Saturday, February 21, 2015
While many people see the farmers markets as weekend diversions for the wealthy, Jim and I had a personal stake in promoting the economic value of farmers markets. We discovered their value when we ourselves were on food stamps for a few months in 2007 when I was in between adjunct teaching jobs and he was out of work. The fact that we could buy local produce and meat that was literally fresh from a farm and in quantities that would not spoil before we could consume us had convinced us that farmers markets were not only an enjoyable place to shop but an affordable one, as well. After that summer, we began to make a shift in our lives that would move us toward first buying most of what we ate at farmers markets and eventually growing the food ourselves. Like good evangelists, we wanted to share the message.
Our approach at the Franklin Community Center was relatively low key. We show up with a featured vegetable, some basic cooking implements, and a few additional staple ingredients (oil, lemon juice, pepper, and sometimes a couple of other spices). We prepare the vegetable in three or four different ways and dish up samples. We then walk up and down the line of clients waiting for services inviting them to sample the food and explain how it was prepared with farm-raised local ingredients.
In the midst of the project, I also began tending a community garden that had been established on the center's lawn. While the garden had good soil and was relatively protected from the elements, it didn't get the kind of sunshine needed to turn tomatoes red. The good news of this dilemma was that at a time when most other tomato plants in the area had shriveled and died from frost, the Franklin Center's plants were still thriving. The bad news was that the plants were producing large numbers of firm, healthy green tomatoes that refused to ripen to red.
We were scheduled to take a winter break from our food demonstrations, which will resume this coming Wednesday, February 25. We decided that the last round of cooking should not feature foods grown in our garden or purchased at the farmers market but rather the community action center's garden itself.
Enter fried green tomatoes.
I had never made them before. I was pretty sure that I had eaten them, but I couldn't understand their allure. I liked tomatoes well enough when they were ripe, but to me they tasted sour and bitter when green. I couldn't fathom why anyone would bother frying something that was not so good fresh.
But we had dozens of green tomatoes to dispense with so I looked up a recipe and proceeded to prepare them. I prepared a mixture of cornmeal and black pepper, and beat a couple of eggs. I sliced the tomatoes, dipped them in the egg and rolled them in the cornmeal. I then dropped them into a frying pan sizzling with hot oil and cooked them until the cornmeal exterior started to brown. I removed them from the pan and placed them on a paper towel before preparing the sample cups. On an impulse, I tasted one and nearly melted with joy. The sharp, sour taste of the green tomato raw had mellowed to a soft juicy undertone that perfectly complemented the cornmeal covering around it. The flavor melded crunchy and watery, and sour and sweet into a perfect companionship.
Throughout the winter, I have thought often of fried green tomatoes and -- because we are fortunate in Saratoga to have a farmer who grows tomatoes hydroponically -- have prepared them more than once. The explosion of flavor continues to amaze me, and I have constantly sought to experiment with new methods of preparation.
Tonight I tried them a little differently. I had obtained a large number of green tomatoes from the hydroponic Shushan Farms around Christmas. I had kept the tomatoes in the refrigerator to prevent them from turning red and rotting, but by mid-February I knew I had gotten to a point where I needed to use them or lose them. I looked up a recipe for pakora, which is a spicy Indian snack consisting of vegetables dipped in a chickpea batter and deep fried. I prepared the batter with chickpea flour, turmeric, and some crushed red pepper, and submerged my green tomatoes which had been sliced into quarters in it. I heated some oil in a deep frying pan and dropped the pieces of tomato into it. The result once again was an explosion of flavor that I can't wait to reproduce -- again.