At this time of year, it’s tough not to rhapsodize about fresh-from-the-garden tomatoes.
There’s something so magical about the plump and juicy red fruits, and the many wonderful dishes in which it plays a starring role — soups, sauces, salads, and even pies and tarts.
This was brought home to me recently on a visit to my son’s apartment in Pittsburgh’s Bloomfield. While pulling out weeds in his front yard, I struck up a conversation with a 93-year-old Italian woman who happened by on a walk around the block with her son. A native of Calabria or maybe Campania in southern Italy (her lilting accent was as thick as it was charming) she told me all about the city garden she’s tended for decades around the corner. Of course it included tomatoes. “If you’re gonna eat,” she said with a wide, toothless grin, “you have to have something to cook.”
That’s Pittsburgh for you. Total strangers chatting it up on the street.
That Christina and her son left a plastic grocery bag full of Roma tomatoes on my son’s back porch a half-hour later was even more Pittsburgh. Slender, firm and the color of a brand-new firetruck, the unexpected gift was like homegrown, culinary gold. But what to do with them?
A handful ended up in a spicy tomato jam perfumed with cumin and ginger. The rest went into a most unlikely dish my editor spied in Cook’s Country: fried red tomatoes.
I know. This quintessential Southern dish is usually made with unripe green tomatoes. Ripe red tomatoes are just too juicy to coat in cornmeal and be expected to hold together in a sizzling skillet. Unless you use plum tomatoes, that is, which are more meaty and less watery than beefsteak, heirloom or vine-ripened varieties.
Cook’s Country found a way to coax the excess water out of a plum tomato’s meaty flesh and get cornmeal to adhere. First, you let the slices sit on paper towels for 40 minutes. Then you coat them in a sticky buttermilk-egg mixture before dipping the tomato into cornmeal mixed with flour, grated Parmesan and a dash of cayenne.
The result is nothing short of spectacular – crunchy, sweet and so of the season. They’re even terrific reheated the next day in the oven.
Fried Red Tomatoes
Roma tomatoes, also known as plum tomatoes, are essential for this recipe; slicing tomatoes, such as beefsteak or ‘Brandywine,’ simply contain too much water to allow them to fry up crunchy. The original recipe called for granulated garlic, but I substituted what I had on hand, adobo seasoning. If you double the recipe, be sure to wipe out the skillet between batches. A squeeze of lemon brightens the flavor.
8 ounces plum tomatoes, ends trimmed, sliced 1/4-inch thick
1/2 teaspoon adobo seasoning
1/3 cup buttermilk
1 large egg
2/3 cup cornmeal
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 tablespoons minced fresh basil
Lemon slices, for serving
Line a wire rack with paper towels. Evenly space tomato slices on rack, sprinkle with adobo seasoning and let drain for 40 minutes, flipping halfway through draining.
Line rimmed baking sheet with parchment. Whisk buttermilk and egg together in shallow dish. Combine cornmeal, flour, Parmesan cheese, salt, pepper and cayenne in second shallow dish.
Lightly pat tops of tomatoes with paper towels to remove any accumulated liquid. Dip tomato slices in buttermilk mixture, then dredge in cornmeal mixture, pressing firmly to adhere; transfer to prepared sheet.
Heat oil in 12-inch nonstick pan over medium-high heat until just smoking. Add all tomatoes slices to skillet and fry until golden brown, 2 to 4 minutes per side. Transfer to platter and sprinkle with basil. Serve with lemon wedges.
Adapted from Cook’s Country (June/July 2016)