Those who adhere to the religion of perfect tomatoes are a particularly zealous lot, forced by their tenets to hold a tomato fast that lasts roughly 11 months out of the year from the beginning of October through the end of August. But with great piety comes great reward, and the tomatoes that have finally arrived in this late season are some of the best I've tasted in years (of course, I think that every year).
A couple weeks ago, Jeffrey Steingarten penned a guest column in Grub Street's "Grub Street Diet" series in which he extolled the virtues of the combination of toast, olive oil, and tomato. And rightfully so. As any Spaniard will tell you, it's not a combination to be trifled with.
But Jeffrey, might I be so bold as to suggest that the actual best way to enjoy a perfect end-of-summer, bursting-at-the-seams tomato (heirloom or otherwise) is in fact sliced on top of toast slathered with a good homemade mayo.
Nature, Science, and Humanity—in Sandwich Form
It's the juxtaposition of man and nature that really gets me. The perfect tomato is surely one of nature's greatest miracles: The skin is grassy and herbaceous like basil, the flesh is far juicier than any other fruit with no trace of mealiness or stringiness. At the peak of ripeness, it is the embodiment of balanced flavor—sweet and slightly acidic with abnormally high levels of natural glutamates to provide it with an intensely savory background. And personal anecdotal records seem to indicate that it will even make a better lover out of you, though I've yet to prove this through any sort of rigorous scientifically prescribed protocols. (For the record, I have conclusively proven that applying rigorous scientific protocols to lovemaking does not contribute to a harmonious marriage.)
In perfect harmony with this natural beauty is the mayonnaise, one of pinnacles of the art of engineering. Think about it: How else but through the genius and hard work of man could a simple mixture of seasoned oil and egg yolks be converted into such a luxuriously creamy, decadent, yet light spread?
Emulsions are a spectacular thing, and mayonnaise is the king of emulsions. I'm not talking the blue-and-yellow jarred stuff (which is a fine choice when it comes to potato salad or coleslaw). I'm talking the handmade stuff where the oil is slowly drizzled into a churning mixture of egg yolks, mustard, and lemon juice to whip up into soft white peaks. When perfectly made, it not only tastes fabulous on its own (I caught my wife dipping her finger in the bowl this afternoon), but seems to help nearly every vegetable it comes in contact with to put its best foot forward.
And of course, let's not forget the bread. The cornerstone of civilization. The staple of human life around the world. The foundation of humanity.
Add the three of them together and you've got a tiny behemoth of a sandwich that represents nature, science, and humanity—the three great pillars of society—all bound together in a single, edible package. Sprinkle it with a bit of coarse, crunchy salt* and perhaps a few grinds of pepper (I often prefer no pepper), and you've got yourself a darn fine lunch to boot.
Wouldn't you agree, Dumpling?
Use Your Favorite Bread
Of course, it's not quite that simple. With an open-faced sandwich like this, your ingredients have got to be perfect. The bread is the easiest part. Just go with what you like. Sometimes I like a rustic sourdough or even a focaccia. Today I went with an excellent multigrain loaf that I bought off of some dude at a highway rest stop off of route 87 near New Paltz (Meredith's Bread, from Kingston, New York).
Choose the Right Tomatoes
Tomatoes are a little more difficult, but if you're fortunate enough to live near a farmers' market, you should have no problem finding perfect specimens until at least the end of the month. Please do not attempt this meal with run-of-the-mill supermarket tomatoes. You will be dearly disappointed. The tomatoes should be vine ripened (tomatoes improve in texture and color but not in flavor after they've been removed from the plant), extraordinarily heavy, and very soft all over.
I usually hunt the bargain-bin "seconds" at the farmers' markets for ones that may have a couple cracks or blemishes, but are still pretty much intact. Just trim off and toss the bad bits, and you've still saved yourself some bucks—what's more, the tomatoes are almost guaranteed to be ripe.
The mayo is the toughest component. If you want to get really cheaty, here's an easy way to improve store-bought mayo: Put a cup of it in a bowl. Grate a clove of garlic over it using a microplane grater, crack a good half teaspoon of pepper on top, then add two tablespoons of the very best extra-virgin olive oil. Whisk until it's incorporated, then add another two tablespoons and whisk again. Now taste it. See what you just made?
Of course, the real deal is much better, and not all that hard to make. If you've got a food processor or stand mixer, it's even easier. The key to great mayo is to season it aggressively with salt, pepper, and lemon juice. Without the proper acid and salt levels, it tastes heavy and greasy. Thinning it with a bit of water right at the end also lightens the texture.
And please, whatever you do, don't go referring to mayonnaise as "aioli" like chefs seems wont to do, even when there's not a hint of garlic in it. I don't know when calling mayo "mayo" became uncool, but let's do try and bring it back into fashion, ok?
*I used a jar of fancy-pants pink Himalayan sea salt that was thoughtfully gifted to me, but really, the only thing that matters is texture. I like Maldon sea salt, with its large, beautiful pyramid crystals the best.