Eggplant, like okra, has its haters. Too slimy, they shudder, when it's overcooked. Too rubbery, they sneer, when undercooked. Tasteless, they say, like chewing fiber-board. So alluring when whole, but so ugly--boiled dust bunnies! slugs!--on the plate. Bitter, spongy, and such a diva: as one friend sighed, "It's so high maintenance. The things you have to do it to make it edible just seem like more work than necessary for what you get in the end."
Personally, I agree with none of these statements, except for the caveat against undercooking, since it's very true that eggplant that's too close to raw will have all the textural appeal of foam rubber. But who am I to argue with deep-seated vegetable revulsion? It only pains me that, as a result, you've been depriving yourself of one of the great comfort foods of life: gooey, cheesy, tomato-sticky eggplant parmesan.
Until now, when I bring you its divine substitute, green tomato parm.
Chief Wiggum: "Hey, what you packing, Simpson?"
Homer: “Just my lunch. Chicken parm, meatball parm, eggplant parm, shiska parm, angel hair parm, moo goo gai parm. My wife can parm anything.” (from The Simpsons, "Chief of Hearts" Episode 18, Season 21)
Take a page from Marge Simpson: you, too, can parm anything. The idea for this dish comes from Sharlene Rednour, performer, educator, mother of three, eggplant hater, and author of the fabulous Femme's Guide to the Universe, now out in a freshly updated digital edition.
Rednour may hate eggplant, but she loves all things parm, and no one can touch her when it comes to frying up green tomatoes. She also likes this dish for how it showcases both green tomatoes and their red-ripe brethren, turned into sauce.
Now, when I say "green tomatoes," I mean unripe tomatoes, not green-when-they're-ripe varieties like Green Zebra. Some farmers sell their unripe tomatoes specifically for frying by the Southern-born or Southern-inclined among us; ask your favorite vendor if he or she might be able to supply you. If you're growing tomatoes in your backyard, on your fire escape, or in a community garden, then you've got a built-in supply of underripe specimens. This recipe can come in particularly handy if you're growing in Karl the Fog's backyard, a.k.a the chilly, foggy, close-to-the-ocean western side of San Francisco, where green tomatoes may be all you get, even if you wait and water til Halloween. Look for tomatoes that are full-sized, firm, and pale green, with no pink or red spots. They should have a crisp, almost apple-y texture and a pleasantly tart taste.
Once you've acquired your tomatoes, it's full parm ahead. The lighter, juicier texture of green tomatoes means they're better simply dusted with cayenne-spiked cornmeal and fried up Southern-style until golden brown. Layer with tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, and fresh basil leaves. Bake until gooey and molten. Remove from oven, let cool and settle for a few minutes to prevent over-eager tongue-burning, and serve. Eggplant haters, green tomato lovers, come together and rejoice.
Green Tomato Parm
Makes one 8x8 pan; serves 6
- 1 1/2 lbs green tomatoes, about 3 to 4, depending on size
- 1/4 cup flour
- 3/4 cup cornmeal, preferably stoneground
- 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 1/2 tsp oregano
- 1 tsp sea salt
- 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper, or to taste
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 3 to 4 tbsp vegetable oil (or a mixture of vegetable and olive oils) for frying
- 2 cups tomato sauce (recipe below)
- 24 fresh basil leaves
- 8 oz mozzarella cheese, sliced
- Preheat oven to 350ºF. Slice tomatoes crosswise into 1/4-inch slices. Lay out on clean tea towels or paper towels and blot any excess moisture.
- In a wide, shallow bowl, mix flour, cornmeal, Parmesan cheese, oregano, sea salt, cayenne, and several grinds of fresh pepper in a wide, shallow bowl.
- Lightly dredge each tomato slice on both sides with cornmeal mixture. Lay out on a baking sheet or tray and repeat with remaining tomato slices.
- Line a baking sheet or tray with a double layer of paper towels. In a wide saute pan over medium-high heat, heat oil. Add green tomatoes slices, just enough to fill the pan without crowding. Fry until golden brown on the bottom, then flip with a spatula. Fry until both sides are golden brown. Remove slices and let drain on the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with remaining tomato slices.
- In an 8"-x-8" baking pan or pie plate, spread 1/3 cup tomato sauce. Cover with a single layer of tomato slices, overlapping slightly. Top each slice with a basil leaf and a slice of mozzarella. Spread with 1 cup of tomato sauce. Repeat with remaining tomatoes, basil, and cheese. Top with remaining sauce and sprinkle 1/4 cup of grated Parmesan on top.
- Bake for 20-25 minutes, until the cheese is melted and mixture is bubbly.
Easy Tomato Sauce
Makes 2 1/4 cups
- In a medium saucepan over medium heat, heat oil. Add onion and a generous sprinkle of salt and cook, stirring frequently, until softened, translucent, and beginning to turn golden, about 7 to 8 minutes. Add garlic cloves and saute for another two minutes.
- Add tomatoes and juice, along with another sprinkle of salt and a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes, if desired. Bring to a simmer, then reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, until mixture has thickened slightly and flavors have melded, about 20-30 minutes. Taste for seasoning and add more salt and/or red pepper flakes, if desired. If the sauce seems tart, add a little sugar to smooth out the acidity.
Note: You can also make this sauce with 2 lbs fresh tomatoes. Blanch the tomatoes in boiling water for 1 minute, until skins can be removed easily. Peel tomatoes and slice in half. Scoop out seeds over a strainer suspended over a bowl to catch the juice. Discard seeds. Chop tomatoes roughly. Use chopped tomatoes and juice in place of canned tomatoes.