Like many of the South’s most revered dishes, fried green tomatoes are deeply rooted in rural life. And for chef Kevin Callaghan, of Acme Food & Beverage Co. in Carrboro, North Carolina, his first taste came straight from the farm. “Growing up, I was by far the youngest of seventeen grandchildren,” he says. “My mother’s parents were retired and lived on a farm in South Carolina. The strong rural legacy and the embedded fear left over from the Depression made this a working farm: corn, tomatoes, melons, strawberries, peanuts, sweet potatoes, okra, squash, onions, pole beans. They farmed the land together, and my grandmother spent hours ‘putting up’ pickles and preserves that filled their pantry. It was from this world that I first tasted fried green tomatoes.”
Green tomatoes are nothing more than garden-variety tomatoes plucked before they ripen. Because most farmers have several plantings of tomatoes, staggered to lengthen the season and to protect against accidental destruction, a lot of green tomatoes can be harvested throughout the growing season. “Green tomatoes tend to be the same size, a little larger than a tennis ball,” says the chef. “Pick ones on the larger side that show absolutely no shriveling. The skin should be very tight. And you want green and not yellow. Since you use the heart of the tomato and not the top or bottom, you’ll typically get three one-third- to half-inch slices from each.”
After the tomatoes are washed and dredged (dipped in batter and breaded), they’re ready for the fire. Along with salt and pepper, Callaghan likes to use a little garlic powder and onion powder in the breading. The dry spices frame the flavor of the tomatoes nicely and won’t burn at the high heat.
In a perfect world, Callaghan says, there would be plenty of pork fat in the pan for frying. “Flavor is the gift of poverty. Protein was never the centerpiece of a meal; the vegetables were. And fried tomatoes, or fried anything, was a way to get fat into the diet.” Even without pork fat, you’ll still get a flavor bump by mixing butter and oil for the cooking fat. In any case, there should be enough in the pan to float the tomatoes so they aren’t touching the bottom of the pan, which can dislodge the breading. After bringing the fat to its initial temperature of 350ºF, the heat is reduced to stabilize the temperature. But the more you fry, the more the temperature of the oil goes down, so there will be some adjustment.
Don’t be tempted to eat them right away after cooking. The tomatoes will be hot inside due to the water trapped within. Instead take this time to stack up one of Callaghan’s signature BL-GREEN-Ts. Toast one side of the bread, turn some chopped greens such as arugula, basil, or tarragon into Duke’s mayo, and use a good smokehouse bacon. The sandwich has become so popular at Acme, the chef says, that one of his regular brunch customers got a tattoo of it. “Bloody Marys and bacon fat do strange things to people, I guess.”