Recipes: The art of the tomato sandwich

Three ways to improve upon the classic

It is, perhaps, a fool’s errand to attempt to improve upon the most perfect of summer lunches: a tomato sandwich. If you have a ripe tomato in hand, you’re not likely to make a bad sandwich, no matter your bread or mayonnaise. It is, after all, about that tomato.

Still, imagine for a minute that you’ve had a tomato sandwich for lunch every day for the past few weeks. You may be ready for something just slightly different. You may be willing to stir a little something into your mayonnaise, experiment with a different type of bread, or even fiddle a little with your tomato.

My strategy for reexamining the tomato sandwich was to approach each critical ingredient — tomato, bread and mayonnaise — differently in three separate recipes. By taking on the sandwich this way, instead of adding new elements, each recipe stays true to the simplicity of the original. Limiting ingredients means that you don’t run the risk of overcomplicating and overwhelming what should be the hero of each sandwich.

First, I made a slightly updated version of a quick, slapdash tomato sandwich eaten over the sink. Instead of negotiating your dining location to keep all of that extra tomato juice from dribbling down your arms and onto the floor, simply season the tomatoes in advance.

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This step uses salt to remove excess water from the tomatoes, concentrating their flavor. It takes some forethought but is easy. Lay tomato slices out on a wire rack set over a baking sheet or stack of paper towels. Sprinkle with salt and pepper on both sides and then just let them hang out while you put away dishes or finish a crossword puzzle.

After about 30 minutes, you’ll see a pool of water below the tomatoes and a slick of water on top of them. Pat the slices dry, and then stack these flavor-packed tomatoes between mayonnaise-slicked slices of white bread. (I prefer Duke’s mayonnaise and Sunbeam bread, but use what you’d like.) This trick works with any tomato you’ve got, but I especially like to use it with standard-issue beefsteaks, which can often stand for a boost in flavor even when perfectly ripe.

For those willing to mess around with the standard tomato sandwich formula, try stirring together semi-homemade bacon mayonnaise and pairing it with heirloom tomatoes, such as Cherokee Purples. The bacon mayonnaise requires rendering the bacon fat and chopping the resulting crisp bacon into tiny bits, but it’s worth it for a spread that hints at a BLT without overwhelming the tomatoes.

I like to serve it on soft sourdough sandwich bread, such as the slices from Pepperidge Farm, instead of classic white bread. The light tang of the bread and its more substantial structure help balance the bacon’s salty sweetness and keep the tomatoes firmly in place.

A grilled tomato and chimichurri sandwich on focaccia bread is a much further departure from the classic but equally delicious. Grilling the tomatoes is less about actually cooking them through than adding a bit of complexity to their flavor from the char marks. This process will also soften and sweeten their flesh a bit, allowing them to meld with the thick bread, which means this sandwich is also a great opportunity to use not-quite-ripe tomatoes or improve less than perfect grocery store specimens.

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I particularly like to pair these slightly smoky tomatoes with tangy, herbaceous chimichurri mayonnaise. Like bacon mayonnaise, it does require slightly more time than simply opening a mayonnaise jar, but it is not difficult: Simply blitz herbs and shallots together in a food processor, then add mayonnaise, along with a bit of olive oil and vinegar, and pulse a few more times. The mixture will look a bit thin initially but will firm up in the fridge. (You can, of course, use the non-chilled, slightly thin mayonnaise immediately if you’d like.)

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As for the focaccia? It is soft and absorbent, just like classic white bread, but its oil-rich flavor and hearty texture give the sandwich complexity and substance.

Whichever route you choose, just remember that this time of great tomato sandwiches is always more fleeting than you’d like. Get your fill while you can.

RECIPES

These three tomato sandwich recipes offer something for everyone: a thoughtful improvement to the classic sandwich, a bacon-y twist on an heirloom tomato sandwich, and a grilled tomato sandwich substantial enough for dinner.

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Improved Classic Tomato Sandwich

This tomato sandwich recipe doesn’t mess with the classic formula, other than to take the time to pre-season the tomatoes to concentrate their flavor and remove excess water. Be sure to use high-quality store-bought mayonnaise, such as Duke’s. Plain white sandwich bread allows the tomatoes to really shine.

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Heirloom Tomato Sandwich with Bacon Mayonnaise

Adding bacon fat and tiny crisp bacon bits to high-quality store-bought mayonnaise takes this tomato sandwich almost into BLT territory — but with plenty of focus still on perfect, juicy heirloom tomatoes. Starting the bacon with water allows it to render more of its fat before it begins to brown. You can pre-season the tomatoes as directed in the Improved Classic Tomato Sandwich recipe, but season them lightly; the bacon and its fat contain quite a bit of salt. The light tang of sourdough sandwich bread balances the rich, salty bacon and sweet tomatoes.

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Grilled Tomato and Chimichurri Sandwich

This smoky, tangy and herbaceous tomato sandwich combines a quick chimichurri mayonnaise with grilled tomatoes and chewy, soft focaccia bread. It’s a great way to make use of not-quite-perfect tomatoes toward the end of the season. Feel free to use plain, herb-topped, or onion-flecked focaccia. As with the other sandwiches, be sure to use high-quality store-bought mayonnaise. The chimichurri mayonnaise can be made up to 3 days ahead and refrigerated.

1 cup roughly chopped fresh parsley

1 cup roughly chopped fresh cilantro

1/4 cup finely chopped shallot

2 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano

1/2 cup high-quality mayonnaise, such as Duke’s

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

Salt

Vegetable oil, for the grill

2 large, ripe tomatoes, halved lengthwise

1 (1-pound) loaf focaccia, sliced into 4 portions and then sliced open

To make the chimichurri mayonnaise: In a food processor, combine the parsley, cilantro, shallot and oregano. Pulse until finely chopped, about 7 (1-second) pulses. Add the mayonnaise, 3 tablespoons olive oil, and the vinegar, and pulse to combine. Transfer to a small bowl, season to taste with salt, and refrigerate until ready to use.

To grill the tomatoes: Place a grilling basket on a gas grill. Light the burners underneath to high. Alternatively, if using charcoal, light three-quarters of a chimney of charcoal. When the coals are gray and ashy, pour it into the center of the grill. Affix the grill grate and place the grilling basket over the coals. Either way, let the grilling basket heat, then grease it with vegetable oil. The grill temperature should be between 400 and 450 degrees.

Drizzle the cut sides of the tomatoes with the remaining olive oil and season with salt. Place the tomatoes in the grill basket, cut-side down. If using gas, cover the grill; if using charcoal, leave the grill open. Grill until beginning to char, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a plate and let cool.

To assemble: Slice the tomatoes into wedges about 1/2-inch thick. Spread the chimichurri mayonnaise onto both halves of each portion of focaccia, using about 1 tablespoon per side. Top with the tomatoes. Close the sandwiches and serve.

Serves 4.

Per serving: 533 calories (percent of calories from fat, 54), 12 grams protein, 51 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams fiber, 32 grams total fat (4 grams saturated), 6 milligrams cholesterol, 1,324 milligrams sodium.

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