I remember when there were only two kinds of tomatoes: winter and summer. In the winter, tomatoes were pale reddish orbs with flavor so subtle we couldn’t detect it. At the extreme other end of the spectrum, the summer tomato was truly exciting. This was the type that grew in genuine earth, ripened in the sun and was harvested at the peak of the season.
I discovered summer tomatoes at around age 10, when my father took me to the public produce market in Rochester, N.Y., and we bought half a bushel. I thought they were miraculous, especially when we got home and sliced them into thick pieces, spread them with mayonnaise and sprinkled them with salt and pepper. I wondered why these two things — winter and summer tomatoes — went by the same name.
Tomatoes are now various and vivid, and there are more types than we can fathom. Heirloom varieties of every color and (literally) stripe abound at farmers markets and greengrocers in late summer and early fall.
Among the hundreds of heirloom tomatoes grown these days are those known by such intriguing names as Amana Orange, Black From Tula, Matt’s Wild Cherry, Orange Banana, Aunt Ruby’s German Green, Pink Accordion and Thai Pink Egg. And the pale, sad hothouse type is, I hope, permanently relegated to one of the stranger chapters of food history.
Another significant change is that green tomato no longer necessarily means an unripe tomato. While it’s true that all tomatoes go through a pale green phase, there are some stunning heirloom varieties — notably Green Zebra and Aunt Ruby’s German Green — that are green when fully sweet and ready. These are not to be mistaken for the green tomatoes called for in old-fashioned recipes, including the fried green tomato quiche that follows.
The idea is to put to good use tomatoes that are still on the vine as the first frost approaches. The advantage to frying under-ripe green tomatoes is that they are hard, so they hold together well when cooked. You can use any type of under-ripe tomato for fried green tomatoes. Just don’t use the heirloom variety.
The old-fashioned fried green tomatoes will remain a delicacy, no matter how sophisticated and broad tomato cultivation becomes. Some things are timeless and beautifully so.
For more information about heirloom tomatoes, I recommend this Web site: www.farm-garden.com/primers/41.
Fried green tomato quiche
Fried green tomatoes and sharp cheddar cheese combine beautifully and become the centerpiece of a light meal when baked into a quiche. The crust can be made well ahead and refrigerated for several days. It can also be stored in the freezer in a sealed plastic bag. Prepare the tomatoes up to several hours in advance and leave them on the cooling rack until using.
2 large unripe tomatoes (about 1 pound)
1/3 cup cornmeal or polenta (rounded measure)
Nonstick cooking spray and a little butter for greasing pan
1 unbaked quiche crust (recipe follows)
1 cup packed grated cheddar cheese
3 large eggs
1 cup milk
1/4 heaping teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
To make fried green tomatoes, core tomatoes and thinly slice off ends. Cut tomatoes into half-inch-thick slices (you’ll get about 3 or 4 slices per tomato) and set aside. Combine cornmeal or polenta and salt to taste on a dinner plate. Dredge tomato slices in cornmeal mixture, pressing it into cut surfaces of tomatoes to create a thick coating.
Place a large skillet or saute pan over medium heat for several minutes. Mist hot pan with nonstick cooking spray and melt in a little butter. After a few seconds, tilt pan to distribute butter, then add coated tomatoes. Fry tomatoes on each side for 8 to 10 minutes, or until crisp and golden. You might need to add a little more butter at some point to keep them from sticking. Remove tomatoes from pan and transfer to a wire rack over a tray to cool.
Place unbaked quiche crust in pan on a baking tray.
Sprinkle grated cheese into bottom of crust. Cut sauteed tomatoes in half and arrange them over the cheese. They will overlap, and that’s fine.
Whisk together eggs, milk, salt, pepper to taste and a few dashes of cayenne, and slowly pour this mixture over tomatoes and cheese. Bake on baking tray in lower third of preheated 375-degree oven for 35 to 40 minutes, or until custard is set. Cool at least 10 minutes before slicing and serve at any temperature.
Makes 4 to 5 servings.
The generous yield enables you to make a nice edge on the crust.
1½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
½ cup (1 stick) cold, unsalted butter, sliced
1/4 teaspoon salt
Up to 3 tablespoons cold water, milk or buttermilk
Place flour in bowl of a food processor fitted with steel blade. Add butter and salt and turn processor on and off several times, until mixture is uniform and resembles coarse meal. (If you don’t have a food processor, use a pastry cutter or two forks.) Continue to process in quick spurts as you add water, milk or buttermilk, 1 tablespoon at a time.
As soon as dough adheres to itself when pinched, stop adding liquid and turn dough out onto a floured surface.
Roll dough into an 11-inch or so circle (slightly bigger than a 10-inch round).
Lift dough and ease it into a 9-inch pie pan or 10-inch springform tart pan, nudging it gently into corners. Form a generous, even edge all the way around sides. (If you’re not going to use crust right away, wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate or freeze until needed.)
Mollie Katzen is the author of the “Moosewood Cookbook” (Ten Speed Press). Her Web site is www.molliekatzen.com.
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