What's In Season: Summer Tomato Salads
I've always thought that summer tomatoes smelled like geraniums. Unlike winter tomatoes, which don't have any scent at all, a tip-off to their tastelessness. But the slightly tannic aroma of a just-picked NJ beefsteak, smelling more like stem and leaf than fruit, is a clue that just beneath the red skin lies a bright, sweet-and-acid-at-the-same time taste.
A couple of weeks ago at my neighborhood Greenmarket, that familiar summer smell hit my nose about ten feet from one farmer's bin that was filled with his first field-grown tomatoes. I saw several customers sorting through the bins, a bit drunk, it seemed, from the scent of the tomatoes' arrival. I watched one woman sort through dozens, placing some to the side as rejects, and selecting a few to buy. Most did not please her, although they appeared fine to me. I asked her what she was looking for. "I live alone and I cook for myself. So I'm looking for the perfect tomatoes, just the right size, not too big, so I can have an entire tomato with my dinner." I watched until she had chosen five small New Jersey reds and thought this must be a satisfying way to celebrate summer.
Regardless which you love best (I am a Jersey girl), and with a nod of pity to those of you who claim you don't like them, here are some suggestions for ways to eat tomatoes -- all without any cooking. They include some of the classics, which I've included just in case that this past winter made you lose any of your tomato memory.
Before you go making dishes with raw summer tomatoes, a few tips:
- If your tomatoes have thick skins, peel them. I used to do this by immersing tomatoes in boiling water for a few moments so that the skin would slip off but I found that this is an imprecise task and more often than I'd like, the surface of the tomato would begin to cook, getting mealy and affecting their bright, raw taste. I still use this method when I'm canning tomatoes because it's efficient when you're peeling 20 pounds or so at once, plus any side effects don't seem to show in the canning. But when I want the tomato in its raw state, I peel them using my tomato knife -- a small serrated knife. No tomato knife? You could try using your bread knife or sometimes a steak knife will have a fine-toothed, serrated edge, although I think that if you eat enough tomatoes, you might want to invest in a knife for them, or one of the new tomato peelers (Zyliss makes a good one) can also work well. I bought my tomato knife years ago but you can buy them at all price points -- from about $8 to $25.
- Remember that tomatoes are full of water and just being near a grain of salt will cause the tomato to give up liquid. You can use this to your advantage, as in my recipe for Naples Tomato Salad that uses tomato water instead of vinegar in the dressing. Likewise when you make spaghetti with raw tomato sauce (Nora Ephron was famous for her recipe which she included in her stinging autobiographical novel, Heartburn). But in general, when adding tomatoes to salads, don't salt or dress them until just before serving because otherwise you'll have a wet salad.
- Besides salads, raw tomatoes are splendid in salsas and gazpacho, and diced to become the topping on bruchettas.
- Remember to never refrigerate tomatoes. The chill will dull the taste and make their texture mealy. If you have a cut tomato left over, place a piece of plastic wrap against the cut surface and leave it on your counter. Or you can do as I do -- just don't have leftovers.
Caprese Salad. Named for the island of Capri, off the Amalfi Coast. Summer on a plate may be a cliché, but it's true that this flavor combination is only possible when the sun climbs high in the sky. It's hard to get tired of this popular combination of thick tomato slices alternated with equal slices of fresh mozzarella and decorated with torn basil leaves and a drizzle of good olive oil. But remember the details: if the tomato has a thick skin, peel it first; use the freshest mozzarella you can find; use your best olive oil; and don't even think about using dried basil. Serve at room temperature for the best flavor.
Caprese Salad With Pesto. Substitute basil pesto for the fresh basil leaves and cut back on any drizzling of the olive oil.
Tomato, Green Bean and Prosciutto. Wedges of tomato gently tossed with cooked, room temperature cooked green beans or haricots verts, and several slices of prosciutto that you've torn into shreds. Dress lightly with a vinaigrette made with olive oil, sherry vinegar, a juicy garlic clove that you've grated on a Microplane, and pinches of salt and black pepper.
Tomatoes With Blue Cheese and Pine Nuts. Thick slices of tomato arranged on a serving plate either in a single layer or shingled, one on top of the other. Sprinkle with crumbled blue cheese (Cashel Blue or Roquefort or Maytag blue would all be good for this because they're all salty), toasted pine nuts, and a generous snip of fresh chives. Add a small drizzle of olive oil if you like but no vinegar -- the cheese and tomatoes are enough flavor.
Deconstructed BLT: Toss chunks of tomato with cooked bacon that you've torn into large pieces, croutons (make with any stale bread; even pitas will work for this), and torn pieces of lettuce. Keeping in mind how these ingredients come together in a BLT, try to keep the ratio of the lettuce equal to the other ingredients because otherwise you'll just have a salad with tomato and bacon. Now this wouldn't be bad at all, but if the tomato and bacon can dominate a bit, the flavors will be more satisfying. Dress lightly with oil and vinegar or if you have a favorite creamy or ranch-style dressing, that would also work very nicely.
Naples Tomato Salad: I included this recipe in my book, The City Cook: Big City, Small Kitchen, Limitless Ingredients, No Time. This salad is satisfying, quick to make, and chunky with a bright flavor. Make sure you have a crusty loaf of bread to sop up the juices. See our link to the recipe.
