Mom’s Garden: Panko Fried Green Tomatoes

featured2Staring at the unripe green tomatoes in my mother’s garden, beautifully backlit by the setting sun, started me thinking about the book Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. The movie was good, but it’s the book I really remember, mostly because of the recipes at the back. When I’m honest, I think I have to credit that book and those recipes as one of the first big influences on me as a cook. Growing up in California, with a Greek father from San Francisco and a French/Dutch mother from New York, we didn’t have a lot of southern food on our table. Something about the phenomenon that was FGTATWC made me want to get to know a proper biscuit and all its flaky layers. I made a lot of biscuits from the recipe in the book, and I’m sure I wondered why my clothes didn’t fit quite the same in the days that followed. I never made the fried green tomatoes, but when I saw the green globes in Mom’s garden the memories came pouring in and I was on my way.

I was almost afraid to look at the multitude of recipes I know are online. It can be overwhelming. So–given I have enough cookbooks to fill a library–I stuck to what I had at home. We won’t mention names, but there were some clunkers. Dipping tomatoes in flour and frying them in butter–as several recipes suggested–didn’t work. The tomatoes were mushy, the crust soggy. I found most “traditional” recipes called for a cornmeal crust, and the most enticing one came from Cook’s Illustrated (of course). I wanted to do something a little different so I swapped the cornmeal for panko breadcrumbs. The results were amazing. Just for fun, I made half with green zebra tomatoes. They were fine, but much softer and tarter, and I think the joy of this recipe is in the firmness of the tomatoes. But maybe the idea of a lemony, soft, tart filling is more pleasing to your palate.

From what I’ve read, fried green tomatoes are typically served with hot sauce on the side. Living in food-obsessed SF, we tend to ask the question “What else can be done” when it comes to any recipe. That led to several dipping sauces including a nice citrus aioli. But the truth is, they didn’t need it. The hot sauce was perfect, the heavier sauces just covered the flavors of the tomato.

Fried Green Tomatoes (about 6-8 servings)

1-1/2 lbs. (675g) medium green tomatoes–green tomatoes are unripe tomatoes, not a variety of ripe tomato that happens to be green
2-1/2 cups (600ml) all-purpose flour
1-1/2 cups (360ml) panko bread crumbs
1 teaspoon (5ml) salt
1 teaspoon (1.25ml) freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon (1.25ml) cayenne pepper
1 large egg, room temperature
1 cup (240ml) buttermilk
1 teaspoon (5ml) baking powder
1/2 teaspoon (5ml) baking soda
1+ cup vegetable oil

Cut the tomatoes into 1/4 inch slices.

green

Using a rolling-pin or a thick-walled jar or glass, crush the panko until it is uniform and small in size. Panko is usually irregularly shaped, with a lot of large bits. You want the texture of fine cornmeal. I found a food processor just moved the breadcrumbs around but didn’t break them down. I like the rolling pin method better anyway. If I can avoid dirtying a whole appliance for something so small, I’m happy.

Panko

You’re going to triple dip the tomatoes–flour, egg, panko–so you’ll need three shallow bowls for this. You’ll also need a wire rack to hold the tomatoes before and after frying. If you want to fry the tomatoes and keep them warm in the oven before serving, have a baking sheet at the ready. If you don’t have a wire rack, use a baking sheet lined with waxed paper or nonstick foil.

In one bowl measure out 1 cup (240ml) of the flour.

In another mix the remaining 1-1/2 cup flour, panko, salt, pepper and cayenne.

In another whisk the egg with the buttermilk, baking powder and soda. It will be foamy.

Add the tomato slices to the plain flour a few at a time. Tossing to coat and shaking off any excess flour. You can use your hands, tongs or a fork for the whole process. I find tongs and a forks get in the way, but using your hands is a bit messier. You do want to be gentle in the handling of the tomatoes to avoid wiping off the coating. Drop the floured slices into the egg mixture, shaking off the excess. Drop the slices in the panko mixture, shaking off the excess. Place the slices on the wire rack.

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Heat the oil in a large frying pan. I used a 10-inch pan and 1 cup of oil which gave me about 1/4 to 1/3 inch of depth. Adjust the amount of oil to the size of your pan. If you don’t have a lot of oil, you can use a smaller pan to raise the level and simply cook more batches. I used a cast iron pan over medium high heat. If using a regular pan, use high heat. If using a thermometer, the temperature you’re looking for is 350F/175C degrees. If you don’t have a thermometer, you can use a cube of bread. The cube should immediately start to bubble and turn golden when it hits the oil. If it burns straight away, the oil is too hot.

frying

Gently drop the coated slices into the hot oil. Don’t pack the pan, but loosely fill it with the tomatoes. If you add too many, you bring the temperature of the oil down, slowing the cooking and causing the tomatoes to absorb oil.

When the tomatoes have turned a lovely golden brown on the bottom, gently flip them with a fork or tongs, and cook on the other side. Mine took a mere minute on each side, but they might take 2-3 minutes on each side depending on the size of the slices and slight variations in oil temperature.

Remove the tomatoes from the oil and drain on a paper towel lined baking sheet. Cover loosely with aluminum foil to keep warm. Don’t cover completely or they might start to steam and the coating will soften. Continue to cook the rest of the tomatoes.

fried

Serve immediately with lots of hot sauce on the side. This isn’t a recipe to make well in advance, however, I think it’s safe to make them a half hour or so in advance and keep them uncovered in a warm oven. We were eating them long after they’d dropped to room temperature and they were still crunchy and delicious.

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