Farmers and gardeners in the South know a thing or 10 about growing tomatoes. Once daytime temps reach 90 degrees, tomatoes will cease to flower, so tomato plants are set out the very first days after the last frost is expected, and sometimes earlier, relying on crossed fingers, the help of hothouses, and upturned milk cartons to protect the plants in case of a late frost. I've strung large bulb Christmas lights from the house, extension cord connected to extension cord connected to light string and strung down the rows close to the base of the plant, then plant and bulb covered with opaque overturned jugs. From the road, it looked as if miniature alien spaceships had taken over the tomato plot.
Plantings and harvests are staggered every few weeks, so as not to overwhelm the market, or the preserving farmer, as was my case. It's all over midsummer or so for the first tomato season in the South. As the mercury stretches toward 100 degrees, rangy plants produce little, and it's time to pull them to give room for more heat-friendly options, or to plant a quick cover crop-- but quick it must be for there are only weeks until time for the late summer planting seasoning. It sounds like a lot of work, and some complicated timing, and of course it is, but dang it, we get 2 seasons of fresh tomatoes down here and I can't think of a reward more precious for which to work.
I've got a thing for tomatoes, for sure.
Right now, you'll find green tomatoes all around the country, and in many parts, the beginnings of salmon, pink, blush, orange, then RIPE. I love them all-- all colors and all stages from the tartest green to the deepest purples and black-reds, and I use them and preserve them in many ways. For that deep dark Cherokee tomato, it's Hellmann's mayonaisse, a Noonday onion slice, and homemade sourdough. For a year's worth of sauce, it's the bell-shaped, scant-seeded Roma. For tarts, tartines, gallettes-- heirlooms of every shape, size, color and variety. For the explosion of cherry tomatoes, a bowl on the table all day long-- they get snacked on often with a flourish-- tossed in the air and caught by my mouth. It keeps me agile.
Occasionally, I'll make a batch of fermented green tomato pickles or charred green tomato chow chow, but only occasionally because my one true love of green tomato prep is the darling of the Southern menu, Fried Green Tomatoes. Only Not. I mean they're still green tomatoes, they're just not fried.
But DANG, they're still as good.
Better, I might say. Better because they're easier. Better because they're tidier. Better because I'm inclined to make a custom-sized batch for one, where I might not bother with the traditional preparation. Better because taking a spin in the oven instead of a dunk in the fryer means less mess, less fat, and better flavor, I think. The delicate herbs in the breading, the layers of flavor in the tomato are all showcased best without having been drowned by hot grease. Save the bacon drippings for another day-- and enjoy this quick, wholesome option.
(Not) Fried Green Tomatoes
Yield: 4 servings
4 green tomatoes
2 whole eggs
2 T water
1 cup seasoned fine bread crumbs (see note below)
1/4 cup Panko Japanese-style bread crumbs
2 whole lemons (see note below re: seasoned bread crumbs)
1 cup Parmigiano Reggiano grated cheese, separated
Freshly cracked black pepper and sea salt, to taste
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Line a sheet pan with parchment paper. While silicone spray or a mat will suffice in a pinch, I've found parchment to work the best, without losing any coating, and clean up is a breeze, for extra benefit.
With a sharp knife, slice stem and blossom end of tomatoes and discard. Slice remaining tomato in 1/3" slices, approximately. Place in a single layer on a paper towel-lined plate or sheet pan, sprinkle each slice with salt, and set aside for 10 minutes.
Combine fine seasoned bread crumbs, Panko crumbs, and 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese in a larger bowl (see note, below, regarding bread crumbs). You'll need a little room to bread them well on each side.
Pat dry tomato slices. Transfer one by one to 1) egg wash, dipping each side in then, 2) transfer to breading, coating each side (use your fingers of one hand for egg, and other hand for breading, and you won't get all goopy like I did), then 3) transfer to parchment-lined sheet pan. Dribble tops with a few scant drops of freshly-squeezed lemon juice.
Place pan in middle rack of preheated oven for 20 minutes. Remove, gently invert each slice, top with a scattering of Parmigiano Reggiano, and return to oven for 10-20 minutes, or until golden brown, and fork-tender. Season with freshly ground black pepper and sea salt, as necessary. Allow to cool slightly (the interior flesh can be napalm-hot when first removed from the oven), about 5 minutes, then serve.
