Green Tomatoes: Get Them While They’re Cold
We’re past due for a killing frost, and it’s virtually guaranteed before Halloween. According to Climate-charts.com, there’s a 10% chance of frost by September 30 in Ann Arbor and a 90% chance by October 30. You can, obviously, tempt fate and leave your tomatoes out to see how long you can stretch the caprese salad and BLT season, but even if we end up in the long tail this year, the end is nigh. Also, the end is delicious. Here are the two best ways I’ve found use up the tomatoes that didn’t get a chance to ripen on the vine:
This should conclude Tomatofest 2010 (previous entries this year: Tomato Jam, Tomato Soup, and Sweet Tomato Curd Squares). However, I also have an article about tomatoes coming out in a community recipe and resource book by Edible Avalon, and I should have more details about that soon.
I. Fried Green Tomatoes
A friend mentioned recently that knowing “fried green tomatoes” were a classic, he’d tried just slicing up some tomatoes and throwing them into a skillet with some rendered bacon fat. That actually doesn’t sound like a terrible idea, but you should be prepared to watch the tomatoes fall apart as they cook. So depending on how much bacon fat there is and what you’d planned on doing with them, it might not have the desired effect.
Raw green tomatoes are much firmer than ripe ones—coring them is almost like coring an apple. However, as they cook, the cell walls break down and the bitterness abates and whatever acids and glutamates and aromatic compounds the tomato accumulated before it got prematurely yanked from the vine will intensify. Once it’s cooked through, it will taste kind of like a ripe tomato, or at least like a roasted grocery store tomato, which is to say, not bad.
The classic way to prevent them from dissolving before they cook long enough to be palatable is to dredge them in egg and flour (or cornmeal or bread or cracker crumbs). Then, you fry them in about 1/4” of hot oil, melted lard or shortening (not butter, unless it’s clarified, because the milk solids will burn and the water content will make them soggy). When they’re golden brown on the outside and cooked through inside, they’re done.
Even if a few pieces of the breading fall off, they should stay together well enough to be crispy on the outside and soft and savory on the outside. However, you have to eat them immediately—fried tomatoes retain too much moisture to be kept crisp in an oven or re-crisped in a toaster, so only make as many as you want to eat right away. If you want to save some of your green tomatoes for later in the year, you can slice them, spread them out individually on a foil-lined sheet and freeze them for a few hours (just to keep them from freezing into one big hunk). Then transfer them to another container, like a gallon zip-top freezer storage bag. When you want to cook them, just pull them out of the freezer, bread them, and fry them. Don’t defrost them first, or they’ll turn to mush (that’s also why you need to slice and freeze them separately). But if you get them in the pan while they’re still frozen, the breading should keep them together once they cook through.
II. Green Tomato Mincemeat Bars
The other recipe that pops up the most in google searches “green tomatoes” is green tomato mincemeat. Mincemeat was originally one of those Early Modern dishes that seems pretty odd to most Americans now because comes from a time and place before meat and sweets were firmly separated (with transgressors like bacon desserts merely reinforcing the binary by playing up how “wrong” it is to violate it). Mincemeat usually included less desirable cuts or leftover bits of meat and suet (raw beef or mutton fat) cooked with dried fruits, sugar, alcohol, and spices. It was a way to stretch the meat, make it palatable, and preserve it, and was most often baked in a pastry crust, either as single-serving pockets or double-crusted pie. Here’s an 18th C. recipe that calls for making a massive amount of the suet and dried fruit mixture to bake and eat over four months, with the option of adding a little boiled tongue or beef later:
To make Mince-Pies the best Way
Take three Pounds of Suet shread very fine, and chopped as small as possible, two Pounds of Raisins stoned, and chopped as fine as possible, two Pounds of Currans, nicely picked, washed, rubbed, and dried at the Fire, half a hundred of fine Pippins [apples], pared, cored, and chopped small, half a Pound of fine Sugar pounded fine, a quarter of an Ounce of Mace, a quarter of an Ounce of Cloves, a Pint of Brandy, and half a pint of Sack [sherry]; put it down close in a Stone-pot, and it will keep good four Months. When you make your Pies, take a little Dish, something bigger than a Soop-plate, lay a very thin Crust all over it, lay a thin Layer of Meat, and then a thin Layer of Cittron cut very thin, then a Layer of Mince meat, and a thin Layer of Orange-peel cut think over that a little Meat; squeeze half the Juice of a fine Sevile Orange, or Lemon, and pour in three Spoonfuls of Red Wine; lay on your Crust, and bake it nicely. These Pies eat finely cold. If you make them in little Patties, mix your Meat and Sweet-meats accordingly: if you chuse Meat in your Pies, parboil a Neat’s Tongue [ox tongue], peel it, and chop the Meat as finely as possible, and mix with the rest; or two Pounds of the Inside of a Surloin or Beef Boiled." From The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, Hannah Glasse, 1747 (Prospect Books: Devon, 1995, p. 74). From The Food Timeline
Gradually over the 18th and 19th C, meat went from central to optional to uncommon and the dried fruit & spice preparation eaten alone was still referred to as “mincemeat” or sometimes just “mince.” It became a favorite way to use green tomatoes, because their savory glutamates stood in well for the meat and because boiling them with sugar and dried fruits was a good way to flavor and preserve them, too. Just like the meaty versions, the mixture is usually baked into a pastry. Also, like most cooked tomato products, it can be preserved in canning jars processed in a boiling water bath.
