You Say Tomato, I Say Tonnato: Two Takes on Tomato Salad

Overhead of tomato salad with tonnato sauce, green and purple basil, Calabrian chilies, and black sesame seeds.

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

"What came first, the dish or the pun?" I've been asked this existential question more than a few times by head-shaking loved ones, coworkers, and chef mentors. It's no secret that I'm into groan-inducing wordplay, which has always ended up working its way into my recipe-development process.

From the first time I was allowed to get creative in a restaurant kitchen—tasked with producing a constantly rotating selection of amuse-bouches, I was always bringing the chef bites like "France on a log" (Chartreuse-compressed celery, foie gras mousse, and pickled currants) to taste—puns have been a part of my cooking. This is my chicken-or-the-egg question.

While the dumb jokes that entertain me may not have improved in the years since then, my approach to cooking has matured a little. As a young cook, I would sometimes fall in love with an idea for a dish or bite that I thought was clever, then get stuck forcing the issue, even when the food didn't live up to the pun (a pretty low bar).

I've learned how to part with those, but also how to tease out, tinker with, and improve on the ideas worth exploring, like Oysters Oaxacafeller and this late-summer celebration of in-season tomatoes: tomato tonnato. What started out as a pun I jotted down in a notebook years ago turned into two killer, no-cook tomato salads that are pretty easy on the eyes, and come together in just about 15 minutes.

'Tis the Season: Eat All the Tomatoes While You Still Can

Overhead view of a tray of whole tomatoes of different sizes and colors.

Tomato season is the best micro-season of summer, the best macro-season. For a few glorious weeks, gardens and farmers markets are overflowing with gorgeous conventional and heirloom varieties of different shapes, colors, and sizes.

Lately, I've been waking up extra early two to three times a week in order to hit up the Union Square Greenmarket on my way in to work. I always end up leaving with a giant haul of tomatoes, even when I don't have a plan for what to do with them. They're just too pretty and tasty to pass up, and there's also my anxiety about the inescapable passage of time and the looming presence of pumpkin-spice season in the future.

Needless to say, we're going to have to eat all the tomatoes we can in order to get through this.

Closeup overhead of a tray of tomatoes of different colors and sizes.

Between perfect BLTs, fresh-tomato sauce, and panzanella salad, there's no shortage of things to make with armfuls of summer tomatoes. But all of those involve heating stuff up in the kitchen, and that's not always a good thing in the middle of August.

Overhead of tomato salad with spicy tonnato sauce, green and purple basil, and black sesame seeds.

I can always slather a piece of good bread with mayo and pile some thick slices of sea salt–studded tomatoes on top for a snack. But sometimes I want to put together a more elegant dish that still doesn't involve much effort beyond going to the market to pick up vegetables.

This tomato tonnato salad (or salads, to be precise) hits that mark perfectly. It combines the elements of a great tuna sandwich—oil-packed tuna, mayonnaise, and tomatoes—and turns them into a shareable salad that's ready for the 'gram.

Tonnato, Two Ways

Closeup side view of tomato salad with tonnato sauce, green and purple basil, Calabrian chilies, and black sesame seeds.

A few years back, Daniel took on the unenviable task of trying to convince readers who might have been unfamiliar with Italian vitello tonnato that chilled roast meat slathered with a pourable tuna-mayonnaise sauce is delicious, and worth making. It's a tough sell.

Yet here I am, trying to make tonnato happen. Tuna and tomatoes are a more appealing pairing for a lot of people, and much progress has been made by the tonnato lobby in the States over the past couple of years.

How to Make Traditional Tonnato the Nontraditional Way

Blending tonnato base to form a mayonnaise.

I started out by making Daniel's version of tonnato, which in turn uses Kenji's Two-Minute Mayonnaise method (it's like a game of Serious Eats recipe telephone). It's a dead-simple and super-fast way to make tonnato, in an amount that makes sense for home cooks.

Photo collage of blending tonnato sauce base in a tall-sided container with an immersion blender to form mayonnaise.