I like mine drizzled with this Homemade Southern Buttermilk Dressing. LOTS of folks do. But these are equally as intriguing served with warmed marinara sauce, topped with a dreamy, creamy seafood imperial sauce, or even in their nekkids.
About seasoned bread crumbs: The bread crumbs I used for this dish were homemade, from a day-old loaf of Asiago Lemon Thyme foccacia I baked that was ground finely in a food processor. The bread was enriched with lemon infused olive oil, minced parsley, and fresh thyme. You could replicate those flavors with some dried thyme, dried parsley, grated parmigiano reggiano and lemon zest added to plain fine bread crumbs, or simply purchase seasoned bread crumbs available on store shelves and add the grated cheese to the mixture. Should you choose the lemon zest route, zest the whole lemons called for before cutting and squeezing lemons for juice.
TFM Lakeline on Saturday from 10-12, and TFM Mueller on Sunday from 11-1pm to learn more, grab a bite, and shoot the breeze. I'd love to see your smiling face among the crowd.
ENHANCE. Not overcome. Not smother. Not drown. Enhance.
If you're looking for something closer to the ranch you'll find in grocery stores, and even homemade ranch-style dressings, you'll probably want to look further. Likely, the addition of a healthy dose of mayonnaise is where to start. Believe me. I have not one thing against mayonnaise. In fact I love mayonnaise so much, I make it AND buy it and I use different brands for different foods. Hellmann's in the chicken salad. Duke's in the egg salad. Blue Plate in the potato salad. Homemade on the tomato sandwich.
But not in this dressing. Nope. It's a tad more delicate and refined than a glob of saturated fat (not that there's anything wrong with that). Oh it's not fat-free. Buttermilk is naturally lowfat (see more about buttermilk, below) but this recipe includes full-fat dairy as well, which experts have finally begun to tell us actually helps with weight loss, along with a host of other healthy benefits. So GET THE FULL FAT. You're welcome.
Homemade Southern Buttermilk Dressing
Yield | approximately 1½ pints
Supplies | 1 quart jar with lid
1 pint buttermilk
8oz sour cream, full fat
Fine zest of 1/2 lemon
1-2 teaspoons lemon juice, to taste
½ garlic clove, minced finely
1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives
1½ teaspoons fresh dill
1½ teaspoons minced parsley
½- 1 teaspoon onion salt, to taste
½- 1 teaspoon white pepper, to taste
Optional: fine sea salt
Combine all ingredients in order in a screw-top jar. Shake vigorously until well blended. Really shake. Shake it up. Like this.
Taste, and correct seasonings, adding fine sea salt if/as needed.
Kitchen Hint: When using both lemon zest and juice, zest the whole lemon first, setting aside the amount the recipe requires. Wrap remaining zest in a small pocket of aluminum foil and tuck it into the freezer to store for a month or so. Then cut and squeeze the lemon. Even when a recipe calls for only lemon juice, I zest the lemon and store the zest-- it's powdered gold. The zest, where the essential oils are found, has a milder, sweeter flavor than the acidic juice.
"What we call old-fashioned, or churned, buttermilk is very different from cultured buttermilk. It is the thin, slightly acidic liquid left over after churning butter from full-cream milk. It is drunk or used in soups and sauces in northern Europe and South Asia but is not available commercially in the United States." Cary Frye, Fine Cooking
Tomorrow, I'll be sharing (Not) Fried Green Tomatoes to serve with this dressing alongside. A healthier version of the popular southern starter, perfect for tomatoes that hop off the vine a little too soon.
Further along, we'll tackle a few ways to hack this dressing to create other favorites, like Blue Cheese Dressing, Green Goddess Dressing, and others. It's summer and that's what we do. We eat field-fresh vegetables and we dress 'em up right.
If you've got a little time to spare, enjoy this excellent Southern Foodways Alliance spotlight on charming dairy farmer and buttermilk believer Earl Cruze of Cruze Farm Dairy. I sure would like a little of that buttermilk!