Fried green tomatoes are, as far as I know, the only fried vegetable to be immortalized in the title of a major American motion picture. But they aren’t the most intuitive fried vegetable to immortalize. (Potatoes come to mind—and no, I’m not counting Home Fries. Sorry, Vince Gilligan.) Tomatoes are juicy. They have a lot of loosely contained seeds. They fall apart easily. All of these traits make them very difficult to fry compared to, say, eggplant or broccoli.
But let’s talk for a moment about what green means. In the phrase “fried green tomatoes,” green refers to unripe tomatoes—tomatoes plucked from the vine before they’ve matured to the point of turning soft and red. There is a very good reason to use these tomatoes, rather than fully ripe tomatoes, for frying: Unripe tomatoes are firmer and drier than ripe ones, so they have less of a tendency to disintegrate when you put them in hot oil. However, confusingly, some varieties of heirloom tomato (e.g., green zebras) remain green even when they are ripe. These are not the kind of green tomato you should fry; they will be soft and seedy, and they will spit oil everywhere when you try to fry them. (Use ripe green tomatoes in salads instead.)
If you have a tomato plant in your garden, fantastic. Go grab some unripe green tomatoes right now. (You will be doing yourself a favor: The more unripe tomatoes you fry now, the fewer ripe tomatoes you will have threatening to go rotten simultaneously next month.) If you don’t have a garden, you might have to sacrifice color in the name of deliciousness. Most tomatoes sold at the supermarket or farmers’ markets are red, but you can almost always find some that are pale, very firm, and relatively unripe. (Under almost all other circumstances, you don’t want these; now is the exception.) Use the very firmest tomatoes you can find for frying. If you’re disappointed that they don’t live up to the famous phrase in hue, take comfort in knowing that green creatures have been known to “think it could be nicer being red or yellow or gold.” Your firm red tomatoes, once fried, will be not only red (on the inside) but also yellow and gold (on the outside)—not bad.
In the American South, green tomatoes are traditionally breaded in cornmeal, but this has a tendency to fall off tomato slices (thereby mucking up your pan) and to become unpleasantly gritty when fried. It’s much better to give green tomatoes a classic, foolproof triple coating: First, you dip them in flour to sop up any excess liquid. (There won’t be too much, because you will have salted the tomatoes beforehand to draw out any excess water and prevent sogginess.) Second, you dip them in beaten egg, which acts like glue between the now-dry tomato and coating No. 3: breadcrumbs. Panko, extremely fine Japanese breadcrumbs, are the best breadcrumbs for frying tomatoes or virtually anything else because they are very dry and very evenly textured. (If you can’t find panko, you can put some stale bread in a food processor and blitz it into a downy pile of tiny morsels.)
Flour, egg, and breadcrumbs turn into a coating that sticks steadfastly to tomatoes and becomes perfectly crisp and light when fried. It’s hard to improve upon a tomato slice fried this way, but if you insist, you may melt a slice of mozzarella or Muenster cheese on top of each tomato round.
Fried Green (or Red) Tomatoes
Yield: 4 servings
Time: About 45 minutes
2 large unripe tomatoes (about 1½ pounds), cut crosswise into ½-inch slices
¼ cup all-purpose flour
1 large egg
1 cup panko (or other fine breadcrumbs)
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup (½ stick) butter or bacon fat
1. Put the tomato slices in a large colander and toss with a large pinch of salt. Put the colander in the sink and let the tomatoes sit for 20 minutes, then gently pat dry with a paper towel.
2. Meanwhile, put the flour, the egg, and the panko in three separate shallow bowls; season each with salt and pepper. Beat the egg.
3. Put the olive oil and butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Dip each tomato slice first in the flour, then in the egg, and finally in the panko, letting any excess coating drip off. Transfer half of the tomato slices to the skillet. Cook until golden brown on the bottom, 3 to 5 minutes, then turn and cook until lightly browned on the other side, another 3 to 5 minutes. Drain on paper towels. Repeat with the remaining tomato slices, flour, egg, and panko. Serve hot.