My tomatoes aren’t ripening fast enough.
I mean, they’re certainly ripening fast enough for, like, Nature. For the circle of life. They’re ripening in accord with their own biology or whatever. But they are not ripe yet. This means they are not ripening fast enough for me—for how badly I want Tomato Time to be here, and to eat them, and also for how slovenly a gardener of tomatoes I am.
I let the plants get too tall. All four of them. They have outgrown their cages by quite a lot, in fact; this has happened every year since I found a spot on my patio where tomato plants in giant ceramic pots could get some magical combination of sun and shade that causes them to grow at absolutely insane rates, weird GMO cornstalk rates, all throughout the growing season, even without fertilization. The trouble this year is that, thanks to me being a bit more organized and less frozen in place by depression and ADHD than in the past, the tomatoes themselves are healthier and larger than ever—a good and welcome symptom of a good and welcome state of affairs, except: 1) they’re putting a ton of weight on branches that have grown far past the tomato cages’ ability to support them, and 2) the dang tomatoes aren’t ripe yet. I come outside in the morning to fuss over my (figuratively, not yet literally) sweet tomato babies, only to discover that a branch has folded down overnight, creased nearly all the way across its stalk by the weight of still-green monster tomatoes.
For a while, my solution has been to simply use copious kitchen twine to tie these encumbered branches to the knobby wooden log exterior of my house for support. It’s ludicrous and terrible-looking, but it keeps the branches upright and alive and capable of drawing water up through themselves, and it keeps the tomatoes on the branches, so that they can keep growing and, hopefully, at some damn point, ripening. But that only works up to a point. A particularly fat, but still hard and green, tomato hit a weight threshold over one night; by morning it had pulled the little twig connecting it to the main stem of the plant down so severely that the skin of the stem tore and the little twig remained attached only by a flimsy little shred of green plant fiber. This sucks. There was nothing to do; the tomato would not get any more nutrition from the plant. It still wasn’t ripe, not even close, but it was done growing. I harvested the dang tomato. Then, in some kind of fugue of gardening frustration, as though repeating this action would make me feel better about it, I harvested four more of the largest tomatoes on any of the plants, all of them still hard and green and nowhere close to ripe.
The book on not-fully-ripe tomatoes is, you can sock them into a sealed paper bag with a fully ripe banana or apple; the banana or apple will release ethylene gas, which will help the tomato along to full ripeness over the ensuing few days or week or so. It’s not ideal: The ideal, with growing tomatoes and also in a lifetime, is plucking a red, ripe tomato off the plant and eating it while it’s still warm from the sun. Bag-ripening is the next-best thing, and the next-best thing is still a million times better than settling for garbage Canadian truck tomatoes from the supermarket.
The trick is that this only works with tomatoes that have achieved a certain level of ripening, the first minor flush of ruddy color on one side, at least. You can put a hard, green, not-yet-remotely-ripe tomato in a paper bag with all the damn bananas you want and it still will not ripen before it just straight-up rots. You have to do something else with this tomato.
Here I suppose you could make, like, green-tomato salsa or something. Online has recipes for that. You could also use the green tomato as a regular tomato, if that floats your boat! It’s not poisonous, just hard and tart and not very juicy. If your complaint about, say, a BLT has always been that it’s too delicious and well-balanced, well, now’s your chance to fix things to your liking, you creep.
As for me, I sliced the green tomatoes and breaded the slices and fried them. This is the best thing to do with green tomatoes, which is why people have been doing it to green tomatoes across wide swathes of North America for a very long time, oftentimes even plucking the tomatoes for this purpose and not merely because their slovenly gardening eventually forced them into action. It’s sort of bleakly funny, in fact, to recall that at previous points in my life I’ve sought out and purchased green tomatoes expressly for this purpose, when all I had to do in order to get more green tomatoes than I’d know what to do with was do a not-great job of raising some tomato plants, and then run out of patience. That’s easy!
This is not a complicated undertaking; in fact it is very straightforward, and the result is delicious, and I recommend it. Here’s how to do it.
You’re gonna need some stuff. Not a lot of stuff. Just a fair amount of stuff.
I feel your need for some green tomatoes ought to be pretty clear. If the green tomatoes you have access to are big and round and smooth, then two of them will make enough fried green tomato slices to suit four adults who are expecting something less than a deranged orgy of wolfing down on fried green tomatoes. I mean, eyeball the tomatoes, here. Picture each one cut into quarter- or half-inch slices. How many slices do you see? Does it seem like enough slices? Fine. Great. If it does not, simply get another tomato. This is not a blog about how to shop for produce! Slice the damn tomatoes!
