A Big Pile Of Tomatoes Is A Salad If You Say It Is
10:25 AM EDT on August 7, 2021
Tomato Time is here, my friends! It's the year's Golden Hour, lovely and brief. Happiness and joy have returned to the world. Huzzah! Eat like the wind.
The very best problem to have, in all of human experience, is 25 pounds of ripe in-season tomatoes to consume before they rot. Yes, yes, of course, tomato sandwiches every day, for one or two or all three meals or what the hell, for four or five or six meals in a day, seven, nine; you're a grown-up, nobody can stop you, not even the orderlies if you eat fast enough. Tomato soup, tomato sauce, salsa: Yes, yes, yes. A burger with a slice of tomato thicker than the patty. A fistful of cherry tomatoes, and then 12 more fistfuls of cherry tomatoes. An omelet folded around a huge heap of diced tomatoes. A big fat slice of tomato with nothing on it but black pepper and salt. A tomato still warm from the sun, eaten right out of your hand, lustily and messily, staining your shirt. Hell yeah.
And then also: A tomato salad, by which I mean a big pile of tomatoes, with some lesser quantity of other stuff on there, unnecessary but nice, like jewelry. Nobody can tell you that a big pile of tomatoes isn't a salad! It's a good way to clear out a large portion of that hoard of tomatoes (to make room for more), and anyway you don't have to explain yourself to anybody. Let's make a tomato salad.
Here are some things that you will need.
You will need some ripe tomatoes. I will not insult your Tomato Wisdom by specifying that these must be local tomatoes, that bullshit Canadian greenhouse tomatoes trucked halfway across North America simply will not do, and that these instructions implicitly countenance tomato salad only at this time of year, the vanishing 72 hours during which tomatoes peak and take their place as the most delicious possible thing to eat on the face of the earth. You already knew that! Of course you did. That's why we're such good friends.
As to what type of (ripe, local, in August) tomato: Suit yourself. Personally, I like a nice frickin' beefsteak for a tomato salad, as much for the relative ease of slicing a big beefsteak tomato into attractive wedges as for the beefsteak's hearty flavor. Maybe you do not have easy access to beefsteaks. That is fine. Maybe you don't like them! That is less fine, but you are too far away for me to throw a ball of paper at your head. I don't think you can go wrong with basically any variety of (ripe, local, in August) tomato for a tomato salad.
If I'd written the preceding paragraph, like, a couple of weeks ago, I would have made an exception around the noble Roma plum tomato, a variety bred specifically for traits that make it break down readily into a rich tomato sauce. Raw Roma tomatoes have a slightly mealier texture than most other varieties, even when not ruined by refrigeration; my whole adult life, I have thought of them as sauce tomatoes, at best wasted on and at worst straight up unsuited to basically any other application. Then I read this extremely good Philadelphia Inquirer blog, in which writer Michael Klein challenged a handful of friends and restaurant-industry types to dream up uses for 25 pounds of free Roma tomatoes, and now I want the Roma tomato Jersey salad and Roma tomato galette more than I want basically any other thing. So if you have Roma tomatoes and want to make a tomato salad out of them, uh, I will not stop you from doing that. (I would not have stopped you from doing it two weeks ago, either.)
You will need some other stuff. Let's discuss that.
My theory of throwing together a salad is to think of the bases of flavor (salty, sweet, bitter, tart, hot, umami) and texture (crunchy, fatty, creamy, uh, probably not woody) and aroma (I don't know any words for aromas), and then pick colorful and fun-seeming ingredients to cover a bunch of them. The salad in the photo at the top of this blog is made largely of stuff I just happened to have in my garden and kitchen, and which seemed like it would cover a lot of bases enjoyably, at the time I decided I wanted a big tomato salad:
- Four ludicrously huge beefsteak tomatoes from my garden
- Some julienned basil and mint leaves from my garden
- Some sliced pickled peperoncini from a jar in the fridge
- Some pine nuts, which I toasted in a hot pan and then allowed to cool before using
- Some gorgonzola crumbled off of a wedge I had in the fridge
- A wee glug of extra-virgin olive oil, with two cloves of minced garlic suspended in it
- A wee splash of balsamic vinegar
- Salt and cracked black pepper
Make this salad if it appeals to you! I feel confident you will enjoy it; I sure as hell did. But, like, the fun of throwing together a salad, in my opinion, tomato or otherwise, is the part where you flit through your kitchen and/or the various sections of your local grocer, chasing your salad-making fancy. I urge you to do this, and to come up with your own damn salad, and then to tell me about your salad so that I, a hypocrite, can make it for myself.
