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Green Tomatoes, In and Out of the Frying Pan

Crisp, citrusy green tomatoes are just as tasty in salsas and gratins as they are dipped in cornmeal and fried

Fine Cooking Issue 21
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Photos: Susan Kahn
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You don’t have to fry them. Green tomatoes, with their light flavor and juicy-but-firm texture, are incredibly versatile vegetables that respond well to any number of cooking techniques. So while I assure you that I don’t have anything against frying, I simply feel compelled to boost the reputation of this underused vegetable (well, okay, so it’s really a fruit). Not only do green tomatoes marry well with vibrant herbs and spices, but they also hold their own in stir-fries, on the grill, or in a gratin, filled with a stuffing, or diced for a salsa.

It’s crazy to wait until fall to start cooking green tomatoes. When the first green tomatoes appear on the vine in June, I pick a bunch and treat myself to one of my favorite dishes: I slice a batch of them, dust them with stone-ground cornmeal, and sizzle them to a beautiful dark gold in a cast-iron skillet. But instead of frying them in the traditional bacon grease, I prefer the fruitier results I get from olive oil or from the rich combination of olive oil and clarified butter. The nutty crunch of a cornmeal coating combines irresistibly with the steamy-soft green tomato to create a terrific side dish. Fried green tomatoes became a southern classic for good reason: they’re easy and delicious.

Yet it would be a shame to limit this versatile vegetable to a single recipe. Green tomatoes have all the earthy goodness of eggplant and all the wholesomeness of fresh summer squash, but they have a tangy, almost lemony taste all their own. Throughout the summer, I like to combine them with different herbs and spices and cook them in a variety of ways.

Match green tomatoes with bold flavors

Green tomatoes have an affinity for pungent herbs and spices. Their citrusy flavor makes them a natural match for Asia’s ginger and lemongrass, the Mediterranean’s basil and garlic, and the Middle East’s cinnamon and mint. Not surprisingly, this homegrown American marries especially well with native foods, such as fiery chiles, sweet corn, musky squash, and juicy, ripe red tomatoes.

Cornmeal-crusted, fried green tomatoes are the classic…

Slow-roasting and baking concentrate the flavors of green tomatoes. Because green tomatoes are firmer and less juicy than ripe ones, you can treat them much the same way you would any firm vegetable. While you can dice or sliver them to toss into stir-fries, their flavor really develops and blends with other ingredients when baked. Try layering green tomatoes in pies, tarts, or gratins, as in the recipe opposite. You could improvise a green-tomato parmigiano with marinara sauce and fresh cheeses, or fill hollowed-out green tomatoes with a favorite stuffing and bake them.

Green tomatoes make terrific salsas, chutneys, salads, and pickles. If you combine green tomatoes with charred peppers and fragrant herbs, you’ll have a delicious salsa. Cooked with onions and ginger, green tomatoes make delectable chutney. Wedges of green tomatoes alternated with the rich red and gold of ripe tomatoes make a lovely salad, trimmed with paper-thin rings of red onion, and garnished with fresh sprigs of basil or blooming mint. And very simply, you can brush green tomatoes with oil and grill them over hot coals for an easy side dish. If bushels of green tomatoes still remain at your back door at the end of summer, make pickles to extend the bounty through the winter.

…but the tart, lemony tomatoes are just as brilliant in a chile-spiked salsa.

Where to find green tomatoes

You’ll find plenty of green tomatoes at your local farmers’ market—or from an ambitious neighborhood gardener. And while many grocery stores in the South have always carried green tomatoes, groceries in the rest of the country increasingly feature local produce in the summer, including green tomatoes—or at least underripe ones. If you find green tomatoes with a trace of pink, it just means that you won’t need to cook them quite as long and that their flavor will be slightly sweeter.

Not only can you begin enjoying green tomatoes before the red ones ripen, but they’ll also store for weeks in the refrigerator, so you’ll have green tomatoes long after the ripe ones are gone. Even when a cool, damp summer means a poor harvest of ripe tomatoes, green tomatoes are still available in abundance.

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