CONCORD, N.H. — The first time I made fried green tomatoes I was, of course, living in Scotland. Where else to try such an archetypal food from the American South?
OK, so it wasn't the best introduction to fried green tomatoes. I can't even recall whether the tomatoes I used actually were green. Scotland isn't known for its fine selection of produce, and whatever the color, they weren't good.
I was young and impressionable and had just finished reading "Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe," a novel by Fannie Flagg. Merits of the plot aside, I was taken by the book's description of its namesake dish.
Handily, a section of recipes was included at the back of the book. I was inspired enough to bundle up and drag my housemate into the frigid Scottish winter in search of the relatively simple ingredients — corn meal, salt, pepper, bacon fat and — duh! — green tomatoes.
The corn meal, salt and pepper were easy to come by. We skipped the bacon fat in favor of vegetable oil to appease my vegetarian sensibilities. But green tomatoes? We ended up with something approximating yellow.
We headed back to our rudimentary kitchen and did our best to follow the recipe. I'm still confident we did a good job — it was the recipe that failed us. Really.
It was a simple process: Cut the tomatoes into thick slices, dredge them in a mixture of cornmeal, salt and pepper, then pan-fry them on both sides until crisp.
The result should have been crispy tomatoes, lightly browned, juicy yet still firm, tart, yet a bit sweet and with a hint of vinegar. The result we got was a sloppy, mealy mess, mostly because the cornmeal wouldn't stick to the tomatoes.
We never made them again. In fact, I'm pretty certain we went to a pub for a pint to wash away the flavor.
That was 12 years ago. My culinary skills have come a long way since my university days. Maybe it really was my fault. Surely I screwed it up. So I turned back to the same recipe in Flagg's novel and gave it another go. This time with real green tomatoes.
It seemed to make a difference, though not enough to keep me happy.
To me, fried food should have a thorough coating. But with nothing to make it adhere to the tomato, much of the cornmeal still fell off into an unappetizing blob that soon was smoking in the oil and setting off the smoke alarm.
So much for fried green tomatoes. Or at least, so much for Flagg's version of them.
On a whim, I started researching recipes, looking for a version using that all-important culinary glue, eggs. Most did not, the authors sticking to the same traditional formula Flagg follows.
Success came in Ronni Lundy's "In Praise of Tomatoes" (Lark Books, 2004, $19.95), which not surprisingly celebrates the history, lore and business of all that is tomato.
Her fried green tomato recipe calls not just for eggs, but follows the proven triple-dredge technique — first flour, then egg, then crumbs — that produces the best frying results, pretty much no matter what the ingredient being fried.
I gave it a try and was more than impressed. Fried according to Lundy's recipe, the tomatoes they sweeten and soften. The juices burst from beneath a crisp crust as you bite.
That's right, the crust stuck. It's about time.
FRIED GREEN TOMATOES
(Start to finish 30 minutes)
5 green tomatoes
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup milk
3 cups bread crumbs
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley (dried also works)
Zest of 1 orange
Vegetable oil for frying
Trim the ends off each tomato, then cut into slices about 1/2-inch thick. Arrange the tomatoes on a cooling rack and allow to stand 15 to 20 minutes (to drain, to help reduce the mush factor).
In a wide bowl, combine the flour, salt and pepper. In a second bowl, whisk together the eggs and milk. In a third bowl, combine the bread crumbs, Parmesan cheese, parsley and orange zest.
Heat about 1/2-inch oil in a wide, heavy skillet over a medium-high flame.
Dredge the tomato slices first through the flour, lightly coating both sides. Next, drag each floured slice through the egg-milk mixture, again covering both sides. Finally, place the slices in the bread crumbs, coating both sides evenly.
Fry the tomato slices two or three at a time, turning once, until golden brown on both sides. Return to the cooling rack to drain excess oil. Serve hot.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
—Recipe from Ronni Lundy's "In Praise of Tomatoes," Lark Books, 2004, $19.95.
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