A Perfect Tomato Sandwich
Of all the seasonal produce that I wax poetic about in these pages, nothing gives me goose bumps like a ripe summer tomato.
Meaty and succulent, its velvety flesh enclosing a fragrant jelly of golden seeds and dripping with sweet pink juice, a summer tomato is everything its cold-weather counterparts isn’t, including cheap and abundant.
In August, farmer stands are rich with them, laid out on tables like a resplendent mosaic in shades of red and orange, yellow and gold, even purple, black and green. Stunning to look at, better to eat.
And I use them in nearly everything – anything that would benefit from a sweet jolt of tomato juiciness, be it a cold, gazpacho-like soup or a warm, buttery tart.
But of all the glorious tomato possibilities, I will stand by this statement: nothing, and I mean nothing, beats a good, old tomato sandwich.
Tomato sandwiches and I go way back. I've always had a fondness for them ever since I read Harriet the Spy in 3rd grade. Unlike Harriet, who likes hers on soft white bread, I like mine on toast to give it some crunch (and stave off the soggy factor). The toast, along with the tomatoes, is the only constant element in what is an ever-changing sandwich. I vary the fat (there has to be fat to bring out the flavor of the tomato), swap up the seasonings (salt, pepper, garlic, smoked paprika), and add in whatever little savory extras I’ve got on hand.
Given my predilection for variation, it’s hard for me to pin down an exact recipe. But I’m going to try, because sometimes it’s nice to have a plan before attacking a tomato in a ravenous fog. The recipe below makes a simple sandwich that doesn’t seem like much on paper, but believe me, when made with a couple of bursting-with-juice, heirloom tomatoes that have never seen a fridge, good crusty, firm bread, creamery butter that tastes like sunshine, and a generous sprinkle of crunchy sea salt, it’s about the most perfect thing a person could eat on a sultry August afternoon. Or morning. Or night. A tomato sandwich is wonderful anytime – anytime in tomato season, that is.
2 slices crusty bread with a dense crumb
1 or 2 ripe tomatoes, depending upon how big the tomatoes are, how hungry you are, and how large your bread slices are
At least 1 tablespoon good butter
Flaky sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Toast the bread until crunchy and golden. While it’s toasting, slice the tomatoes, taking out the brown core.
2. As soon as the toast is ready, spread it thickly with the butter. And I mean thickly, using at least a tablespoon and probably a lot more. I use about a tablespoon and a half, but then again my bread slices are on the commodious side. If the butter isn’t salted, sprinkle a little salt on top, then top with the tomatoes. You can overlap them or not, depending on how thickly you’ve sliced them.
3. Sprinkle the tomatoes with salt and grind on some fresh black pepper. Eat with your hands. A knife and fork here diminishes the tactile pleasure.
- Don’t use ciabatta or the tomato jelly will fall through those characteristic holes. And you want all that good stuff in your mouth.
- Other than that you can use any bread that you like, and I’ve probably used every type of bread under the New York City sun, including challah (sweet and eggy), cinnamon raisin, seeded rye, pumpernickel, and every kind of whole grain imaginable. My favorite is a slightly sour rye loaf without seeds that I get from Balthazar Bakery.
- If there is fresh ricotta in the house, I use it in place of the butter, dolloping it on the warm bread in thick, lush spoonfuls.
- If your tomatoes are one the flabby side, flavor wise, you can add a squirt of lemon juice, but don’t overdo it.
- I make a cherry tomato version of this when they are the only kind of tomatoes I have on hand. The trick is to halve them, and then place them, cut side down, on the bread so they don’t roll off.
A Dish By Another Name
- For Pan con Tomate - I wrote about this a few years ago in my New York Times column and it's still a favorite: toast bread, rub with a cut garlic half. Drizzle with good olive oil, add tomato slices, more oil (be generous here), and a generous sprinkling of flaky sea salt. This is one to eat over the sink.
- For Tomato, Avocado, and Mayo - Toast bread, rub with a cut garlic half. Spread with mayonnaise, layer with avocado and tomato, drizzle with lemon juice and good salt and lots of black pepper. Butter or olive oil can stand in for the mayo.
- For Tomato, Onion, and Butter - Toast dark, grainy bread, spread liberally with good, flavorful butter. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Layer with tomato and thinly sliced sweet onion or slivers of scallion. Decorate with chives if you have them.
- For Tomato, Anchovy, Olive Oil - Add anchovy fillets to the Pan con Tomate.
- For Tomato, Prosciutto and Butter - Toast a halved baguette. Spread thickly with butter, add tomatoes, salt, pepper, prosciutto, and basil.