Monday, February 25, 2008
You Say Tomato
I have really fond memories of my grandfather and his love of salad. I've always liked a fairly plain salad of crispy lettuce with oil and vinegar, and generally push any toppings to the side or ask that they be left out altogether. My grandfather on the other hand, is the only person I've ever known that relished every ingredient on the plate and insisted that American salad was the best he'd ever eaten (my grandparents lived in Spain). Nothing made him happier than the standard house salad of the 80's and 90's: iceberg lettuce, tomato, shredded carrot, cucumber, and onion. While I balked at the waste of space that are cherry tomatoes, he savored each one with a smirky smile, as if he knew something we didn't. The funniest thing of all was his passion for American onions, insisting that they were at once spicy and sweet and by far the ultimate salad ingredient.
All of these memories came flooding back as I perused to produce aisle during my first trip to my new neighborhood supermarket. I rarely buy tomatoes (especially out of season) for several reasons, but primarily because most of them are bland and squishy. I think that over the years, the low quality of tomatoes (and most house salads) has served to convince me that I hate tomatoes, when in fact I'm just picky about them. I find that a tomato isn't much worth the effort if it isn't absolutely perfect--sweet and juicy with the perfect texture. So it came as quite a surprise when I was drawn to a quartet of shiny and firm vine-ripened tomatoes. Although I rarely eat them, I find that when they're perfect, few things are more delicious than a simply prepared tomato. A little coarse sea salt on the tomato's sweet flesh makes for a delicious snack, especially on a hot summer day when they're in season.
A slightly more complex but simple preparation is how my mother and I generally serve great tomatoes, and it's based on a recipe from one of our favorite restaurants just outside of Madrid. My mother lives for fresh tomatoes, and one day during lunch she discovered a delicious tuna and tomato salad. The tomatoes were a variety called raf, which grows in Spain near salty waters and is primarily green and yellow (it looks like a small, tight heirloom tomato). The restaurant cut the tomatoes into fat chunks and served them alongside ventresca (belly tuna). The tomatoes were topped with coarse sea salt and the whole dish was drizzled with olive oil and sweet aged balsamic vinegar. While I can't afford ventresca (a small can is about $12 in Manhattan) or aged balsamic, I can usually afford good Italian tuna packed in olive oil and decent balsamic vinegar.
So, last week I did the unthinkable and had a salad for dinner. I cut the tomatoes into chunks, sprinkled them with course salt and let the olive oil and balsamic vinegar flow. I topped the whole thing with my Italian tuna and curled up on the sofa. I couldn't help but think that if my grandfather took sure pleasure in eating every salad, even one from the Sizzler, this one would knock his socks off.
Tomato and Tuna Salad
This isn't really a recipe, just a method. Cut the tomatoes into chunks, as pictured above, and season with coarse sea salt (this would be a great time for grey salt). Serve alongside ventresca or good quality tuna, if you're frugal like me. Drizzle everything with extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Enjoy!