While we all have access to tomatoes in even the depths of winter, the words we use to describe them all sound like other names for disappointment — mealy, bland and sad. But describe an encounter with the best summertime tomatoes, and suddenly it sounds as if you’re reliving some steamy affair — luscious, sumptuous and messy.
The best summertime tomatoes have a super juicy interior with a taste that hovers from sweet to acidic to, most importantly, savory. You probably think I’m joking, but tomatoes contain a high proportion of glutamic acid, which also lends Parmesan cheese and soy sauce their oddly meaty powers. Kind of amazing, no?
This partly explains the appeal of the summertime tomato sandwich. Even though you’re feasting on fruit (tomatoes are, as you know, not a vegetable), something feels greedy and exciting about the whole affair.
As an American, I make sure to eat my fair share of BLT sandwiches; when done right, it is a nearly flawless creation. But it’s not the only word on tomatoes and bread. There’s a wide world of options out there, and making the slightest adjustment to the bread or the fat used completely changes the result. The only rule is to keep things simple.
Let’s start with the obvious. We’ve all heard of bruschetta, right? At its simplest, the base recipe is nothing more than toasted or grilled slices of bread rubbed with garlic and drizzled with olive oil and salt. If you’re using great bread, this can be satisfying, if a tad boring. But add tomatoes to the mix and maybe some torn basil, and now you have one of the most ubiquitous appetizers on earth. The crunch of the bread contrasts with the soft chopped tomatoes, with the garlic heat coming at the end.
In northern Spain, they also serve a toasted bread and tomato dish called pan de tomate (or pa amb tomaquet in the Catalan language), but while the ingredients are extremely similar to bruschetta, the dish differs dramatically. Instead of neatly chopped tomatoes and a pop of bright green basil, cooks drag a halved tomato across the toasted bread, saturating the slice and leaving a trail of pulp and seeds in its wake. Compared to bruschetta, it’s a messy, unkempt sight. But it’s immensely satisfying, perhaps even more so than the Italian version, because of the mix of crunchy toasted bread and the soft tomato-soaked interior. So what if looks like you’re eating an old soggy shoe?
If you prefer your sandwich more handsome, follow the example of Denmark’s meticulously composed open-faced sandwiches, called smorrebrod. Though topping options are nearly limitless, they all start with a firm foundation of grilled or toasted rye bread spread with butter. One of the simplest is to pair sliced tomato with hard-cooked egg and watercress.
Not all tomato sandwiches need to be toasted. In the Southern United States, tomato sandwiches are usually built on untoasted, pearly white bread. While the softness of the bread seems destined to buckle under the juicy tomato slices, a healthy coating of mayonnaise helps protect it. What kind of mayonnaise? According to Southern cookbook author Virginia Willis, store-bought brands are actually the traditional way, with the regional brand Duke’s being mentioned often, though Hellman’s works, too. Honestly, I quite enjoyed the sandwich I made with Japanese Kewpie mayonnaise, though that will seem sacrilegious to some.
Regardless of which recipe you try, the tomato sandwich should be unreasonably messy, necessitating a nearby stack of napkins for backup. That part of the sandwich crosses all borders.
Southern Tomato Sandwich
Prep: 5 minutes
Makes: 1 serving
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
2 slices white bread
1 large tomato, core removed, sliced thickly
Salt and pepper
Spread the mayonnaise on one side of both slices of bread. With one slice facing mayonnaise-side up, add a tomato slice and season with salt and pepper. Continue adding tomato slices and seasoning them until the whole tomato has been used. Top with slice of bread facing mayonnaise-side down. Slice sandwich down the middle and serve.
Nutrition information per serving: 359 calories, 23 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 12 mg cholesterol, 35 g carbohydrates, 9 g sugar, 6 g protein, 436 mg sodium, 2 g fiber
Prep: 10 minutes; broil: 4 minutes; makes 2 servings
1 large tomato
Salt and pepper
2 slices rustic bread, sliced ½-inch thick
1 clove garlic, peeled, sliced in half
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
10 fresh basil leaves, torn or chopped
1. Chop the tomato, discarding the core, and transfer to a bowl. Season with a pinch of salt and pepper. Stir well; set aside for 10 minutes.
2. Heat a broiler to high. Place bread slices on a baking sheet; transfer to the top rack of the oven underneath the broiler. Cook until bread is well toasted on top, about 2 minutes. Flip and toast bread on the other side, about 2 minutes. Remove and immediately rub one side of both slices with cut side of the garlic.