You will need some flour (which will be divided), as well as some yellow cornmeal. If you are using two or three big green tomatoes, and you use, say, a cup and a half of flour (this can be all-purpose or the special pre-sifted pan searing stuff or probably, like, rice or oat or whatever) and a cup of yellow cornmeal, you will have plenty of each, and will end up throwing some away at the end, which on the whole is better than running out before you’re done cooking. You’ll need some eggs, which you’ll beat in a bowl. If you’re sticking close by the infuriatingly vague quantities above, then four regular large (“large” as in “small,” in the very silly labeling scheme of eggs) eggs will be enough; you’ll likely end up pouring some small volume down the drain at the end. You’ll need salt, and you probably wouldn’t regret keeping some freshly cracked black pepper on standby. You’ll need a sturdy oil that can handle frying temperatures: Vegetable, peanut, and canola are fine; extra virgin olive, avocado, and motor are definitely not.
Many recipes for fried green tomatoes recommend a mixture of beaten egg and buttermilk, rather than just beaten egg by itself. Some others recommend just buttermilk, without the egg. I am here to tell you today that if you have some kind of pre-existing idea or preference for the liquid that will bind the breading to the tomato, you are perfectly qualified to choose that for yourself, so long as that pre-existing idea or preference does not in any way involve the term “Gorilla glue.” For that matter I’m not sure why you’d need this blog in the first place, if you already have takes about the correct way to fry some green tomatoes. In any event, I have no objection to the inclusion of buttermilk. Buttermilk is lovely. However, you do not need buttermilk; if you do not have buttermilk, you can certainly turn out some delicious fried green tomatoes with just beaten egg gluing the breading to the tomato, and on the whole I bet you’re likelier to have some eggs already sitting in your fridge than you are to have a pint of buttermilk in there.
You will need some non-food stuff. A big skillet with raised sides; a sturdy pair of heat-proof (ideally metal) tongs; something that can be deployed as some manner of “drying rack,” whether this is an actual drying rack or some paper towels on a plate. You’ll also need three wide bowls (so, like, the one you beat the eggs in, plus two more) or round cake pans or, well, you get the idea. You’ll need a big sheet of aluminum foil; you can stretch this across a section of countertop, if you like, or you can line a big flat sheet pan with it. Just so we’re clear, you will also need, like, a kitchen, or a stovetop, or at least a stable heat source. I recommend: A kitchen.
I think that’s all. Ready? Let’s cook.
The first thing is breading the tomato slices. You’ve got your tomato slices, and you’ve got your flour and cornmeal and beaten eggs, and you’ve got your bowls. Dump a cup of the flour into one bowl; mix the cornmeal and the remaining flour with your dang hand or a wire whisk in another; the third should have the beaten egg in it already, so, uh, that one is good to go. You’ve got your sheet of aluminum foil, covering a sheet pan or a section of countertop.
We’re gonna do the Wet Hand, Dry Hand thing, OK? You remember this from the old site, of course you do (if you do not, don’t worry, instructions will follow). Line up the elements on the countertop like so: Aluminum foil closest to stovetop, then the bowl with the cornmeal and flour mixture, then the bowl with the egg, then the bowl with the flour by itself, then the tomato slices. Here is how you will bread the tomato slices, and I’m not going to boldface any of this stuff because otherwise I would have to boldface pretty much all of it:
You have access to a pair of hands, yeah? Either both belonging to you, or one belonging to you and one to your cooking buddy, or two belonging to your poor weeping child whom you’ve cruelly ordered to cook fried green tomatoes for you. I guess I should have included “hands” in the “things you’ll need” section up there. Oh well. Designate one of these hands the Wet Hand, and the other one the Dry Hand. With the Wet Hand, lift a tomato slice and, without touching the dry flour with this hand, lower this tomato slice into the nearest bowl, the bowl with the dry flour in it, and lay it across the flour. With the Dry Hand, scoop some flour from around the tomato slice over the top of the tomato slice, so that the tomato slice is now covered with flour. Pat the flour with the Dry Hand, to help it adhere to the tomato slice, and also so that the tomato slice will be clad in a dry layer of flour, so that you can lift it with the Dry Hand without getting any more moisture than necessary on the Dry Hand. With the Dry Hand, lift the flour-clad tomato slice and give it a lil’ shake, so that any excess flour will fall off of it back into the bowl of dry flour; this will help the egg (the next step!) adhere to the tomato. With the Dry Hand, lower the flour-clad tomato slice into the egg, releasing it before the Dry Hand touches the liquid egg. The tomato slice likely will flop sideways in the egg, presenting an upward-facing and still-dry side; if that’s so, use the Dry Hand to give it a sharp poke so that it plunges down into the egg and gets covered on all sides. Now use the Wet Hand to flip it over once or twice, to make sure it’s fully coated, and to lift it out of the egg (giving it a moment for any excess to drain back into the bowl), and to lower it onto the flour and cornmeal mixture in the third bowl. Now it’s Dry Hand’s turn again (on the whole, Dry Hand seems to do more of the work here): Scoop some cornmeal and flour mix over the tomato slice, pat it down on there so it sticks to the egg, flip the tomato slice over and repeat until there’s a nice coating all over the tomato slice, then lift the tomato slice and deposit it on the aluminum foil, where it will rest while the egg and dry stuff combine into a sticky coating that will stay on the tomato slice even as it’s being fried. Repeat with all the other tomato slices, lining them up on the foil more or less in the order you breaded them.
