By Cyndy Crist
I’d bet the farm that I’m not the only one who had no interest whatsoever in turning on the stove or oven during the recent heat wave that gripped most of the country in its steamy and unrelenting grasp. While those with central air may not be quite as reluctant as someone like me, in an older home cooled with only window air conditioners, to create any heat, I think most of us at least have an appetite for different kinds of food when temperatures soar into the triple digits.
Tomatoes are, quite frankly, a Godsend under these circumstances. It seems there is no end to the ways in which chunks or slices of meaty, fresh tomatoes can satisfy our taste buds (obviously, I’m talking about locally grown tomatoes, not the tasteless hothouse variety still available in grocery stores). Although there are many options for turning uncooked tomatoes into something delicious, in this post I’m going to focus on ways to create salads that can be sides or main courses. My hope is that they’ll serve as a starting point for creating dishes that suit your fancy.
First, choose a variety of tomatoes. Whatever you make with them, you’ll have more visual interest, as well as some variation in flavors, if you choose different colors, shapes, and sizes of tomatoes. You’ll find that some tomatoes have a milder flavor than others, some tend to be sweeter and others tangier, etc. (check out Dorothy’s heirloom tomato chart for guidance). In addition, depending on what you’re making, consider cutting your tomatoes in a variety of ways. If you slice some, cut others into chunks, and halve the small ones, you’ll get still more visual interest (after all, we use more than just our sense of taste to enjoy food!) and create lots of surfaces for soaking up the flavors you’ll be adding.
This is where it starts to get fun. What you choose to add to your tomatoes will determine the flavor profile. The simplest thing to do is to simply toss tomatoes with olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. Here’s where you want to use the very best EVOO you have on hand, since its taste will be prominent. You can also have fun with the vinegar to bring more or less flavor from this component to your salad. My favorite is balsamic, but red wine and sherry vinegars are also great with tomatoes.
Next, consider adding herbs, onions and/or garlic to your salad. Fresh basil is a classic partner with tomatoes, with the leaves either torn or julienned (roll up a stack of leaves and cut across to create thin ribbons), but mint, parsley, chervil, and oregano are also good options. In general, I think salads are best when the onions used are small, sweet varieties (shallots are especially good) cut into very thin slices. If you wish, you can mellow the flavor of onions or shallots by soaking them first in the vinegar for 10-15 minutes. Thinly sliced scallions or green onions or finely minced garlic are also good additions.
As I recently sorted through a stack of Everyday Food magazines (one of my favorite things to do when it’s too hot to expend more energy than it takes to turn pages), I found a few simple tomato salad combinations that sounded good. One replaces vinegar with the zest and juice of one lemon and adds a small seeded and minced chili and 2 tablespoons of minced, peeled fresh ginger per four large tomatoes, along with EVOO, salt, and pepper. This would deliver some nice heat for those who are so inclined. Another calls for red wine vinegar, olive oil, minced shallot, and capers tossed with big wedges of ripe, red tomatoes, the capers adding some great saltiness, tang, and crunch, I suspect. A third variation, which would be light and bright, combines lemon juice and zest, thinly sliced white onions, and fresh mint with EVOO, coarse salt, and pepper. These three recipes underscore my primary point – that tomatoes provide a tasty and colorful canvas on which to create all kinds of simple culinary works of art.
Sweeten it up…
Another option is to add a little sweetness by using wedges of nectarines or peaches or chunks of watermelon. When I first read about these flavor combinations, I frankly thought they sounded pretty weird. Even though I know that tomatoes are fruits, I’m used to thinking of them as vegetables (which, after all, is how they’re used in many culinary traditions), so combining them with other, sweeter fruits just didn’t make sense to me. But I have since discovered how tasty these combos can be. With peaches or nectarines, a fruity olive oil and a light, slightly sweet vinegar work well, and mint and basil are good herbal partners. As for the melon, I’ve made a salad with watermelon, parsley or mint, and parmesan or Feta (again, highly unlikely but surprisingly delicious combinations), and I think tomatoes would make an interesting addition.
