Fried Green Fantastic: Perfecting the slices of summer

I am very much a city girl. I love everything about a big city: the smells, the sounds, the movement, the swanky bistros where I can linger over a bottle of wine. My boyfriend, on the other hand, is very much a country boy; he is an avid hunter who earned a shooting scholarship to college. While I have exposed him to tasting menus at posh restaurants, outdoor lunches in The Loop and picnicking at the Shakespeare Festival in Forest Park, he has taught me all about country cooking. Because of him, I have now eaten as-fresh-as-it-gets venison tenderloin, tiny dove breasts cooked until just warmed through, wild turkey complete with overlooked pellets, corn on the cob just plucked from the stalk, and fried green tomatoes. I had only heard of fried green tomatoes because of Fannie Flagg’s novel (and the subsequent movie). I had no idea how delicious and addictive they were, with their crispy exterior and tart interior. I have since eaten many slices just out of the frying pan, plate in hand, while standing next to the stove awaiting the next batch. Green tomatoes are not a special variety of tomato, as I once thought. They are simply tomatoes that have yet to turn red. Any variety of tomatoes will work, but I’ve found that medium-sized round tomatoes (as opposed to the oval Romas) are the best choice for frying. Green tomatoes can be picked all summer long from stalks that are laden with fruit, to lighten the load and prevent heavy plants from collapsing. However, if you have a garden, pick all the green tomatoes left on the stalks at the end of the summer, just before the first frost, because those fruits won’t have a chance to ripen in the waning sunlight. You also can find green tomatoes at the farmers’ markets, and sometimes in grocery stores, throughout the summer. My boyfriend and I have done some experimenting with our fried green tomato recipe this summer trying to find the perfect combination of tomato thickness and crunchy breading. During a Goldilocks-esque moment, with some slices too thin and some slices too thick, we discovered that half-inch slices were just right. As far as breading and frying, we tried separate batches with coatings of all-purpose flour, semolina flour, cornmeal and beer batter. We pondered the question “to egg dip or not to egg dip.” We fried in canola oil, olive oil and bacon drippings. We spiced with peppers. We sprinkled with salt. We topped with cheese. Overall, cornmeal breading was the best, though the semolina flour was a good alternative. The coarser texture of cornmeal and semolina made for a crispier exterior than the delicate (and quite bland) all-purpose flour that got too soggy too quickly. The crunch of the cornmeal created a nice textural contrast with the tender tomato. The beer batter was unimpressive. The egg dip was unnecessary. Bacon drippings, of course, provided the best flavor. If you don’t feel sassy enough to fry in bacon grease, use a flavorless oil like canola or grapeseed (which has a higher smoking point). I didn’t like the flavor the olive oil imparted; it competed with the taste of the tomatoes too much. Salting immediately after frying was imperative. And that topping of grated Parmesan cheese was a welcome addition. You can use green tomatoes in other dishes, too. At New Orleans restaurant Upperline, owner JoAnn Clevenger serves fried green tomato slices topped with boiled shrimp in a spicy rémoulade. She also stuffs fried green tomato slices into po’ boy sandwiches and tops slices with marinara sauce, mozzarella and pesto. The July edition of Bon Appétit magazine even suggested topping a hot dog with fried green tomatoes and rémoulade sauce. My favorite green tomato dishes include BLFGT (bacon, lettuce and fried green tomato) sandwiches, a thick slice of fried green tomato underneath a poached egg with Hollandaise sauce, raw slices layered with bacon and caramelized onions in a green tomato gratin, and green tomato pissaladière. Kelly Green Schmickle, an English teacher who lives in Alton, chronicles her culinary experiments at