The Best Tomato Salad

Saying something is “the best” is entirely subjective and a bit pretentious, I know. But in reference to food, when you start with pristine ingredients, you can be 1000% assured that your humble opinion is absolutely correct. Tomatoes are one food you should be pretentious about. Don’t settle for they hybridized red ones that are available all year long. Find a farmer or green-thumbed gardening friend that has planted heirlooms and in the height of summer, beg them for some. You, then, too can have “the best tomato salad”.

I know so many people who say they don’t like tomatoes. What they don’t like, for the most part, is the mealy, pinkish-red slice that comes on a burger or the bland wedge on a mediocre restaurant salad. That was my husband. Then one day we were at themarket in Nice, France picking up a few items for a beachside picnic. I found tiny red cherry tomatoes still on the vine and though he protested, we got them anyway. As we were sitting on the pebbly beach, he tried the first one and said something like “I never thought I liked tomatoes, but I like these.” What was the difference?

It was the first time I realized that this fruit — and we all know by now that it is truly a fruit, bioligically speaking, right? — had not seen it’s true realization. Most restaurants and grocery stores only sold the tomatoes that are mass produced and exactly the right size. They might have ventured out with a few cherry tomatoes but that was it. They were all picked early then gassed in a truck to get them where they needed to be and refrigerated to keep their shelf life longer once they got there.

After first experiencing those really great tomatoes in Nice, I had a memory of eating the red and even the odd yellow tomatoes — my grandmother was ahead of her time — as part of a garden meal at my grandmother’s house. The tomatoes were a highlight to me because, as most people did back then, she overcooked all the other veggies from her gigantic garden. But the tomatoes were juicy, somewhat sweet and acidic. I didn’t process all these terms as a kid, I just knew I liked them, but I still can remember the flavor and as an adult now have the words to put with it.

I began to realize that tomatoes had to be straight off the vine and at the height of their season, otherwise they would just not taste right. This year I planted heirlooms (using plants from my favorite tomato guru Brad Gates in California) and though my harvests have been somewhat sparse, I have been lucky enough to eat several meals of tomatoes. I’m not making bucketloads of salsa or canning tomato sauce, but I’m still satisfied. I did break down and buy one box of tomatoes that were not straight off the vine only because of where they were from…Riverdog Farm!!

If you have read my blog for a long time (and for those of you that have, thanks!) you know that I was the happy host in my California town for the Riverdog Farm CSA. I got a beautiful box of freshly picked veggies from their farm every week for 6 years! I got to know the owners and the workers. I loved them all, my kids loved visiting their farm every year for the harvest dinner and best of all I loved the Christmas-like experience I had every Thursday morning! My kids even got into it and ate veggies like nobody’s business. Tomato season was always a highlight because we would get a few large, usually misshapen but colorful heirloom tomatoes and a bag of tiny, multicolored tiny tomatoes. I saw in my weekly Central Market ad thta they were featuring Riverdog cherry tomatoes and after immediately emailing my friends at the farm proceeded to go out and buy them!

This salad is a celebration of both my freshly picked yellow heirloom and the beautiful multi-colored babies from Riverdog. It only has a few accoutrements to make you feel like you are having a meal more substantial than you would get hanging out in a Brad’s tomato patch — basil mayo, a wedge of blue cheese, basil (with a few purple basil flowers thrown into the mix) and straight up olive oil with a few drops of aged balsamic.  Cracked pepper and pink salt are the only seasonings. It’s that simple. No cooking is involved. A piece of gluten free bread is the perfect way to get all the juices that have mingled with the olive oil.

My method of eating this beautiful plate of food is to spread a bit of the mayo on a corner of bread and top it with a few tomatoes. It’s a bite-by-bite old school tomato sandwich with a twist. There really is no recipe for this, as most simple things to, it’s purely intuitive and inspired by what you see. But I will give to you what I did in bullets just to make your inspiration come easier:

  • Mix chopped basil with mayo
  • Schmear a little on plate.
  • Arrange tomatoes artfully on the plate along with a wedge of blue cheese, a few torn pieces of fresh mozzarella or a small disk of burrata (cream filled fresh mozzarella)
  • Drizzle with olive oil and balsamic
  • Sprinkle with salt and pepper
  • Tuck in some fresh basil
  • Eat with toasted baguette

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