Tomatoes and I have come a long way. When I was a child, I did not like raw tomatoes at all. I loved tomato in its cooked forms—spaghetti sauce or in the rich beefy stews that my mother made—but raw tomatoes were always disappointing. For one thing, they had way too many seeds, and I was deeply suspicious of anything seedlike. There were textural issues too—raw tomatoes had so much peel and they were wet and mushy inside, like a fruit gone terribly wrong. The flavor tasted nothing like the rich tomato essence found in cooked tomatoes. For a long time, I stayed away from raw tomatoes. We just didn’t get along.
It was a shame, really, because an ability to grow tomatoes runs in my family. My dad had his tomato patch behind the garage, and I can remember him canning the fruits of his harvest in big glass jars that showed off his edible treasure. I can remember stories about my grandfather, my dad’s dad, growing tomatoes alongside his garage. And now, my brother grows tomatoes in his garden, a place where his daughter will happily snack on tomatoes fresh off the vine, declaring, “I like the juicy parts.” I always knew that she was a smart kid. Unlike me at her age.
But now, now I get it. I get what all the tomato fuss is about. And I’m spending all my play money on locally grown tomatoes from S & L Farms, a Texas farm that sells its produce to Brazos Natural Foods. Raw tomatoes are all about freshness and fragrance, juice and pulp spilling out and onto everything around them. A raw tomato is the essence of summer, something to be devoured with abandon until one’s belly swells and protests. Good raw tomatoes can make a meal into something memorable, something to look forward to all day until the moment when it’s just you, a knife, a cutting board, and your bowl of tomatoes. In that moment, magic happens.
Perhaps tomato season is still in the future for you, depending on where you live, but down here, the tomatoes have been tumbling into the markets for several weeks. It is hot hot HOT down here, but the tomatoes don’t seem to mind. They are perky and fragrant, juicy and fresh, and they make a mighty fine tomato bread salad.
I think of this salad as a deconstructed sandwich. Chunks of fresh tomato are tossed with baby spinach and homemade Daphna-style croutons, and the whole thing is topped with shavings of Parmesan cheese. It’s savory and chewy, delicious and filling, leaving you with just enough room for dessert. I’ve eaten it at least half a dozen times in the last week or two, and I would not be surprised if it ends up in regular rotation until the end of tomato season. It’s a dish that I look forward to at the end of the day, when it’s just me and my kitchen, and I can sit down to eat it five minutes after I’ve made it. That, to me, is summer cooking at its best. Though I will not miss the intense heat of June in December, I will miss the fresh tomatoes and the delight they brought to my kitchen.
Tomato Bread Salad
Serves 1 as a main course, 2 as a side dish
If you are a regular reader, you know that I spend most of my cooking time feeding just one person: me. I eat this salad as a summer main course, but I think it would make a lovely component in a multi-course meal, perhaps alongside grilled vegetables or meats (a nod to my more carnivorous friends) or even vegetarian burgers, like my favorite chickpea patties. Also, a nice variation here is to swap out the Parmesan for some cubes of fresh mozzarella. If you were so inclined, you could even add shreds of fresh basil to complete the caprese theme. Maybe I’ll do that the next time I make this.
For the croutons:
1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 tsp. dried basil
1/4 tsp. smoked paprika
1/4 tsp. garlic powder
A pinch of McCormick Grill Mates Spicy Montreal Steak seasoning
3 slices of chewy bakery bread, such as Pugliese or Ciabatta, sliced into big cubes
For the rest of the salad:
1 medium tomato or 2 smallish tomatoes, chopped
2 handfuls of baby spinach
Parmesan cheese, to taste (from a block)
1) To make the croutons, heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the spices and stir them around to distribute them in the oil.
2) Add the bread cubes and stir them around to coat them in the spicy oil. Let them cook in the pan for a minute or two, then push them around a bit and let them cook for another minute or two. The goal is to season them with the oil and spices and give them a chance to get toasty. A little bit of charring can be good here too because it provides another layer of flavor.
3) While the croutons are going, chop the tomatoes if they aren’t already prepped and put them in a medium-sized bowl. Add the spinach. When the croutons are done, add them to the salad and toss everything together with a spoon or two.
4) Pour the salad onto a plate and top with fresh shavings of Parmesan cheese (or cubes of fresh mozzarella if you are taking that route). Serve immediately.