August 21, 2014 at 1:00 am

Grab green tomatoes off the vine early for new or classic dishes

One good philosophy: When life gives you green tomatoes, put them in a frying pan, a pickle jar or a cake or a soup or a casserole. (Photos by Kate Lawson / The Detroit News)

I may have a ripe tomato before the frost hits. Feeling full of gratitude that most of my garden survived the cruel winter just a few months ago, I planted several varieties of tomatoes in containers on my deck. The plants grew tall, the buds finally formed and then the cooler weather and gray skies put the kibosh on all of it. The one Early Girl that I was watching longingly as it began to redden and ripen turned up in a squirrel’s jaws the next morning. My voice was the scream heard ’round the block.

So, I’ve adopted a new philosophy: When life gives you green tomatoes, put them in a frying pan, a pickle jar or a cake or a soup or a casserole. Don’t bemoan that the lovely heirlooms are taking their sweet time coming around; instead, take action and put those green tomatoes to good use.

The flavor of green tomatoes is nowhere near the sweet, juicy ripe red tomatoes that signify summer. Green tomatoes are firm (though they'll soften up some upon cooking), moist and decidedly sour. I have never yearned nor attempted to pluck a green tomato off the vine and pop it into my mouth. But when it comes to cooking, that’s a whole other matter.

Green tomatoes stand up well to pickling (a colleague likes to save the pickle juice from her favorite brand then add small green tomatoes to the jar to use as a relish for hamburgers). They also do well when baked, providing a bit of moisture without turning into mush, and their firm texture and sour-sweet flavor allows you to swap them for tart green apples in recipes from cakes to pies. Their bright flavor also works well in sauces and can make a delicious summer soup, not to mention the beloved fried green tomatoes. This year I’ve substituted the cornmeal with panko, which makes the coating even crispier for the juicy love apple.

My advice, however, is when serving the cake, don’t feel the need to tell your family that it’s made with tomatoes because the truth is baked green tomatoes taste like apples. Remember zucchini bread? Add some sugar and spice, and most everything tastes nice.

Green Tomato Cake

Adapted from foodnetwork.com

1 cup butter
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup white sugar
3 large eggs
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 ½ cups diced green tomatoes (about 2 medium tomatoes)
1 cup raisins
1 cup chopped walnuts

Have all ingredients at room temperature.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 12-cup bundt pan.

Beat butter and sugars with an electric mixer until creamy. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition.

In a medium bowl, combine flour, cinnamon, baking powder, salt, and nutmeg. Gradually add to butter mixture, beating well. (Batter will be soft.) Stir in tomatoes, raisins, and walnuts.

Spoon batter into prepared pan. Bake for 70 to 75 minutes, or until a tester inserted in center comes out clean.

Let cool in pan on wire rack for 10 minutes. Remove from pan, and let cool completely. Dust with powdered sugar or spoon brown butter icing over cake. Serves 12.

Browned Butter Icing

½ cup (1 stick) butter
1 cup confectioners' sugar

In a medium saucepan over low heat, melt butter. Cook 6 to 8 minutes, or until butter is lightly browned. Whisk in confectioners' sugar until smooth. Makes 1 cup

Per serving: 627 calories; 32 g fat (16 g saturated fat; 46 percent calories from fat); 81 g carbohydrates; 51 g sugar; 119 mg cholesterol; 504 mg sodium; 7 g protein; 2 g fiber.

Green Tomato and Bacon Soup

Recipe from allrecipes.com

8 slices bacon, cut into bite-size pieces
1 small red onion, chopped, or more to taste
3 cloves garlic, minced, or more to taste
5 cups chopped green tomatoes
3 cups vegetable broth
½ teaspoon celery salt, or more to taste
1 bay leaf, or more to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Place bacon in a stock pot over medium-low heat; cook and stir until bacon begins to brown, about 5 minutes. Stir onion and garlic into bacon; cook and stir until onion is tender, about 10 minutes. Add green tomatoes, vegetable broth, celery salt, bay leaf, and black pepper to bacon-onion mixture; bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until tomatoes are tender, about 40 minutes. Serves 6.

Per serving: 102 calories; 5 g fat (2 g saturated fat; 44 percent calories from fat); 11 g carbohydrates; 2 g sugar; 7 mg cholesterol; 550 mg sodium; 6 g protein; 2 g fiber.

Green Tomato Salsa

Recipe adapted from Food Network

1 small lime, juiced (1-2 tablespoons)
1 finely chopped garlic clove
Salt and pepper (to taste)
Pinch garlic powder
Pinch cumin
Pinch chili powder
1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro (omit if you hate cilantro)
¼ cup finely chopped onion (about ½ small onion) See note
2 tablespoons finely chopped jalapeno (about ½ small pepper)
1½ cups chopped green tomatoes (about 2 tomatoes)

For restaurant style: It is not necessary to chop the ingredients.

Remove the stems and cores of the green tomatoes.

Place all ingredients into a food processor and puree to desired consistency.

For chunky style: Remove the stems and cores of the green tomatoes.

Chop all the ingredients and combine.

Refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving.

Note: I used red onion, but a white onion is fine, too.

Makes approximately 1¾ cups salsa or 7 servings.

Per serving (per ¼ cup): 14 calories; 0 g fat (0 g saturated fat; 0 percent calories from fat); 3 g carbohydrates; 0.2 g sugar; 0 mg cholesterol; 89 mg sodium; 1 g protein; 1 g fiber.

Green Tomato and Vidalia Onion Gratin

Recipe from Food Network

¼ pound bacon
1 cup fresh bread crumbs
2 large Vidalia onions, peeled and sliced into ¼-inch thick rounds
4 large green tomatoes, sliced ¼-inch thick
Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper
6 ounces sharp white Cheddar, grated, about 1 ½ cups

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Render bacon in a large skillet over medium heat. Transfer the cooked bacon to a paper towel lined plate. Add the bread crumbs to a small bowl. Remove 2 tablespoons of the bacon fat from the skillet and stir into the bread crumbs. Add the onion rounds to the skillet in batches and cook, without breaking the round slices apart, until there is some golden color, about 5 to 6 minutes per side.

To assemble the gratin, overlap the green tomato slices in 1 row in a large baking dish, about 9 by 11 inches. Next, make a row slightly overlapping of the partially cooked onion rounds, being careful to keep the slices intact. Repeat steps until all tomatoes and onions are used. Season tomatoes and onions lightly with salt and heavily with pepper. Crumble the bacon over the vegetables; sprinkle the grated Cheddar over the top, followed by the bread crumbs. Bake until the cheese is bubbly, about 30 to 45 minutes. If the top is getting too brown, loosely cover with foil. Serves 6.

Per serving: 253 calories; 17 g fat (9 g saturated fat; 60 percent calories from fat); 15 g carbohydrates; 2.5 g sugar; 38 mg cholesterol; 396 mg sodium; 11 g protein; 2.5 g fiber.

Fried Green Tomatoes with Basil Mayonnaise

2 large green tomatoes (about 1 pound)
Oil, for frying
2 cups panko breadcrumbs
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Kosher salt
All-purpose flour, for dredging
2 cups buttermilk
1 lime, cut in wedges
Basil mayonnaise (recipe below)

For the tomatoes: Cut the tomatoes into wedges, about ¾-inch at the thickest, about 16 wedges per tomato.

Pour 2 to 3 inches of oil in to a medium pot and heat over medium-high heat until a deep-fry thermometer registers between 350 and 360 degrees.

Mix together the panko and cayenne with 1 tablespoon salt in a bowl. Put the flour in another bowl, and in a third bowl pour the buttermilk. (Have a bowl of water for dipping your fingers to keep them clean while breading.)

Dredge the tomatoes wedges first in the buttermilk, then the flour, then again in the buttermilk and then finally dredge in the panko, turning as needed to make sure they are well coated. Working in batches of 4 or 5 pieces, fry the tomatoes, turning as needed, until golden brown, about 3 minutes. Transfer to paper towels and season with salt.

Serve the tomatoes with the mayonnaise and lime wedges. Serves 4.

Basil Mayonnaise

2 cups loosely packed fresh basil leaves

1 cup mayonnaise

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Pulse the basil, mayonnaise, lemon juice and mustard in a food processor until smooth. Season with salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate until needed.

Per serving: 667 calories; 56 g fat (8 g saturated fat; 76 percent calories from fat); 38 g carbohydrates; 5 g sugar; 35 mg cholesterol; 1,318 mg sodium; 9 g protein; 3 g fiber.

Fried Green Tomatoes with Jalapeno Pesto

Recipe from Taste of Home

Pesto

1 ½ cups fresh cilantro leaves
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
½ small onion, halved
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and halved
1 tablespoon pine nuts, toasted
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 garlic clove, peeled

Tomatoes

1 cup all-purpose flour
2 eggs
1 ¾ cups panko (Japanese) bread crumbs
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
4 medium green tomatoes, cut into ¼-inch slices or wedges
6 tablespoons olive oil
¾ cup crumbled goat cheese

For the pesto, place the first eight ingredients in a food processor; cover and process until finely chopped. Set aside.

Place flour and eggs in separate shallow bowls. In another shallow bowl, combine the bread crumbs, salt and pepper. Dip tomato slices in flour, eggs, then bread crumb mixture.

In a large skillet, fry tomatoes in oil in batches for 2-3 minutes on each side or until golden brown. Drain on paper towels. Layer 12 tomato slices with 1 tablespoon pesto and 1 tablespoon goat cheese; top with remaining tomato slices. Serve warm. Makes 12.

Per serving: 219 calories; 14 g fat (4 g saturated fat; 58 percent calories from fat); 19 g carbohydrates; 1 g sugar; 43 mg cholesterol; 147 mg sodium; 7 g protein; 1 g fiber.

KLawson@detroitnews.com

You can swap out green tomatoes for tart green apples in recipes for cakes ... (Kate Lawson / The Detroit News)
Green tomatoes have a heartiness that holds up nicely when fried. (Maria Robledo)