“Ripeness is all,” Shakespeare’s resonant phrase from “King Lear,” might apply to many things, but it must at the very least apply to fruit. And that includes fruiting vegetables such as the tomato. Ripeness is the moment at which all the nutritional stars align, the point where nature asks you to take a bite. Fried green tomatoes? Surely something you’d eat only if you had no red ones.
At least that’s how I felt until last Wednesday, when our young friend Courtney made fried green tomatoes for a neighborhood potluck, and they were delicious. Pleasantly crisp on the surface and somewhere between soft and firm within, they lacked any of a tomato’s natural acidity, so they were bland in themselves. But Courtney had taken care of that. Grilling her, so to speak, I learned that she had sliced them thinly, dipped them in beaten egg and then in a breading of bread crumbs, whole-wheat flour, curry powder, cumin and shredded Parmesan cheese — and fried them slowly in oil until golden. You could probably do that to a shoe and it would taste good. But the contrast in texture between inside and outside was winning.
I got to thinking about the stages at which we eat food, and it opened my mind a bit. After all, the much-prized artichoke is merely a bud on its way to becoming a fruit. And eggplant, to which the tomato is closely related, would taste quite foul if allowed to mature. Its firm flesh is better softened by cooking than by near decay.
Even my long-held belief that ripe fruits are more healthful had to yield an inch or two. According to the Agriculture Department, a ripe tomato is loaded with the lycopene that a green one lacks and has more carotene, potassium and folate. But the green one wins with Vitamin C, calcium, phosphorus and riboflavin. How about that?
The big time of the year for green tomatoes is early summer, when they’re all you’ve got, but they have a second run in fall when they’re all you’ve got left.
Even though I still had lots of reds, I decided to try my hand at the old Southern version of fried green ones, dipped in buttermilk and breaded with flour and cornmeal. Just for fun, I sliced and fried up some that were pure green and some others with just a hint of pink. The pink ones were already a bit too juicy inside for proper frying, and even that barest hint of pink made them quite acidic. Not nearly as tasty as the greens.
As for the recipe, my cornmeal wasn’t finely ground enough, and fried green hockey pucks just about describes the result. I’ll bow to Courtney and her creative fusion instincts. Next time, cumin with bread crumbs it is.
Damrosch is a freelance writer and author of “The Garden Primer.”
— Adrian Higgins