You plant them. You water and fertilize them. You chase away little creatures. And you wait. Your labors pay off with the perfect treat from the garden: juicy, sweet, heavenly, red tomatoes. But just as your plants get really productive, their survival is threatened by the inevitable change of seasons. Frost can arrive in early October in this area, and most often nips the garden by Oct. 15. So it can be heart-wrenching to watch those plump, green juvenile fruits reach for maturity when you know there is simply not enough time and sun left for them.

The good news of the season is that green tomatoes have their own special payoff. Fried green tomatoes, a favorite in the South, received national attention in 1991 in the hit movie by the same name. Many people had never tasted this simple fare, but they watched the floured green discs fry in oil to a mouth-watering golden brown. Whether served with eggs and grits for breakfast or alongside a steak for supper, this simple dish is fresh and light as well as rich and comforting.

But frying is a mere introduction to the many tasty ways unripe tomatoes can flourish in your kitchen. The firm, meaty flesh has a mild tartness and the juicy crisp texture of a green pepper. Chopped raw and served in a salsa or on toasted bread, the tomatoes are light, refreshing and perfect for warm weather. Roasted or added to stews and soups, they add a unique twist to hearty, cool-weather fare.

If you grow your own tomatoes or have a friend who does, you know the frustration of waiting for tomatoes to ripen, only then to reap more than you can eat. Turn your tomato patch into a season-long harvest by picking the fruit when it is plump and green but not yet changing color. These young fruits are so versatile that if you pick or buy more full-grown ones than you need, leave them alone on the counter and they'll transform into red beauties anyway.

If tomatoes are not available in your back yard, check with your local produce stand or farmer's market. Many have a box or two of green tomatoes stashed away for those in the know or will pick them on request. Or ask at the produce section of your grocery store; green tomatoes often turn up in boxes of red tomatoes but never make it to the shelves. Your grocer might be happy to go into the back for green ones.

After realizing the culinary potential locked up in these juvenile fruits, plucking tomatoes from the vine before their time will become a regular practice.

Fried Green Tomatoes

(6 servings)

There is more than one way to fry a tomato. This produces a crisp crust that encases the tomato. It's delicious alone or baked like eggplant Parmesan--topped with tomato sauce and cheese. Other options include frying the slices plain or dredging them in flour or cornmeal prior to frying in butter in a nonstick skillet.

1/4 cup flour

1 1/4 cups dried bread crumbs or saltine cracker crumbs

1/4 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 eggs, lightly beaten

2 pounds green tomatoes, cut into 1/4-inch slices

Vegetable oil for frying

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Place the flour on a small plate. In a shallow bowl, season the bread crumbs or cracker crumbs with the salt and pepper. Put the beaten eggs in another shallow bowl. Have ready an ungreased baking sheet and a brown paper bag.

Dredge 1 tomato slice in the flour to coat both sides. Next coat both sides of the tomato slice with the egg, allowing the excess to drip off. Then dredge the slice in the seasoned bread crumbs or cracker crumbs and place it on the baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining tomato slices.

In a medium skillet, pour enough oil to measure 1/4 inch deep. Heat the skillet over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Fry the tomato slices, a few at a time, turning once, until golden brown on both sides, 1 1/2 to 2 minutes per side. (Reduce the heat if the tomatoes begin to burn or if the oil smokes). Transfer the slices onto the brown paper bag to drain. The tomatoes can be kept warm in the preheated oven for 30 minutes.

Per serving: 158 calories, 5 gm protein, 21 gm carbohydrates, 7 gm fat, 35 mg cholesterol, 1 gm saturated fat, 30 mg sodium, 2 gm dietary fiber

Roasted Green Tomatoes With Bacon, Brown Sugar and Almonds

(4 servings)

This is an unusual but flavorful side dish. Try it with grilled beef, lamb or chicken.

Nonstick spray oil

2 medium green tomatoes, cut in half

4 tablespoons firmly packed brown sugar

2 slices bacon, cut into pieces

4 teaspoons finely chopped almonds

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Adjust the oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Coat a small baking dish with the nonstick vegetable spray oil.