Make it more substantial…
You can add other, heartier ingredients to create a tasty, nutritious, and satisfying main course salad. Try a traditional Nicoise Salad with tuna and eggs. Or a Greek salad, which traditionally combines chunks or slices of cucumber, slices of red onions, olives, Feta cheese, and slices of green or red bell peppers with chunks or wedges of tomatoes. A simple vinaigrette is all you need to dress this salad, which can be served as individual composed or tossed salads or arranged on a large platter. To turn this into an even more substantial meal, serve it with wedges of pita bread and hummus drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with a little smoked paprika. If you have kids who have decided that they don’t like salads, you can follow a suggestion from Everyday Food and layer ingredients between slices of bread to create Greek Salad Sandwiches (for this option, they suggest processing a can of drained chickpeas with lemon juice, olive oil, and parsley for one layer and mashing the feta with olive oil for another).
Another traditional option is Panzanella, or Bread Salad. This quintessential Italian dish is comprised primarily of toasted bread (a good way to use up bread that has become a bit stale), chunks of tomatoes, thinly sliced red onion, fresh basil, and a simple vinaigrette of red wine vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper. Adding a sprinkling of crushed red peppers will add a little zip to this salad, as will a finely minced fresh chili. Some recipes for Panzanella also call for using cubes of cucumber, which adds nice body and “greenness,” while others suggest adding chunks or flakes of Parmesan or spoonfuls of ricotta, providing some salty flavor and textural contrast. For the bread component, you can drizzle cubes of day-old bread with olive oil and toast them in a hot oven, or you can rub slices of bread with a crushed garlic clove, brush with olive oil, and grill until crispy.
Yet another variation on this theme is a BLT Salad. Here, you’ll need to do two things that generate a little heat – cook the bacon and make croutons – but you can minimize the heat by cooking the bacon in the microwave (you could use bacon bits, but I wouldn’t recommend it – you’ll lose “body” and place the bacon in a supporting, rather than a lead, role) or using “store-bought” croutons. Romaine lettuce will stand up better to the substantial ingredients than leaf lettuce, but there’s no one “right” choice of greens, and you could add a lot of flavor interest by including some arugula in this salad. Again, you can toast croutons in the oven or grill and then cube slices of bread, or you can increase the bacon flavor by tossing and toasting cubes in the pan used to cook your bacon. You can also up the flavor quotient by adding some finely sliced onion and/or chunks of ripe avocado (I love a good BLAT sandwich, and eating it as a salad is much less messy).
Since mayonnaise is traditional on a BLT, making a dressing by whisking mayonnaise with a little vinegar, salt, and pepper seems in order. You can add tang by whisking in a little buttermilk or make it richer with sour cream or crème fraiche. Adding some fresh herbs could improve the dressing still further. I think basil could be a nice complement and parsley is always bright and fresh, but here again, it’s all a matter of taste. Just add herbs a little a time to be sure you get a good balance of flavors. You could also be less traditional and make a simple vinaigrette, or make a warm dressing by stirring wine vinegar, salt, and pepper into some of the bacon fat.
A few last thoughts…
The pantry may offer more ideas for no-cook dishes that satisfy in the heat. I try to keep cannellini beans and chickpeas on hand, and a can of either one, drained, rinsed, and tossed with chunks of tomatoes, chopped garlic or shallots, sherry vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, salt, pepper, and a sprinkling of basil or oregano makes a quick and delicious salad. You could add color contrast and crunch by tossing some diced zucchini or blanched green beans into the salad or brighten it by adding the zest and juice of one lemon. Conversely, you could make a combination of veggies (cannellini beans, chickpeas, black beans, zucchini, and frozen or left-over grilled corn come to mind), onions or garlic, a little cheese, and even some pieces of bacon or bits of ham and stuff it into large halved and hollowed-out tomatoes.
With a little digging in your pantry and refrigerator and, if you have one, a little cutting in your herb or kitchen garden, you’ll probably come up with still more ideas for salads tailored to your tastes and those of your family that require little or no cooking. What could be better in this summer of record heat?