Tomatoes fried either Southern- or Yankee-style

October 30, 2002

NOW THAT evening temperatures are diving into the 30s, it is time to pick the green tomatoes.

That raises the question of whether to fry them Yankee-style, with flour and low-fat milk, or fry them Southern-style, with cornmeal and buttermilk.

It is a question addressed by Crescent Dragonwagon in her new cookbook, Passionate Vegetarian (Workman Publishing Co. Inc., 2002, $24.95). Dragonwagon is a Yankee by birth who has become a longtime resident of the South.

Born as Ellen Zolotow, she grew up in New York but changed her name as a teen-ager to Crescent Dragonwagon and moved to Arkansas. There, along with her husband, Ned Shank, she operated the Dairy Hollow Inn in Eureka Springs. This establishment became a hotbed of her "nouveau Arkie" cooking, and, with the subsequent establishment of the Writers' Colony at Dairy Hollow, it became a center of creative writing.

The couple published several children's books, and in the early 1990s I became a fan of Crescent's first cookbook, Dairy Hollow House Soup & Bread. That book had several recipes for meat and chicken, but her new book, a 1,000-plus page paperback, is meat-free.

A confessed "closet vegetarian," Crescent says in the book that for the past 20 years she cooked meat dishes for customers at the inn while privately she and her husband ate vegetarian fare. She began compiling this tome of vegetarian cooking back in 1994, and then in 2000 her husband died in a bicycling accident. After what she described as a "slow, reluctant return to life," she dedicated the book to him, honoring "the feast we had together."

The tone of the book is upbeat. "If you can't bring yourself to pluck a tomato in the green of its youth," she writes, "the first frost will bring you plenty."

Acknowledging that the traditional style of frying green tomatoes relies on a "frightening amount" of oil, bacon fat or lard, she calls for cooking both the Yankee- and Southern-style tomatoes in a nonstick pan lubricated with a little butter and vegetable oil.

Yankee-fried tomatoes, she says, are flavored with a little Pickapeppa Sauce and brown sugar and are topped with a gravy while the Southern tomatoes rely only on their buttermilk and cornmeal coating to carry the day.

Because Baltimore is so close to the Mason-Dixon line, I offer both the Yankee and Southern styles of disposing of the garden's last tomatoes.

Southern-Style Fried Green Tomatoes

Serves 4

1 cup fine yellow cornmeal

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/2 cup buttermilk

cooking spray

1 teaspoon butter

1 teaspoon mild vegetable oil (corn, canola, peanut)

4 large firm green tomatoes, rinsed, stem end plus a thin slice of the bottom removed, cut into 1/2 -inch-thick rounds

Place the cornmeal in a shallow pan and season heavily with salt and pepper.

Place buttermilk in another shallow pan.

Spray a nonstick skillet with cooking spray, and place the skillet over medium heat. Add half the butter and half the oil.

Dredge the sliced tomatoes, first in the buttermilk, then in the seasoned cornmeal.

When the skillet is hot, add the tomato slices. Fry until nicely browned on the bottom, about 6 minutes.

Add the remaining butter and oil. Gently turn over the tomatoes. Fry until nicely browned on the other side, 3 to 4 minutes. Serve immediately.

Yankee-Style Fried Green Tomatoes

Serves 4

1 teaspoon cornstarch

1/2 cup low-fat milk

1 drop Pickapeppa Sauce

1 cup unbleached all-purpose white flour

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

cooking spray

1 teaspoon butter

1 teaspoon mild vegetable oil (corn, canola, peanut)

4 large firm green tomatoes, rinsed, stem end plus a thin slice of bottom removed, sliced into 1/2 -inch-thick rounds

brown sugar

Place cornstarch in a small bowl, and using your fingers, smush in about 1 tablespoon of the milk. When smooth, add the remainder of the milk and the Pickapeppa. Set aside.

Place flour in a shallow pan and season it with salt and pepper.

Spray nonstick skillet with cooking spray and put the skillet over medium heat. Add half of the butter and half of the oil.

Dredge sliced tomatoes in seasoned flour.

When skillet is hot, carefully add tomato slices, putting a tiny sprinkle of brown sugar on each. Fry until nicely browned on the bottom, about 6 minutes.

Add the remaining butter and oil to the pan. Very gently turn the tomatoes over. Sprinkle remaining brown sugar on the already browned side and fry until the second side is nicely browned, about 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer to a platter.

Give the cornstarch mixture a vigorous stir and, whisking like the dickens, pour it into the hot skillet. Cook, whisking until it thickens (almost instantly). Add a little salt and pepper to taste, then spoon a little of it over each of the tomato slices and serve immediately.

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