It’s fine to feel that the preceding paragraph was deeply insane, and even that it made a damn dirty lie of the whole “this is not a complicated undertaking” claim from like 200 paragraphs ago, if you can even remember that far back in your lifetime. It’s fine to bread the tomato slices however you want. Personally I do not like to have big clumps of sticky egg-soaked flour on my fingertips; over time it makes the process more fucked-up and dodgy, and the alternative is to wash my hands, like, 20 times between the time I bread the first tomato slice and the time I finish the job. So I use the Wet Hand, Dry Hand technique. It’s much simpler when you do it than when you friggin’ write about how to do it, OK????
The breaded tomato slices benefit from a little time to just sort of hang out in their egg-and-dry-stuff cladding. This helps the cladding stick, which is good: A nude tomato slice fried in hot vegetable oil is actually kind of gross. Luckily, the first-breaded ones got that time while you breaded their brethren; the last-breaded ones will get that time while you heat the pan and fry all the ones that got breaded before them. Speaking of that.
Haul out that skillet we talked about before, plunk it on that stable heat source (a stove! This should be a stove), and heat the skillet over medium-high heat. Also fill it with, oh, like a quarter-inch of your cooking oil. You don’t need or want deep-frying quantities of oil, here: A shallow pool of oil prevents the tomato slices from floating, so that their weight will press down on the breading and help it adhere to the tomato. This isn’t, like, The Secret To Good Fried Green Tomatoes; it’s more like a nice side-benefit to the already perfectly fine goal of not wasting more oil than necessary.
Anyhow at some point the oil will be hot and shimmering but not yet smoking. Probably there is an ideal temperature to aim for, but I will die before I attempt an accurate measurement of a freaking quarter-inch of oil in a skillet. I simply will not do it! No one can make me. You can dip the end of a wooden spoon in there and see if it immediately bubbles as though cooking; if it does, the oil is ready to go. You can flick a few drops of water in there and see if they sizzle and steam away on contact. You can also just eyeball it: Is the oil hot and shimmery? Does it move around in the pan in a waterier manner than when it was cold? It’s probably OK.
With those tongs, lift the first-breaded tomato slice and gently lay it down in the skillet; it should begin sizzling and cooking right away. There’s probably room for some number of other slices in there; go ahead and add as many slices as can fit in there in a single layer without touching each other even a little bit. Soon you’ll see that their breading is beginning to change color around the edges. Give them two uninterrupted minutes of cooking on that side, then lift one (with the tongs! Dear God with the tongs) and check it. Is it sort of a pale beige? Give it another minute. Is it golden-brown? It’s ready for flipping. Did it crumble to a fine ashen powder as soon as the tongs touched it? What have you done.
When they’re ready to flip—when they’re golden brown on the down-facing side, probably within three and a half minutes unless the heat is way too low—uh, flip them. Gently, with the tongs. Cook them for roughly the same amount of time on the other side, then remove them—once again, with the tongs—to whatever you’re using as a drying rack, and sprinkle them with salt (and pepper if you’re using it).
You know what to do next. No, I was not referring to driving to your old boss’s house and punching him right in the damn mouth, like you’ve wanted to do for years. For fuck’s sake. Cook the next batch of breaded tomato slices, same as above. And the next and the next, until they’re all golden-brown and crispy and out of the skillet and sprinkled with salt. There. Fried green tomatoes. The fun part now is deciding what to do with them, which is to say how to eat them.
It is fine and in fact wonderful to just pick up a fried green tomato and eat that sucker right out of your hand. If this experience of eating can be improved upon—it’s fun to try, in any case—it needn’t be. Your fried green tomato is crispy, and brightly tart, and salty, and juicy; the tomato itself softened from its hard underripe state to something more pleasingly tomatolike in there. It’s a perfect bite of food. You can just eat these like fritters, or chips for that matter; you’ll regret nothing. But they’re also incredibly versatile. Pile them in a sandwich—a BLT, perhaps, or just a bunch of fried green tomatoes slapped between two slices of bread. Sub them in for the ham (or for the English muffin!) in an Eggs Benedict type of deal. Top them on a plate with a crabcake or crab imperial. Stack one or two of them on a burger and chuckle in wonderment when they upstage the meat.
The ripening of the rest of the tomatoes on the plant doesn’t feel so urgent now. In fact, this was always your plan. You did it on purpose! A master gardener. A regular frickin’ Demeter over here. That’s the ticket.