There’s hardly a pleasure greater than taking the summer’s first bite of a ripe, juicy tomato fresh off the vine. Whether it’s a tiny pear-shaped tomato or a perfectly round red slicer, a tomato at its peak is about as good as it gets. One of my favorite ways to showcase the tremendous variety of tomatoes that are available at the height of summer is in a tomato salad.
Tomato salads let me get creative by allowing me to choose from a wide variety of ingredients and seasonings: fresh herbs (parsley, mint, chives, cilantro, basil, oregano, savory), cheeses (feta, mozzarella, goat cheese, ricotta salata, Gorgonzola), vegetables (corn, lettuces, green beans, peppers, cucumber, avocado)—not to mention ingredients like pine nuts, olives, capers, prosciutto, bacon, fish, shellfish, smoked meats, and pasta that add texture and substance. The combinations are limitless. And the effort is minimal: Make a vinaigrette, chop the herbs and other ingredients, slice the tomatoes, and you’re pretty much done. Serve as the first course, or add a loaf of bread and you’ve got a meal.
Don’t refrigerate tomatoes
No matter what kind of tomato, keep it out of the refrigerator. Chilling destroys one of the tomato’s key flavor components—(Z)-3 dexenal—and it also makes the texture mealy. Ideally, tomatoes should be stored away from light at about 50°F.
Choose a kaleidescope of colors and sizes.While you can make a delicious salad with just one or two varieties, don’t limit yourself. For instance, I sometimes layer sliced red, green, yellow and orange tomatoes with red grape, yellow teardrop, and green cherry tomatoes. And I aso experiment with slicing. Depending on their size, and whether I want a chunky, rustic salad or a pretty layered one, I’ll cut tomatoes into wedges, slices, or halves. I almost always halve cherry tomatoes, as they’re hard to eat whole.
It’s worth the effort to find a good tomato
Homegrown tomatoes are best, of course, but if you don’t have a garden, head for your local farmers’ market, where you’ll find a dazzlingly colorful array of tomatoes. At the market, choose firm tomatoes with shiny skin and bold, vibrant color. To check for ripeness, smell them: They should be very aromatic, especially at the stem. Also, the small spiky leaves at the stem end should look fresh and gray-green.
In the supermarket, don’t be fooled by tomatoes sold with the vine attached. These tomatoes may have great texture but not necessarily good flavor. And don’t be deceived by the red globe tomatoes in supermarkets, either. Some stores make an effort to carry locally grown tomatoes in season, but for the most part, the tomatoes you find there are picked green and refrigerated for weeks, then sprayed with ethylene gas (the natural ripening agent in tomatoes) to redden them for sale. Yes, they’re red, but they’re not ripe.
Assemble your tomato salad at the last minute. Tomatoes will leach their liquid if you combine and season the salad ingredients too far in advance. This not only dilutes the dressing but also leaves your salad sitting in an unappealing pool of liquid. All the recipes here let you prep the ingredients ahead, so the only last-minute effort is assembly. Never forget to season a tomato salad with salt (preferably kosher or another coarse salt; fleur de sel is a real treat). Salt magically brings out the best taste in a tomato. If it’s a salad that’s composed in layers, season each layer as you assemble.
Finally, always serve a tomato salad at room temperature, never cold. A true tomato lover like me wants to be sure to enjoy a tomato in all its glory.