Tomato, Avocado and Chicken: This salad, which you can improvise with by replacing the chicken with shrimp, is substantial enough for the main dish in a summer supper. Too hot to roast a chicken? Simply buy a rotisserie one from your butcher or market. Add to chunks of tomato, big pieces of avocado, black beans (it's fine to use canned ones that you've drained and rinsed), and a dressing made from lime juice, canola oil, and finely minced jalapeño pepper.
Tomato and Swordfish: Grill or broil a swordfish steak or kebobs. Let cool to room temperature and cut into large but bite-sized pieces. Toss with wedges of tomato, thin slices of red onion or scallions, and a garlic vinaigrette. If you have access to a grill, this main course salad is excellent with grilled potatoes.
Tomato and Watermelon Salad: An unexpected but perfectly matched flavor combination as the melon's sweetness hits the center of the tomato's acidic taste. Toss with crumbled feta cheese, toasted pinenuts, and a drizzle of olive oil. But no vinegar.
Shepherd Salad: The Turkish version of the chunky salad you may also know as an Israeli salad -- large dice of tomato, red onion, and cucumber. Sprinkle with fresh or dried mint and drizzles of freshly squeezed lemon juice and olive oil. Top with a few oil cured black olives.
Tomato Bread Salad: Also known as panzanella. Combine equal amounts -- about 3 cups each is good -- of chunks of fresh tomato and stale bread. Add thin slices of red onion; one medium, peeled seedless cucumber or several kirbies cut into 3/4-inch pieces (enough to make about 1 1/2-cups); about 1/4 cup chopped flat leaf parsley; and dress with a vinaigrette made from 1 mashed anchovy, 1 finely minced garlic clove (about 1 tablespoon), 2 tablespoons of small capers that you've rinsed and patted dry, and 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil. You may want to also add about 1 tablespoon of red wine vinegar, although the acidic juice from the tomatoes may be enough. Taste without the vinegar before adding any and then only to taste. The bread will soon soften and break down to blend with the other ingredients.
Tomatoes With Buratta: This doesn't get any easier and yet you'll still experience the perfect harmony of two ingredients that while irresistible on their own, make the other even more satisfying. Cut a tomato into chunks. Buy the best, freshest buratta -- an Italian invention that fills a little tender mozzarella sack with cream -- and cut a wedge to place next to three or four pieces of tomato. If you like, you can add a pinch of salt and some grinds of black pepper and maybe a small drizzle of your best olive oil for this is the time to use it. Some people like to also add fresh basil but to me that just turns this into a Caprese Salad and besides, the buratta's flavor is so delicate the basil can overwhelm it. So I leave it simple. (Buratta, once an item only found in upscale cheese shops, is now easy to find in many grocers and along with its exclusivity, the price has also come down, which is good news.)
Sliced Tomato With Tonnato Sauce
Canal House Cooks Every Day, a splendid cookbook by Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton, includes a tribute to tonnato sauce, an unexpected cold sauce made by combining a thin, mayonnaise-like sauce with canned tuna (i.e., tonnato) that is classically used to coat slices of cold, poached veal. If you've never had it, the description may seem bizarre, but the flavors really work. The Canal House wizards, with their pitch-perfect palates, also use it on boiled potatoes, steamed vegetables, and in this case, a salad of sliced tomatoes and arugula. This is adapted from their recipe.
2 large egg yolks
Juice of 1/2 lemon (about 2 tablespoons)
1/2 cup canola oil
1/2 cup good extra virgin olive oil
1 small (2 oz.) can of tuna packed in olive oil
3 anchovy filets
1 tablespoon small capers, rinsed and shaken dry
1 clove garlic
Freshly ground black pepper
3 to 4 large summer or heirloom tomatoes, enough for 4 servings; peeled if the skins are thick
Optional: arugula leaves or small capers, rinsed and patted dry with a paper towel
- Whisk together the egg yolks, a pinch of salt, and half of the lemon juice (about 1 tablespoon). Combine the canola and olive oil together in a spouted measuring cup.
- Make the mayonnaise by whisking the yolk mixture constantly as you add the oil to the yolks, about 1 teaspoon at a time. Continue to whisk and adding the oil slowly, increasing the amount of oil as the mixture begins to thicken. If you prefer, you can use your food processor to make the mayonnaise, adding the oil until you have a thick, glossy mayonnaise. Transfer the mixture to a medium mixing bowl.
- Using your food processor (if you used it to make the mayonnaise, there's no need to wash it), add the garlic clove and process into a fine mince. Add the tuna, anchovies, and capers and purée until smooth, adding a teaspoon or so of olive oil if needed to become smooth.
- Using a rubber spatula, transfer the tuna mixture to a fine sieve and press it through into the mayonnaise. Mix to combine. Season to taste with the remaining lemon juice, salt and pepper but be sure to taste it first as the tuna and capers are already salty. Refrigerate until ready to use. It will keep up to a week, refrigerated.
- To serve with tomatoes, slice the tomatoes onto a serving platter or individual plates. Using a large serving or soupspoon, spoon some tonnato sauce over the tomatoes and scatter some arugula leaves or capers on top. Serve immediately.
This is supposed to be a great summer for tomatoes so enjoy them while you can. They'll be gone before we know it.