The first meal

We made the decision, a while back, to buy a home with the intention of doing a good bit of remodeling in order to (hopefully) sell it in a couple of years for profit — enjoying it for a short while before our family moves on. A slow flip, if you will. While we can’t predict the future, we have been fairly confident of our ability to create a marketable house, and were gung-ho about the experience of it all.

Let’s just say that there have been a few times recently that I have felt like Shelley Long, half-expecting to see Tom Hanks walk through the front door, just as it falls off its hinges.

I’ll spare you most details of our own personal made-for-TV-version of The Money Pit (and yes, I’m over-dramatizing our ailments just a bit); but I will mention one relevant detail: it took several days to get our new range in working condition. It’s nothing fancy; this was not the time to go for the Viking or Wolf. But it is nice, and the best I’ve ever had — a GE gas model (stainless, of course). It really is lovely, and has the capability of holding the simmer flame that I’ve only previously seen in daydreams (and at the homes of friends with nicer cooktops).

So, it was the end of a long day, and I was faced with the question I’d been waiting to ponder for quite a while: what to cook for my First New-Gas-Stove Meal. Did I mention that it had been a long day? Right. So, I wanted something easy, but definitely something memorable and fun. I took quick stock of the current ingredients available to me (as in, already in my kitchen), dug a few key items out of still-unpacked boxes, and went to work on Fried Green Tomato Sandwiches.

I was inspired by the green tomatoes sitting on my windowsill, fresh from the garden of Jeff Thompson’s dad in Asheville. I try to fry some green tomatoes every summer, and had not yet gotten to it, so it was the perfect solution. I’ve found, in times past, that my cookbook collection doesn’t offer much in terms of recipes for fried green tomatoes. Since we were also without internet access, I had to wing it. And I have to say — the end result was surprisingly spectacular. Here’s the step-by-step:

Fried Green Tomato Sandwiches

  • First, pan-fry some bacon. However much you want for your sandwiches. Pour off all but a couple tablespoons of the fat.
  • Add a few tablespoons of vegetable oil to your pan — enough to have a nice amount of oil covering the entire bottom of the pan (it helps if it’s nonstick, or a well-seasoned cast-iron). I breaded the tomatoes the exact same way as I do my pan-fried chicken; slice the tomatoes about 3/8″ thick, dredge them first in flour, then in egg wash, then in bread crumbs (all seasoned with salt and pepper).
  • While your tomatoes fry until golden brown, wash some green leaf lettuce and make the Special Sauce: take equal parts mayo and ketchup, and stir them together (I used about a quarter-cup of each, and it was plenty for several sandwiches). Then add a heavy sprinkling (a tablespoon or even more, to taste, varied by proportion of your ketchup/mayo mixture) of chili powder. It should have enough chili powder to have a nice kick to it. Add a little salt and pepper, to taste.
  • When your tomatoes are perfectly browned, transfer them to a paper-towel-lined plate and let them cool a bit. Then, assemble the delectable sandwich. We had on-hand some old-fashioned pocket bread — not pita, mind you, but thick, sort of ciabatta-like, spongy pocket bread. I used a bread knife and cut the whole circle apart (instead of in half) and made round sandwiches. I think that any good chewy bread would work here. Start with a thick slather of Special Sauce, then layer lettuce, fried tomatoes, and bacon. Enjoy.

Tim and I could not get over how good these were. There was nothing I could critique, nothing I wanted to change. Pretty good, for our first meal cooked in the new (still unfinished) kitchen. Oh, and of course, the leftovers: I stored the unused fried tomatoes in a paper-towel-lined tupperware container, in the fridge overnight. I heated them the next day, right on the rack in our toaster oven, then whipped up some more Special Sauce. I just spread the sauce over the tomatoes and ate them plain — and while not the same experience as the sandwich, still quite satisfying.


Pick of the Month, September ‘07

September is a bit confused in the deep south — technically, autumn begins on the 23rd, but other than what feels like a relatively cool day (i.e., the temp only reaches 94º) interspersed here and there, it still feels like summer. Because of this, I’ve been having a hard time choosing a fruit or vegetable to showcase. There are a few that come to mind, but I covered tomatoes last month (they’re past there prime here, anyway) and I mentioned in a previous post that I cannot bring myself to speak of summer squash — I’ve simply consumed too much.

Last weekend, I was given a bag of superfluous bounty from an acquaintance’s garden, and mixed in with the usual suspects was my inspiration for this post: the eggplant. Of course! It’s technically in season from July – September, but is available year-round (as in, it is successfully trucked from Mexico or California all winter), and, unlike tomatoes, is actually palatable in all seasons. Quite flexible, too: it can be grilled in the late summer (that’s what we did with ours this weekend), fried in the fall, and stewed in the winter. It can taste relatively light in a curry, or rich and filling in Eggplant Parmesan; roasted and pureed in baba ghanoush, or fried up for an open-faced sandwich melt. It has seemed to me to be the perfect transitional vegetable from summer to winter; its flesh — rich, dark, aubergine — seems to precede and hint at the turning of the earth’s foliage into all the hues that define Autumn.

Eggplant also has nostalgic significance for me — it’s one of my first memories of a favorite food. When I turned eleven or twelve, my dad started a short-lived tradition of taking me out to eat on my birthday. I can’t remember who picked the restaurant the first time — I’m guessing it was him, since I have no idea how I would’ve known of any (our family did not eat out much) — but we went to a quaint Italian place called Cerami’s. It was located in an old white southern cottage, just off the Ross Barnett Reservoir near Jackson, Mississippi. There, I somehow managed to order eggplant parmesan. I have the distinct memory of having never heard of an eggplant, so I’m not really sure what caused me to be so adventurous. But it rocked my world, and for the next 5 or 6 years, if I was ever asked to name my favorite food, it was not pizza, pancakes, or Krispy Cremes, but very specifically The Eggplant Parmesan At Cerami’s.

Many years later, I started to make the dish myself. There are countless ways to make it, but the gist is fried eggplant slices layered with marinara sauce and a combination of mozzarella and parmesan cheeses. I do have a favorite version, via some Christopher Kimball publication (surprised?), and I’d share it if I had access to my cookbooks and could find it (they are currently packed away in the new house that we cannot yet reside in — but that’s another story for another blog). But it’s also a labor-intensive recipe, and for that reason I usually just wing it when making my pre-pubescent favorite dish. If you look up a version in your own cookbook, and it suggests “salting” the eggplant (a method of drawing moisture and bitterness out of the fruit), I do suggest following that step. While I’ve read that the bitterness is not that prominent when you skip the step, it does help the texture and pliability of the slices when you pan-fry them.

Have a favorite eggplant recipe? Please, do share!

Since I did manage to mention the new house in the last paragraph, I’ll take that segway and also make note of my utter excitement as I look forward to this weekend. If all goes according to plan, I’ll soon be cooking my first meals on our lovely new gas range. More to come.