Since a tomato salad, according to The Rules, must be primarily just a big pile of (ripe, local, in August) tomatoes, which all by themselves will give your salad all the juiciness and umami and sweetness it could ever need, in this case you're just looking for comparably small amounts of high-value Other Stuff to flatter and accompany the tomatoes. Nuts, roasted or toasted or candied or salted or plain, would be a nice source of textural crunch, and in various configurations can throw in saltiness or sweetness or bitterness as needed. You could also get texture (and welcome allium pungency!) from sliced raw onion or fennel, provided it's not tissue-thin; so would some type of pickled action, which can also add tartness and salt and maybe even heat in the case of pickled hot peppers. Any of a wide variety of fresh herbs, alone or in combination, will taste and smell great: Basil, oregano, mint, parsley, chives, hell even thyme if you have the patience for all that, probably others that I do not grow at my home.
Do I need to convince you of the wisdom of putting some cheese in this salad? No, of course I do not; the virtues of cheese are self-evident. A punchy, stinky blue cheese like gorgonzola or Roquefort is great; a grated hard cheese like pecorino or Parmigiano Reggiano would be lovely; there are many strong reasons why tomatoes are famously paired with fresh mozzarella and/or burrata. I do not recommend the packet of orange-colored cheese dirt from a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese, but then again I am not eating even one bite of this atrocity, so please, suit yourself.
The thing not to do, in my opinion, is to try to partner the tomato with a bunch of salad greens or other large-scale vegetal what-have-you. This is a dang tomato salad. The tomatoes are going to bully that sad chopped romaine right into hell; do not sentence it to this fate.
Do you have your salad stuff? Great. You're going to need a very large bowl, and some arrangement of implements, such as a big pair of tongs, or a pair of serving spoons, or, what the hell, nobody's looking, two clamshell DVD cases.
I feel it would be insulting to you, the sweet Reader, to write a lot of step-by-step instructions for assembling a foodstuff that I have repeatedly described as "a big pile of tomatoes." I respect you too much for that! The procedure is literally "Turn the ingredients into the size you want them, and then mix them together and eat them." In lieu of steps, here are some helpful suggestions instead.
I do not give a damn how you cut up your tomatoes! You can dice them into pico de gallo size if you want; you can even observe, not wrongly, that pico de gallo is basically just a tomato salad with an egalitarian approach to ingredient sizing. It's none of my business! If you're using them, I recommend halving cherry or grape tomatoes so that their juices can mingle with the other stuff in the bowl; for larger varieties of tomato, I recommend slicing them into wedges (removing any hard green portions up by the stem), because that's just a very satisfying way to get a mouthful of tomato.
On the other hand, do not get cute and whir all your ingredients together in a blender and be like "I have discovered that salsa is tomato salad." That's baloney! You can't just eat salsa with a fork, man. That's psycho shit! Everybody knows salsa minus chips is a soup; you eat it with a spoon, or anyway I sure as hell do. We're making fork food, here.
Toss the ingredients together briefly, and as close to eating time as you can manage. The salt in the salad is going to cause the tomatoes to release a lot of liquid into the bottom of the big salad bowl. The nuts, if they spend a lot of time exposed to this liquid, are going to lose their crunch; the cheese, if it stews in this liquid for very long, will dissolve a bit. All in all there are much worse problems to have, such as meteors or being eaten by a pack of wild dogs, but still, you can avert a (nevertheless delicious) sodden mess studded with half-crunchy nuts and watery cheese by being intentional about how you sequence and time things.
In fact, here is an idea: Maybe don't even bother tossing all of the ingredients together! If you're using a dressing—in my case, taken together, this would be the garlicky olive oil and balsamic vinegar and salt and pepper—quickly toss the tomatoes and broadly (for blog purposes) allium-ish stuff (onion, garlic, fennel, leek, whatever) together in the big bowl, then decorate it over the top with the herbs, nuts, cheese, pickled action, whatever, with an eye toward what will look prettiest. Or hell, just heap all the solid stuff in the bowl and then drizzle the olive oil over the top and go to town! I understand that some may regard this as salad blasphemy, but it's fine. I promise it's fine. You're starting from nine billion miles ahead with ripe, in-season tomatoes; no way of putting this stuff together is going to make it taste not-great.
On a related note, it can be a good idea to salt the tomatoes in advance of everything else and let them hang out in a colander over the sink for, oh, like five or 10 minutes, so that a large portion of the water they're going to release will go down the drain instead of forming a lagoon at the bottom of your big salad bowl. Again: It's fine to just not do this. I did not do it for the salad in that photo up there, and it was delicious and all of our eyes rolled around crazily like spooked horses when we ate it. The bowl had a huge pool of tomato juice at the bottom when all the tomatoes were gone, with any number of lost-to-humankind pine nuts hidden in its (figuratively) black depths, but it was fine. It's easy enough to just let the liquid drip off a tongs-full of tomato salad on its way to a plate. But you can dodge that by just letting the tomatoes drain briefly before assembling the salad. It's something to consider.
Just because I julienned my herbs does not mean you have to! In fact, it may even be cooler and more attractive to just kinda tear the leaves of basil and/or mint apart with your fingers, or to use teeny tiny lil' herbs and leave their leaves whole.
Maybe some warm crusty bread? Who's gonna complain about some warm crusty bread to dredge through the tomato juice or heap with tomato? Nobody, that's who.
Eat the damn salad! This blog is over!