It’s (almost) the most wonderful time of the year — tomato season. This year I’m growing my own, and I am incredibly excited.
Tomato season is brief and fleeting, however, so it’s best to go into it with a plan to maximise the potential of your seasonal haul. Though it’s my first year growing these little love apples, I have been eating the things for decades, and I have many tips and strategies for enjoying them to the fullest.
Make a tomato sandwich
Tomato sandwiches are vastly under-appreciated. So under-appreciated, that you can’t even find a good stock photo of one (which is both Southern and Harriet the Spy erasure). Just as recently as a few months ago, some people who did not know what they were talking about tried to drag this (100% correct) young woman for making a proper tomato sandwich. If you aren’t from the Southern US (or haven’t read Harriet the Spy), it’s very possible you’ve never had this simple, perfect sandwich, but you should remedy that this summer.
Making this sandwich with bland tomatoes is not an option. Because there are only four ingredients involved — white bread, mayo, tomato, salt — this sandwich is only good during peak tomato season, when the tomatoes are sweet and flavorful.
I’ve explained my method before, but it bears repeating:
The bread should be cheap, white, and squishy (it should stick to the roof of your mouth), and you should spread mayo on both slices. The mayo is the only thing I change up. Right now I’m very into this Korean mayo that came in a bag. (I would tell you the name, but it was printed on the bag, which I threw away to get to the bottle inside.) The mayo adds flavour, but it also prevents the sandwich from sogging out immediately.
Slice the tomato — preferably the moment you get home from the market — place the slices on the mayo-coated bread, and season with Maldon salt. Do not add cheese. Do not add basil. I guess you can add pepper, but I never do.
Eating it off of a Blue Willow plate is encouraged, though not required.
Or make a marinated BLT
A BLT is not a tomato sandwich (it is a bacon sandwich), but it is still very good, and you can make it even better by marinating your tomatoes à la Chef Clare de Boer. The marinade is simple, and works wonders on not-quite-perfect, early-season tomatoes:
Lazy days start with BLTs for breakfast. Luke’s are heaven, and he has two secrets. One: While the bacon is cooking he slices and marinates tomatoes with a splash of red wine vinegar, olive oil and salt. This turns the dreariest tomato into a fantasy of San Marzano. Two: After heavily toasting his bread (plain bagel or a sesame loaf are preferred in our home) he gives it a thick swipe of mayonnaise and follows with olive oil and vinegary tomato juices. Sounds preposterous? It’s perfect.
Don’t despair over mediocre tomatoes
Speaking of early season, sub-par tomatoes: You are going to buy one. It is inevitable. Even with all this climate change, it is very unlikely that you’re going to find a perfect, flavorful summer tomato before late July, so right now is the absolute earliest you should look. But even if you do jump the tomato gun and find yourself with a bland and mealy specimen, don’t worry. I have mitigation strategies.
You can always make up for the lack of flavour by sprinkling it with something:
For seasoning, I like a three-pronged approach of sugar, salt, and MSG. The first two add flavour, but they also draw out moisture, while the latter brings a bit of the umami that might be missing. Just sprinkle a slice or two with table sugar and sodium chloride, let ‘em hang out on a wire rack for about 10 minutes to let the solutes remove some of the water, then re-season with a little more of each, plus a pinch of monosodium glutamate.
If that’s not enough (or you simply have a lot of bland tomatoes), try roasting them down into thick, flavorful pasta sauce.
Obliterate them in your air fryer
I rarely impress myself — the bar is just so high — but I was very pleased with my brain when it told me to chuck a whole bunch of cherry tomatoes into my air fryer and blast them into oblivion.
These tomatoes are beyond roasted. They are concentrated, reduced, and intense. To quote myself:
They have a deep, caramelised sweetness — almost like tomato paste — with the intense, slightly raisiny notes of a sun-dried tomato, minus the overpowering tartness. They spread like a hearty jam, and would make an outstanding sandwich filling, especially if you’re craving something a little warmer, sweeter, and rib-sticking than tomato toast.
