tablespoons. 1 pound yields 2/3-3/4 cup fat;
Cut the bacon, pancetta, duck, ham or goose fat to be rendered into 1/4-inch dice. In a heavy nonstick skillet, cook the fat covered over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the fat is liquid and the remaining flesh is crisp and brown. Strain into a clean dry jar and refrigerate when cool. You can use the crisp rendered bits in recipes or as a garnish. You can freeze them up to 2 months and reheat them in a covered skillet with a little water.