When you stroll through a farmers market during peak tomato season, you can almost feel the yearning. One table after another burns bright with the fruits of the season, nature’s true eye candy. Everything about these plump orbs invites you to take them home: their juicy colors, like prism light swollen with nectar; their musky aromas of grass, earth and papaya; and their curvy ripeness, with skins stretched tighter than water balloons.
A summer tomato is, in fact, designed for temptation. We as a species are helpless against its charms.
There are many ways to surrender to this temptation. None of them, fortunately, require a confession afterward. You can slice, salt and devour the fruit right at your kitchen counter, the weekend fling of tomato attraction. You can take a few thin wheels of tomato and press them between toasted slices of bread slathered with mayonnaise, a basic sandwich that proves you love the headline ingredient enough not to smother it completely. You can even surround a tomato with an ensemble cast to better set off its unique attributes. Think of it as a summer stock production of gazpacho or pasta with red sauce, with tomatoes in the lead role.
My own summer romance with tomatoes begins and ends with panzanella, the Tuscan salad with only a few ingredients but a thousand ways to prepare them. “There is a different idea in every household about what panzanella should be, and there is nothing more Italian than that,” said Fabio Trabocchi, the Italian native and chef behind Fiola, Del Mar and other restaurants.
Several years ago, Trabocchi played the role of mentor during my pursuit of the perfect panzanella. I recently had the chance to revisit the recipe, which combined ideas and techniques from several sources, including Trabocchi and J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, the chief culinary adviser for Serious Eats. I have to admit, this one is a keeper.
The recipe works, I think, because it doesn’t try to do too much. It relies on chopped heirloom tomatoes, toasted sourdough bread and a light, slightly pungent “vinaigrette” built from juices drained from the star ingredient. It’s a tomato salad drizzled with a tomato dressing, an endless loop of the summer’s most desirable flavor.
SUMMER TOMATO PANZANELLA
This Tuscan dish should be prepared only in summer, when field tomatoes are at their peak. Look for a variety of ripe heirloom varieties to give your salad color and contrasting flavors.
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Some like to include more bread in their panzanella, treating the torn pieces like pasta. But this version favors the seasonal fruits, making sure their flavors are front and center in both the salad and the simple vinaigrette.
You can also garnish the salad with other herbs, such as mint and marjoram, but go easy on them: They can quickly overwhelm the dish.
Make Ahead: The salted tomatoes need to rest for 20 minutes.
3 cups packed, torn pieces sourdough bread, including crusts
1/4 cup olive oil
2 1/4 pounds ripe heirloom tomatoes, hulled and cut into bite-size wedges
1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt, plus more as needed
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced shallot
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
Freshly cracked black pepper
10 fresh basil leaves, stacked, rolled and cut into very thin slices
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Arrange the bread pieces on a rimmed baking sheet and drizzle them with half of the oil. Toss to coat. Bake for 15 minutes, until the bread is dried and fragrant but not browned. Let cool.
Place the chopped tomatoes in a colander set over a mixing bowl. Sprinkle the tomatoes with the teaspoon of salt; let them drain for about 20 minutes, gently tossing them every few minutes.
Transfer the tomatoes to a serving bowl along with the cooled bread pieces. Toss to incorporate. Reserve the tomato juices in their bowl; there should be at least a half-cup.
Add the garlic, shallot and vinegar to the tomato juices, then gradually whisk in the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil to form a vinaigrette. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Pour over the tomato-bread mixture, just enough to wet the pieces but not soak them. (You may not use all the vinaigrette, but make sure to transfer the minced garlic and shallot, which can collect at the bottom of the bowl.) Use your clean hands to gently toss and coat the tomatoes and bread.
Scatter the basil over the salad and serve right away.
Nutrition | Calories: 200; Total Fat: 10 g; Saturated Fat: 2 g; Cholesterol: 0 mg; Sodium: 390 mg; Carbohydrates: 25 g; Dietary Fiber: 3 g; Sugars: 5 g; Protein: 5 g.
Source: Adapted from recipes by chef-restaurateur Fabio Trabocchi and from J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, culinary director of SeriousEats.com.