The complexities of a simple tomato salad

A summer tomato is a beautiful thing. Here's how you can make the most of every drop of flavor

Topics: Kitchen Challenge, Food,

Tomatoes this time of year are the best thing ever. This is a universally known fact. Even people who don’t necessarily care for tomatoes realize that summer tomatoes are the best tomatoes. But even the most perfect tomato needs at least one thing (and typically a couple more) if you want to maximize that deep, juicy summer goodness. That thing? Salt. Right now there are purists gasping for air, hypertensives who have been living on reduced sodium diets are angrily denying that any adulteration, let alone something so overused as mere salt, does anything other than bastardize the flavor of those tomatoes that have been sitting on the vine, getting a tongue bath from the sun, and waiting only to be picked and eaten as one of nature’s perfect foods. But I know I’m right. And if they’re being honest, they know I’m right, too.

By the way, did you know that the root word for “salad” is “salt”? Technically speaking (and I mean by the strictest of technicalities), if it doesn’t have salt it’s not a salad. Just something to keep in mind.

I don’t say any of this to taunt people who have to avoid, for one reason or another, salt on their tomatoes. If you have learned to live without salt on your tomatoes, please don’t relapse on my account. I am well aware that salt is overused in the American diet and, truth be told, I could probably stand to cut down on my own sodium intake. But some things need salt, dammit. A good piece of beef, hell, the best piece of beef will only get better if it is appropriately salted. Potatoes, those starchy roots that have actually fed entire nations, are just not so good without salt. Tomatoes are like that. When I was a kid my parents had a garden and they would let me go out and pick and eat anything I wanted. One of my favorite things was to pick a fresh, red tomato, still warm from the midday sun, and eat it like hand fruit right there in the garden. And as great as it was, it only got better when my dad suggested that I take the salt shaker out to the garden with me and salt the tomato as I took bites. It was in that garden, as a 10-year-old, that I really started learning about making salads. It was there that I learned that salt really makes tomatoes better. It was tomatoes and cucumbers from that garden that taught me my first lesson in honoring great ingredients by treating them simply but well and relying on the ingredients to make the impact on your tongue.

Like some of my other posts here, I can’t really provide a good recipe so much as some suggestions on how to treat your ingredients and make something delicious. You will probably like your salad different than I like mine and I already see that others have posted their own tomato salad recipes. I post this less to compete with other very good recipes and more to give suggestions on how to maximize the bounty of whatever summer tomatoes you are able to get.

Start with some really beautiful tomatoes. You want them at the peak of ripeness. If you are feeling extra fancy, as I sometimes tend to do, blanch them and peel them. The peel makes them harder to cut, harder to chew and it disrupts the silky succulence of the flesh of the tomato. This is a strictly optional step but, as I have said, the tomatoes you get this time of year are worthy of the honor of a little extra trouble. And peeling them is simple, if a bit time-consuming. All you have to do is get a pot of water boiling and drop in your tomatoes for about 30 seconds. Scoop them out and drop them into a bowl of ice water. Leave them there until you’ve blanched them all and had them cool in the ice bath. Scoop them out yet again and cut out the core with a small, sharp knife. From here, the skins of the tomatoes should slip off very easily. As you peel the tomatoes, cut them into wedges. You probably want to cut each tomato into eight evenly sized wedges, but if your tomatoes are really large or pretty small, you might want to adjust them. The point is that your salad should be composed of tomato pieces that are all approximately the same size. By the way, this salad is even better and far prettier if you are able to find heirloom tomatoes of different colors.

After you have all your peeled tomatoes cut into pieces, salt them liberally but not overwhelmingly. I prefer to use kosher salt for this step but if you only have table salt, it can work at this stage. How much salt is too much is a kind of tough question to answer. I’d say a very rough parameter is 1 to 2 teaspoons for a pound or so of tomatoes, but you’ll have to develop a feel for it. The thing is, much of this salt is going to go away anyway. Even if you are kind of heavy-handed with the salt, this “recipe” is very forgiving.