Leave them in the oven overnight
On the other end of the roasted tomato spectrum, we have this slower, gentler approach from Nigella Lawson. This method requires some light oven work, which makes it better suited to end-of-season tomatoes that lack the pure flavour of a peak-season tomato. In addition to setting the oven to 230C (but only for a moment!), all you’ll have to do is:
…take your disappointing, dull-arse tomatoes, slice ‘em in half, sprinkle on some salt and sugar (and maybe a little thyme), then shut the oven off, and pop the tomatoes in there for an overnight stay, taking care not to open the oven, not even for a peek. The gentle, ambient heat gives the tomatoes a makeover, transforming them from weak and watery into sweet and bright (and still very juicy).
Roast them in the microwave
Slow-roasting tomatoes is a great way to preserve them, and turning on the oven for three hours is a great way to heat up your house, which you probably don’t want to do in summer. But according to microwave enthusiast A.A. Newton, “about 10 minutes in the microwave is a shockingly good substitute for several hours in the oven, and it won’t turn your house into a scorching inferno.”
Douse them in hot bacon grease
No one blinks an eye when they’re told to finish summer tomatoes with a drizzle of high-quality olive oil, but I suggest you do the same with hot bacon grease and I get hate mail?? (I’m not popular at all!)
Olive oil is not neutral, and neither is bacon grease, yet both accentuate the tomatoes tart and sweet freshness with their fatty flavour. Hot bacon grease not only blesses the tomatoes with salty smokiness, it tempers a bit of the rawness in the fresh tomato (or any other raw vegetable), a pretty lovely effect. (Try it on a caprese and see what it does for fresh basil!)
Grate them over toast
Alicia Kennedy is a tomato influencer, in that she influenced me to eat tomato toast, and I have not stopped eating it since. (Pro-tip: Use tiny tomatoes during the colder months — they taste pretty good year round.)
The secret to tomato toast lies in grating the tomatoes. Instead of slices, which can slide off the bread, grated tomatoes act like a juicier raw jam, and cling to the toast. I’ve been eating mine with a swipe of mayo and Maldon, but you have a lot of options:
You can keep it simple — with grated tomatoes, olive oil, and flake salt — or you can grate the tomatoes atop of some sort of creamy substrate: cream cheese, labneh, whipped cottage cheese, or avocado. I like to keep the layer of creamy stuff pretty thin; you want just enough to form a hydrophobic layer in between the tomatoes and the toast to keep the juices of the former from seeping into the bread and making it soggy .
Peel them for better salads
People get angry every time I suggest they peel tomatoes for a salad, but I’m going to keep saying it! A marinated, peeled tomato is a wondrous thing, and my first experience with a naked tomato salad changed my life. Let’s take a trip down memory lane:
I also remember the first time I ate a peeled cherry tomato. It was served to me at this restaurant. I was 28. Men were present. I was still talking a lot. I popped the shiny little orb in my mouth. There was no explosion, only the juiciest, silkiest, sweetest and most tomato-y tomato I had ever tasted. It was so good that I quit talking.
Peeling tomatoes is slightly tedious but somewhat meditative, and the rewards are well worth the labour. You can toss them in whatever dressing you like, or you can use my recipe, which is pretty good.
Use the peels to make tomato salt
Peeling tomatoes leaves one with tomato skins, but that’s great news, because you can use those skins to make tomato salt. Originally the brainchild of Gabrielle Hamilton, tomato salt has a bright, fresh flavour with a hint of summery umami. It’s also very pretty, if that kind of thing matters to you.
Roast canned tomatoes for better sauce
We talk a lot about roasting fresh tomatoes, but did you know that there is no law against roasting the ones that come in a can? Well, there isn’t! In fact, you can pop an entire pan of sauce in the oven and roast it down into a jammier, caramelised version of its stove-top self. (It’s very “set and forget,” which I love.)
Blend them for a fresher Bloody Mary
I like a rich and savoury Bloody Mary as much as the next bruncher, but they can be a little on the thick side, and sipping a soup-like beverage is not very appealing when it’s hot out. A blend of fresh tomatoes, pickles, and lemon juice may seem like the smoothie from hell, but it pairs exceptionally well with vodka (especially horseradish vodka).