Combine a whole egg; a touch of mustard (not strictly traditional for tonnato, but mustard is an excellent surfactant that helps form a stable mayo emulsion); capers; anchovies; and lemon juice in the beaker that came with your immersion blender. (Other tall-sided containers that just fit the head of your immersion blender will work, but make sure that the blades can get down to the very bottom of the container.)

Then top it all off with some vegetable oil. Fire up the blender, and you've got mayonnaise in about 30 seconds.

Photo collage of canned tuna and lemon juice being blended into mayonnaise to form tonnato sauce.

Stop the blender to add some high-quality oil-packed tuna, along with a little more lemon juice, and blend it up just until the tuna is incorporated into a homogeneous, smooth sauce.

You may be tempted to buzz this mixture for a while, with the idea that more blending will lead to a smoother sauce. It won't. Over-blending the sauce can actually make it chalky and grainy, as the tuna turns gritty. Blending the tonnato less means that it won't be perfectly smooth, but it will have a more pleasant texture than it would if you blitzed it to hell.

Side view of whisking olive oil into tonnato sauce.

Once the tuna is well incorporated, transfer the mixture to a mixing bowl, and whisk in olive oil by hand. Congratulations! You have successfully made traditional tonnato.

If you like the sound of an extra-lemony tuna sauce to pair with fresh tomatoes, this is a great option for tomato salad–making.

Overhead of tomato salad with tonnato sauce, green and purple basil, Calabrian chilies, and black sesame seeds.

Spoon it onto a serving plate, and spread it into an even layer. Cut a bunch of tomatoes into different shapes and sizes, and arrange them as artfully as you like over the tonnato.

You'll want something spicy here, too, to balance the citrus punch of the tonnato and the sweetness of the tomatoes. In this case, I turn to one of my favorite condiments, preserved Calabrian chilies, which I spoon over the tomatoes. I also add toasted black sesame seeds, for a nutty, slightly bitter crunch.

Closeup overhead of tomato salad with tonnato sauce, green and purple basil, Calabrian chilies, and black sesame seeds.

A sprinkling of coarse sea salt right before the dish hits the table ensures that the tomatoes don't give up their texture and juiciness before you bite into them, while also providing a little extra textural contrast. Finish the dish off with a showering of fresh basil leaves.

Into the Tonnato-verse: How to Make Spicy Tonnato

Closeup side view of tomato salad with spicy tonnato sauce, green and purple basil, and black sesame seeds.

As I mentioned earlier, I ended up with a second iteration of this dish. This is thanks in large part to a common farmers-market tomato-transportation problem: the exploding tomato.

Call it Murphy's 'Mato Law—no matter how carefully your market tomato bounty is nestled into a reusable tote bag, at least one of them will burst in transit like a dye pack on a bank robber. It's not the tomato's fault; it's just eager and ripe, and I don't like seeing that enthusiasm go to waste.

Photo collage of grating fresh tomato with a box grater.

So, when I found a punctured tomato in my shopping bag during an initial round of testing, I decided to grate the tomato with a box grater, à la pan con tomate, and figured that bright, sweet tomato pulp could be incorporated into the tuna sauce.

Photo collage of blending tomato pulp, hot pepper paste, and canned tuna into spicy tonnato sauce.

I made the same tonnato base as in Daniel's original version, but then subbed in the grated tomato pulp for the second addition of lemon juice, and added a couple tablespoons of Turkish hot pepper paste for a spicy kick.

Adding grated fresh tomato pulp to spicy tonnato sauce while blending the sauce together with an immersion blender.

Blended in with the tuna, these two ingredients give the tonnato a summery orange-red color that pops on the plate, and a spicy-tuna vibe somewhat reminiscent of those takeout sushi rolls you order when it's too hot to cook.

Closeup overhead of tomato salad with spicy tonnato sauce, green and purple basil, and black sesame seeds.

But you don't need to order out, or cook for that matter! You just need to pick up a big bag of ripe tomatoes and some nice canned tuna, and make this salad. Like, right now.

We all need to hold on to tomato season for as long as we can. Because there are only two things that are certain in this world: death and pumpkin-spice season. They'll come to build a fall between us, but we know they won't win. Don't dream it's over.

Closeup side view of tomato salad with spicy tonnato sauce, green and purple basil, and black sesame seeds.