And here is why. Don’t put those tomatoes in a bowl. Put them in your colander and then sprinkle the salt over them. Now, gently toss them to get the salt evenly distributed. Put the colander in a bowl and then allow the tomatoes to drain for awhile. An hour or so is good. When you come back, you will see liquid in the bowl. What you’ve done is drain off some of the water in the tomatoes. While the salt has seasoned them, it’s also served to concentrate the tomato flavor. That water can be discarded although I like to put it in the fridge, chill it and mix it with vodka for a refreshing tomato water cooler. Do as you wish.

Now that you have seasoned tomatoes, the best thing you can do is treat them simply. Put them in a bowl and add some finely chopped “soft” herbs. I like a nice chiffonade (very finely sliced/shredded) of basil, some finely chopped chives and a few fronds of dill that have also been chopped up. Maybe you like parsley, cilantro or chervil. Add what you like, but I would caution you against harder herbs like thyme and rosemary; while the flavors might be good, those herbs are pretty tough and hard to chew and they will disturb the texture you are trying to achieve. You will also want to add some allium, the botanical family that includes garlic, onion, shallot and the like. My preference is to use red onion and/or maybe a little sweet onion like Vidalia. Cut it finely into super-thin half-moon slices and separate them. If they taste super strong of onion, rinse them in a strainer under cold water for a bit to tame the onion-y bite. Me, I like onion and dressing the salad will calm them down enough for me. Another great member of the allium family to use here is shallot. They’re oniony too, but much milder and don’t need to be tempered with a cold rinse. Into the pool with them. Grind in some black pepper. Now, gently toss these wedges of summer so that everything is evenly mixed.

At this point your salad is almost finished. All it needs is some good acid and some silky, buttery olive oil. These ingredients are simple, but they are critical to your finished salad. For the acid, you can use vinegar or you can use lemon juice. But don’t make the mistake of using bottled lemon juice. These tomatoes deserve fresh-squeezed lemon juice. If you use vinegar, the salad calls for the best vinegar you can get. Don’t use plain white vinegar and avoid apple cider vinegar too. My preference is for red wine vinegar, but white wine and champagne vinegars work just as well. I would caution you to avoid “flavored” or “herbed” vinegars. There is nothing wrong with those products, but they can sometimes taste a little funky and the point here is that you are flavoring your salad your way. Why would you go to so much trouble to customize your tomato salad and then use garlic vinegar? If you want garlic, just mince some and add it yourself. I’d also suggest that balsamic vinegar, while tasty, will produce a muddy-looking salad that won’t be so appealing to look at. I’ve never used so-called white balsamic, but that might be an option. In the end, the only rule is that there isn’t a rule. If you like garlic-and-orange-flavored white wine vinegar, who am I to argue with you? If you love the taste of balsamic vinegar to the point that you don’t care how the salad looks, you don’t need my permission, but you have it anyway. Hell, if you enjoy the flavor of the malt vinegar they use at Long John Silver’s, I won’t judge you or tell anyone.

Finally, add olive oil. How much you want will depend on the type of acid you add and how much you use, but a 2-to-1 or 3-to-1 ratio (oil to vinegar) usually works pretty well for me. Olive oil is not where you want to skimp. Use the good stuff. Full-flavored, thick and green. This is what makes your salad luxurious. Again, as we’ve discussed, you want to honor those tomatoes. Do it by using the best ingredients you can. My olive oil of choice is Nunez de Prado from Spain. I find it to be thick, unctuous, fruity, grassy and everything I want in an olive oil. Again, you should do what you like. Gently swirl on the olive oil and stir your salad. Now, taste it. It might still be underseasoned, but I’d bet against it. If it is underseasoned, now is the time to judiciously add a bit more salt, but this time don’t use the same kosher or table salt you used before. Try using a “boutique” salt like fleur del sel or maybe Maldon sea salt. These salts have larger and more irregular crystals that will have a tougher time dissolving in the salad, meaning you will get a nice salty crunch when you chew your tomatoes. If you do add a “finishing salt,” do so at the very last second so that you can help avoid dissolving the salt in the dressing.

I know I’ve set you up to go to a lot of trouble to make a simple dish. The thing is, even though you can get “tomatoes” all year-round, these tomatoes are different than the so-hard-they’re-crunchy winter tomatoes you can get at the megamart in January. These tomatoes are a treat every bit as special as a truffle. Even if they’re easier and cheaper to obtain than those truffles, they deserve to be treated like the gift they are.


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