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Mediterranean Chopped Salad with Tomatoes, Peppers, Feta, and Basil

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

I'm proud of my tiny balcony garden, and I think rightfully so. It's produced a flourishing stalk of basil which I've been using copiously and will still have enough to turn into pesto at the end of the summer (because anyone who's grown basil knows there's always enough to turn into more pesto than you could ever possibly want or need). I have at least twelve Eataly-dollars' worth of chives in a single pot. (Based on the cost of the pinky-sized cannoli, I estimate the current exchange rate for Eataly-dollars to real dollars is about three to one.) My cilantro plant has one single stoic leaf, which I am saving for when I celebrate a special occasion with the world's smallest taco.

But it's my tomatoes that are doing the swimmingly-est. I've got a cherry tomato plant that I estimated to have over 120 individual tomatoes by counting the number of tomatoes per bunch, the number of bunches per vine, and the number of vines per branch. Then, just to make sure my estimate was accurate, I went and counted every single one. I was so enraptured in this process that I didn't notice the gusting winds slam the door shut behind me, nor did I notice when Hambone must have stood up on his hind legs and used his opposable thumbs to latch the door shut from the inside.

I ended up locked out in the rain, seventeen stories above a parking lot, squeezing through my kitchen window soaking wet with a shirt full of picked ripe yellow cherry tomatoes, thinking to myself, "you better be worth it."

Indeed they were. Home-grown tomatoes (or at the very least, fresh-from-the-local-farm tomatoes) are so much better than the picked-when-green-and-gassed-ripe supermarket variety that they can't even really be considered the same fruit.

My favorite way to eat whole large tomatoes is as a T.M.T. (that'd be a tomato-mayo-toast, and you can read all about my love for them here), but cherry tomatoes are inevitably bound for a chopped salad along with a few other pieces of summer produce.

It doesn't really matter what the other vegetables in there are. Sometimes it's cucumber, sometimes raw zucchini chunks, sometimes celery or jicama, in this case bell peppers. But the key to a good chopped salad is always the same: salt your vegetables in advance to draw out liquid to prevent your salad from getting watery. I toss my vegetables with salt, place them in a colander, and let the juices drip into a bowl below, using some of the liquids as the base for a simple vinaigrette. There's nothing I like worse than finishing a salad and finding a watery, soupy mess at the bottom of the bowl. This'll prevent that from happening and intensify its flavor at the same time.

The only exception to this rule is with onions, which I prefer to soak in water after chopping in order to remove some of their pungency.

Cheese is not a necessary addition to a chopped salad, but there are only two situations in which I'd say no to feta, one of which can't be described in mixed company.

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Mediterranean Chopped Salad with Tomatoes, Peppers, Feta, and Basil »

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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