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Rich: Southern skillets are simply an iron canvas

POSTED: September 30, 2008 5:00 a.m.

There is an art to making fried green tomatoes. Unfortunately, too many restaurant cooks are artless. They think they can when they can't.

It's a risk sometimes to order fried green tomatoes from a menu. This I have learned the hard way.

A while back, I spoke at an event with the very sweet and personable Melissa Gilbert, she of "Little House On the Prairie" fame. We were in Owensboro, Ky., and after the event we joined a few others for dinner. Melissa, who was sitting by me, was studying her menu when I offered a suggestion.

"Melissa, they've got fried green tomatoes on the menu. If you haven't ever tried them, you should." I have to preach the Southern gospel.

She grinned broadly. "I was just looking at that. I was raised in Southern California so I've never tasted them."

She ordered them then I excused myself from the table to pay a visit to the kitchen.

"This is the first time she's ever had them," I told the kitchen staff. "So please be sure to cook them well done."

Biting into a raw green tomato - which has happened to me a few times - isn't a pleasant experience. I didn't want that to happen to Half Pint.

To the table, the waitress brought a plate of the grapefruit-sized slices. Melissa cut a piece, dipped it in a remoulade sauce and took a bite.

"Oh my gosh! That is delicious!" she exclaimed, hastily cutting another bite. She devoured - daintily of course - the delicacy and then proclaimed them one of the best things she had ever eaten.

But if they had not been cooked all the way through, she'd surely have had another opinion.

I love fried green tomato sandwiches so I make them regularly through the summer months when I'm able to pluck the tomatoes from a nearby vine and fry them up in my seasoned cast-iron skillet. I add crisp bacon, cheese and mayonnaise on a soft bun and hmm, what a great sandwich.

Is there anything more deliciously Southern than a fried green tomato sandwich? For the record, the best and most consistent I have found is at actor Morgan Freeman's blues club - Ground Zero - in Clarksdale, Miss. I once drove over from Memphis, 90 miles away, just to have one for lunch.

I had a good one at a place on St. Simons Island. I couldn't wait to get back and have another. The next time I was there, I ordered a sandwich to go, took it home and excitedly bit into it. I spat it out. The slices were thick and raw.

Here's my tips for frying green tomatoes: Slice them thin. Salt them good on both sides and let them set for a few minutes so the salt will draw more of the juices out. Then dredge them thoroughly in corn meal with pepper (sometimes I make a batter from the cornmeal and buttermilk) and plop them down in hot oil in a cast iron skillet. Turn the heat down and let the tomatoes cook slowly. Putting a lid on the skillet will help them cook a bit quicker. Once, they're thoroughly cooked, place on a paper towel to absorb the extra oil.

Mama used to dice them up and scramble cook them, even adding either onion or diced up squash. Delicious, too.

My literary agent and I once had lunch at a New York restaurant owned by famed television chef Bobby Flay. Since she also represented him as an author, he came over and sat down with us.

"You should try my green tomato sandwich," he said to me, grinning. It was raw, I might add.

I laughed. "In the South, we fry our green tomatoes."

He chuckled. "You guys fry everything."

Yes, it's the art of frying.

Ronda Rich is the Gainesville-based author of "What Southern Women Know (That Every Woman Should)." Sign up for her newsletter


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