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A sour and savory duo fit for the picnic basket

Posted: June 30, 2013 - 12:01am

When I was growing up in Virginia, one of the signs of summer I anticipated most was the appearance of fat green tomatoes on the vines in our garden. We picked them well before they started to blush, dipped the thick slices in egg and milk, dredged them with cornmeal, salt and pepper, then fried them in a skillet.

The combination of crispy, fried crust and soft, sour interior — sweetened a bit by the heat — was totally addictive. Like corn on the cob and potato salad, fried green tomatoes were as integral to the summers of my youth as dozing off to a late-dwindling dusk and the chirrup of crickets.

After I moved north and west, finding unripe tomatoes became a challenge; tomatillos are not the same. Farmers markets and specialty produce stores are your best bet. The recipe here sticks fairly close to tradition but adds a fascinating modern ingredient: panko.

This Japanese-style breadcrumb is a relatively recent invention. The slightly sweet bread is baked by electrocution in an oven that is cool to the touch. Only the dough gets hot as current surges through it. The resulting loaf has no crust and is uncommonly airy when it is shredded into slivers and crumbs. Combined with cornmeal, the panko fries into a light, crisp envelope for the tangy tomato slices.

While you’re on a Southern kick, why not go whole hog and also make a potato salad enhanced by homemade bacon mayonnaise? You can substitute Baconnaise from a jar if you’re pressed for time or vegetarian; the store-bought stuff doesn’t actually contain bacon (though it does contain milk and eggs)

The mayonnaise recipe below uses bacon drippings in place of oil and adds xanthan gum — available in the baking aisle of most large supermarkets alongside other specialty starches and thickeners — to give body to the mayonnaise. The downside of using bacon fat is that the mayo solidifies when refrigerated. But after warming at room temperature for 10 minutes, it becomes smooth and spreadable once more.

Once you have made the bacon mayo — which yields more than you’ll need for the potato salad recipe, but, trust me, you’ll want to have extra on hand for other uses — the salad is quick and easy. Small fingerling potatoes cook to perfection in the microwave in less than 5 minutes. Add a bit of mustard, onion and salt, top with bits of crispy bacon left over from the mayo recipe, and you’re off with your picnic to enjoy the sunshine.

PANKO-CRUSTED FRIED GREEN TOMATOES

Start to finish: 20 minutes

Servings: 4 sides

Canola oil, as needed for deep-frying

2 medium green tomatoes

5/8 cup (100 grams) cornmeal

1/3 cup (25 grams) panko breadcrumbs

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/4 cup cultured buttermilk

1/4 cup (2 eggs) blended whole eggs

Salt, to taste

Bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Fill a bowl with ice water.

In a tall pot or saucepan, pour at least 2 inches of oil. The pot must be no more than half full. Set the pan over medium-high and heat the oil to 390 F (200 C).

Use a paring knife to cut the core out of each tomato.

Once the water is boiling, add the tomatoes and blanch for 1 minute. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the tomatoes to the ice water. When cool enough to handle, remove the tomatoes and peel away the skins. Cut each tomato into slices 1/4 inch thick.

In a wide, shallow bowl mix together the cornmeal, panko, black pepper and cayenne. In a second wide, shallow bowl, whisk together the buttermilk and eggs.

Dredge the tomato slices first through the buttermilk mixture, then the panko mixture to thoroughly coat them.

When the oil has reached 390 F, working in batches of 3 slices, carefully fry the tomatoes for 2 minutes, or until golden brown. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the tomatoes to a paper towel-lined plate and season with salt.

Nutrition information per serving: 290 calories; 150 calories from fat (52 percent of total calories); 17 g fat (2 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 90 mg cholesterol; 27 g carbohydrate; 3 g fiber; 5 g sugar; 7 g protein; 320 mg sodium.

BACON MAYONNAISE

Start to finish: 45 minutes

Makes 2 cups

1 pound bacon

Canola oil (if needed)

5 tablespoons egg yolks (4 yolks)

3 tablespoons water

1 1/2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1/4 teaspoon xanthan gum

1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 1/2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

Salt, to taste

In a large skillet over medium-high heat, fry the bacon until crisp. You likely will need to work in batches. As the bacon is fried, transfer it to a paper towel-lined plate. Pour the bacon fat from the pan into a 2-cup liquid measuring cup. Check the volume. If you don’t have 1 1/3 cups, top it off with canola oil.

Use a rolling pin or meat mallet to crush enough of the bacon to make 1/2 cup of fine bacon bits. Reserve the additional bacon for use as garnish on the potato salad recipe (see below).

In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, water and mustard until smooth. While whisking, gradually pour the reserved bacon fat into the yolk mixture, whisking until fully emulsified. While continuing to whisk, slowly sprinkle in the xanthan gum. The gum will cause the sauce to thicken.

Mix in the 1/2 cup of bacon bits. Add the lemon juice, white wine vinegar and salt as needed to adjust the acidity and seasoning. Use the mayonnaise cold, but allow it to temper at room temperature for 10 minutes before serving.

Nutrition information per 2 tablespoons: 150 calories; 130 calories from fat (87 percent of total calories); 14 g fat (4.5 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 80 mg cholesterol; 1 g carbohydrate; 0 g fiber; 0 g sugar; 4 g protein; 270 mg sodium.

FINGERLING POTATO SALAD

The potatoes can be cooked peeled or not, depending on your preference.

Start to finish: 15 minutes

Servings: 4 sides

3 cups small fingerling potatoes

1 tablespoon water

1/3 cup minced red onion

1/4 cup bacon mayonnaise (see recipe above)

1 1/2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

Salt, to taste

Bacon bits, to garnish (reserved from mayonnaise recipe above)

Place the potatoes and water in a quart-size zip-close bag. Without sealing the bag, submerge it in a bowl of water almost to the opening. The water will squeeze out most of the air. Seal the bag.

Microwave on high until the potatoes are tender, about 4 minutes in an 1,100-watt microwave. Use care when removing the bag from the oven; the steam released as you open the bag can cause burns. Remove the potatoes from the bag and set aside to cool.

In a medium bowl, stir together the onion, bacon mayonnaise and mustard. Once the potatoes have cooled, slice them into coins 1/2 to 1 inch thick. Stir the potatoes gently into the mayonnaise mixture until evenly coated. Season with salt, then garnish with crispy bacon bits.

Nutrition information per serving: 170 calories; 60 calories from fat (35 percent of total calories); 7 g fat (2.5 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 40 mg cholesterol; 22 g carbohydrate; 3 g fiber; 1 g sugar; 4 g protein; 520 mg sodium.

• W. Wayt Gibbs is editor-in-chief of The Cooking Lab, the culinary research team led by Nathan Myhrvold that produced the cookbooks “Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking” and “Modernist Cuisine at Home.” Their new book, “The Photography of Modernist Cuisine,” will be released in October.

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