I had 4 1/2 lbs of green tomatoes, which made enough mincemeat for two recipes. I froze half of it rather than canning it, and perhaps I’ll bake that into a mincemeat pie for Christmas. I decided to treat the other half like any standard fruit preserve and bake it into a simple streusel bar cookie. What’s great about this recipe is you use the same mixture for the crust and the topping, so it’s dead simple to throw together. You could also substitute any kind of pie filling or preserves for the tomato mincemeat, use any kind of nuts you want in the crust and topping, use any kind of fat, any kind of flour. It’s entirely customizable. Same goes for the mincemeat—add some crystallized ginger if you have it, add other spices like cardamom or mace if you want them or leave out the cloves or nutmeg if you’re not a fan, throw in a tart apple or two or some carrots or winter squash, use currants or cranberries in place of the golden raisins, etc. It’s a template, not a chemical formula.
The result is just a great, simple spiced bar cookie. The tomato mincemeat is salty-sweet and has a kind of savory umami funkiness, almost like a sweet tomato chutney. The spices evoke pumpkin pie and apple crisp and piles of raked leaves and itchy hay rides. The oats and nuts in the streusel give it a sort of rustic chew and crunch. If my tomato curd squares were Summer in a bar cookie, this is the same idea dressed in a sweater and scarf for Fall.
Recipe: Fried Green Tomatoes
- green tomatoes (one medium tomato per person)
- 1 egg for every 4 tomatoes
- 1/2 cup flour
- 1/2 cup cornmeal, cracker crumbs, bread crumbs, panko, or something else with crunch
- 2-3 t. seasoned salt, Old Bay, Bacon Salt, Jerk or Cajun seasoning blend, or whatever other herbs or spices you desire (just nothing that burns easily, like cinnamon or Chinese Five Spice)
- 2 t. kosher salt, divided (or slightly less regular salt)
- 1/2-1 cup oil, lard, or shortening for frying
1. Heat the oil in a wide skillet over medium heat.
2. Combine the flour, crunchy bits, seasonings, and salt in one bowl and lightly beat the egg in a second bowl.
3. Core the tomatoes and slice them into 1/4-1/2” rounds.
4. Test the oil for heat by flinging a few water droplets at it (mind the splatter). If it sizzles, it’s ready. Dip each slice of tomato in the egg and then then the flour mixture, turning to coat, and place them gently in the hot oil.
5. Fry for 2-3 minutes on each side, or until golden brown and cooked through. Drain on paper towels. Sprinkle the hot tomatoes with a little more salt. Eat immediately.
For the filling:
- 4 cups finely chopped green tomatoes (~2 lbs)
- 1 cup golden raisins
- 2 t. kosher salt
- 1 cup brown sugar (or 1 cup white sugar with a glug of molasses)
- a hearty glug of rum or brandy (optional)
- 2 t. ground cinnamon
- 1/2 t. ground cloves
- 1/2 t. ground nutmeg
- juice from one medium lemon (3-4 T.)
- zest from one medium lemon (2-3 t.)
For the crust and topping:
- 3/4 cup butter, softened
- 1 cup brown sugar (or 1 cup white sugar with a glug of molasses)
- 1 1/2 cup flour
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 t. kosher salt
- 2 c. rolled oats
- 1/2 cup chopped walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, cashews, or macadamia nuts
1. Core and chop the tomatoes. I usually cut them in half first and then cut a wedge-shaped piece around the stem and the toughest white part in the center. I let the food processor do the chopping part.
2. Combine the tomatoes, sugar, lemon juice, lemon zest, and spices in a large pot and simmer until thickened, about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. (I cooked it for almost an hour because I doubled the recipe. Some recipes call for cooking it for up to 3 hrs. Just keep an eye on it as it thickens to keep it from burning to the bottom of the pot).
3. Meanwhile, whisk together the dry ingredients for the crust and topping and then mix in the softened butter until the mixture is crumbly and all of the flour is moistened.
4. Preheat the oven to 375F. Grease a 9×13 pan, and press 2 1/2 cups of the crumbs into the bottom. Spread the cooked tomato mixture over the crust, and sprinkle with the remaining crumbs.
5. Bake for 30-35 minutes. Let cool completely before slicing—or, for the cleanest cuts, chill. For the best flavor, let it come back to room temperature before serving.