Place the tomatoes, cut-sides up, in the prepared baking dish and sprinkle with the sugar and bacon. Roast the tomatoes in the preheated oven for 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and baste the tomatoes with their juices. Sprinkle with the almonds, return to the oven and roast until the tomatoes are tender and the bacon is brown, about 5 more minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve.

Per serving: 104 calories, 3 gm protein, 13 gm carbohydrates, 5 gm fat, 3 mg cholesterol, 1 gm saturated fat, 137 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber

Braised Lamb Shanks With Green Tomatoes

(4 servings)

Ask your butcher or meat department for lamb shanks if they are not in the meat case. Shoulder chops or a pork picnic roast can be substituted. This dish is best when made 1 day in advance so the flavors can blend.

4 lamb shanks (about 4 to 5 pounds), visible fat trimmed

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 large onion, sliced

2 cloves garlic, chopped

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 green tomatoes (about 2 pounds), coarsely chopped

2 stalks celery, coarsely chopped

1 cup apple cider

1 cup beef broth

1/4 cup cider vinegar

1 teaspoon dried rosemary

1 bay leaf

1 1/4 cups dried small white navy beans, rinsed

About 6 cups water

Cooked orzo (rice-shaped pasta) or rice (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Season the shanks with salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

In a Dutch oven or large pot over medium heat, cook the onion and garlic in the oil until golden, about 10 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes, celery, cider, broth, vinegar, rosemary and bay leaf. Carefully add the shanks to the Dutch oven or pot and bring the mixture to a boil. Cover tightly and transfer to the preheated oven. Braise until the meat is very tender, about 1 1/4 hours.

Meanwhile, place the beans in a large deep pot and add enough water to cover by about 6 inches; season with salt to taste. Cook over medium heat at a bare simmer until tender, about 45 minutes. Remove from the heat. Drain the beans and season with salt and pepper to taste.

After the lamb shanks have cooked for 1 1/4 hours, stir the beans into the pot with the lamb. Continue to cook in the oven, uncovered, for an additional 15 minutes. Serve the shanks and vegetables over rice or orzo, if desired.

Per serving: 746 calories, 83 gm protein, 57 gm carbohydrates, 18 gm fat, 197 mg cholesterol, 4 gm saturated fat, 347 mg sodium, 19 gm dietary fiber

Shredded Pot Roast With Green Tomatoes

(6 servings)

This delicious comfort food, inspired by the Cuban dish Ropa Vieja, is even better when it is made a day ahead and the flavors have time to meld.

2 1/4 pounds boneless beef chuck roast

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 carrot, coarsely chopped

2 medium green tomatoes (about 1 pound), chopped

2 onions, chopped

2 cloves garlic, chopped

About 1 cup water

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/4 cup dry red wine

1/4 cup tomato paste

1 1/4 teaspoons ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

Cayenne pepper to taste (optional)

Cooked rice (optional)

Season the beef with salt and pepper to taste. In a large skillet, place the beef along with the carrot, half of the tomatoes, half of the onions, half of the garlic and enough water to just cover. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce to a simmer, cover and cook until the meat is very tender, about 2 hours.

Transfer the meat to a cutting board; set aside to cool slightly. Shred the meat with a fork.

Meanwhile, strain the cooking liquid; discard the solids. Skim all visible fat from the cooking liquid and pour it back into the skillet. Simmer the liquid until it is reduced to 2 cups, about 45 minutes. Remove from the heat; set aside.

In another skillet over medium heat, heat the oil and cook the remaining onion and garlic until golden, about 5 minutes. Add the shredded meat along with the reduced cooking liquid, remaining chopped tomato, wine, tomato paste, cumin, oregano and salt and black or cayenne pepper (if using) to taste. Simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes. Serve over rice, if desired.

Per serving: 335 calories, 35 gm protein, 12 gm carbohydrates, 15 gm fat, 111 mg cholesterol, 5 gm saturated fat, 195 mg sodium, 3 gm dietary fiber

Leslie Glover Pendelton, whose last book was "One Dough, Fifty Cookies" (Morrow, 1998), is putting the finishing touches on a seafood cookbook.