Last year when the tomato glut arrived, we talked about making sauce. This year I want to talk about eating them raw in all their sweet-acid juicy glory, especially heirlooms with all their quirky variations of flavor and appearance.
Make it an event to go to one of the 50-plus farmers’ markets a week throughout Los Angeles and Orange counties to thoughtfully purchase and make at least one great tomato salad of the late summer. Take a day off to go to the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market if you’ve never been. It’s like a vacation for the brain.
Tomatoes are fruits and it’s during summer, their natural season, when we can experience the qualities we expect from stone fruit: tender skins, juicy-yielding flesh, a sweetness tempered with acid, and the beauty of color inside and out. This is why heirloom tomatoes were such a rich discovery for most of us 20 years or so ago, when tomatoes became more than a red round, oblong or cherry variety.
The wide consumer embrace of tomatoes with real flavor also opened the market to hybrid crosses grown for flavor and pest resistance, something I’ve embraced in my own garden.
When it comes to making a salad of tomatoes, you can go two ways. You can create a platter of just tomatoes in a mixture that’s pleasing to you, perhaps with the addition of a leaf or two of torn basil, or you can use that as a base for a salty cheese like feta and the sharpness of thin slices of onion.
If you’re going to stay simple, create variation in the choice of the tomatoes themselves. I like to prepare each type of tomato with a different cut. The round beauties, I either slice fairly thickly or cut into wedges. If the tomatoes are big, like a Pineapple tomato, I may cut them into large dice. The cherry or grape varieties, I cut in half and the pear, or oblongs I cut in half or quarters vertically depending on size. Once cut, the stunning beauty of tomatoes is revealed.
Don’t put them in a deep bowl and toss — because the seeds will come loose from the cavities and you’ll lose the differentiation of flavor. Instead, arrange them on a platter, thinking about shape and color as if you’re painting, but with tomatoes. Add a few leaves of good outdoor grown basil. It’s sturdier and more aromatic. I simply tear the leaves and place them about, but I don’t use much. This is a tomato salad, not a tomato-basil salad.
Just before eating, I’ll scatter a judicious sprinkle of salt, either a fleur de sel or Maldon. I like something crunchy to offset the tenderness of the tomatoes. Then finish with a healthy drizzle of great extra virgin olive oil.
Eat with bread from one of our great local bakers. A thick slice of toasted bruschetta rubbed with a peeled garlic clove and doused in olive oil is all you need to make a meal of the tomatoes.