Late August is tomato time in the prairies and they are gorgeous this year. We will enjoy them from now until early October unless we deplete our garden supply immediately!
I love growing tomatoes. I stake them so that they can grow straight and tall, and always mean to be much more diligent in pruning their vines than I am. Mine are always tangled, overgrown, and reaching to all corners of the garden, overcrowding each other. Pruning and tying tomatoes is a lovely job, because when their vines are brushed, they give off an herbal-green smell that lifts my mood and gets me feeling like a real gardner.
The other day we had the chance to escape to a long lunch on a restaurant deck with the best view in the city. I ordered a fantastic glass of chilled white wine and an Heirloom Tomato Salad with local Feta. I was disappointed when it arrived at the table. How could something so seemingly simple get so complicated and unappetizing? The tomatoes themselves were thickly sliced and perfectly gloriously ripe. They were juicy and flavourful. However, they were obscenely overdressed with a balsamic vinegar dressing. The actual dressing name was basil gremolata with balsamic pearls, but what was presented was an ocean of black balsamic vinegar. It turned the salad into a messy mush, and the beautiful tomatoes were ruined. I am not interested in discussing restaurant food at length here, but the experience did get me thinking about the anatomy of a well constructed tomato salad.
The following day, as an antidote, I selected several perfectly ripe tomatoes from my garden and made a salad that I think better suits the season.
Tomato, Bread and Mint Salad
I sliced and quartered the tomatoes in a very inconsistent and un restauranty way, following the natural contours of the tomato depending on what made sense for each one. I laid them gently in a shallow bowl and sprinkled them with good olive oil, redwine vinegar, za’atar, fresh mint, and pepper and salt. I tore up leftover chickpea flat bread that was warmed slightly in the oven, and then all was tossed together and left to sit long enough for the bread to absorb some of the tomato juices and olive oil. Another liberal dose of olive oil was pored over just as I sat down to eat it.
To my mind, the best tomato salads are quite sparse. They should always have a good herb such as parsley, mint, dill, thyme, or (of course) the ubiquitous basil. Tarragon and summer savoury are excellent choices as well.
They should have a toasted bread of some kind. In the photo above is my kitchen standard, chickpea flatbread with cumin, but it could be toasted whole grain, white, or rye bread. Any bread that comes from a loaf that is rustic and has a firm crust. Often I cube and toss the bread with olive oil and sea salt and toast it in the oven for 15 minutes or so tossing it half way through. More often than not I chop and mince some garlic and stir it into the oil first. Sometimes I use a garlic flavoured olive oil.
Other times, I take a rustic crusty loaf and slice it thickly and grill it, then rub it with a clove of garlic, drizzle with good olive oil, and sprinkle with sea salt before I cube it and toss the salad from there. Of course bread done this way makes an excellent base for a thick slice of tomato all on its own-deviating from a salad to bruschetta, a happy deviation indeed.
If I am not adding bread, then I would consider cheese. I like feta best. Snow white buffalo mozzarella is classic, but I find it fairly flavourless and this is probably because it is hard to by very fresh good mozzarella where I live. There are some good local goat’s and sheep’s milk cheeses.
Sometimes tomatoes are best thickly sliced and laid on a plate, sprinkled with chopped parsley, basil, thyme or za’atar and just a little bit of good red wine vinegar. A scraping of crushed and finely chopped garlic is excellent. Then all liberally drizzled with an olive oil that has that good bitter catch-you- at-the-back-of-the-throat quality. A liberal dusting of grey sea salt and ground black pepper are a necessity. This matures and settles nicely if it is left to sit at room temperature for an hour or two, though it is also good immediately.
Of course tomatoes can, and should be, added to other kinds of salads. They do get along with cucumber, fennel, corn, peppers and many other vegetables very well.
The main point though, is that the good tomato flavour of a vine ripened tomato should be profiled and heightened. Everything else should be there to support or enhance the tomato which has absorbed the heat of the sun all summer long.
A good tomato will have so much flavour that it stays with you for an hour or so after you have eaten, creating a fragrant warming aura around you, most easily achieved when wine was a part of the meal. Tomatoes have a warming, herbal, resonating flavour that deserves recognition and contemplation.