People who live in the South, or at least this part of the South, know that Louise Fitzhugh did not invent the tomato sandwich in 1964 when she wrote “Harriet the Spy,” as much as Harriet’s many loyal fans may insist that she did.
But whereas Harriet’s devotion to tomato sandwiches made her a bit of an odd duck on New York’s Upper East Side, here in North Carolina, they are not considered weird or even slightly unusual. They are the taste of summer.
Which is not to say, there aren’t some disagreements on what makes a proper tomato sandwich. The basics, of course, are simple. Tomato, bread and mayonnaise. But the devil is in the details.
The tomato used in a tomato sandwich should be a fresh, “homegrown” tomato, grown in your own garden, scavenged from a friend with a garden or bought at a farmer’s market. Sad, cardboard grocery store tomatoes just don’t cut it.
White bread is usually the bread of choice, generally store-bought Wonder-type bread. Crusts are never trimmed, except for the most finicky of children. Trimming crusts for adults is far too fey for most Southern sensibilities. Besides, the crust of store-bought white bread is soft enough to dissolve in your mouth without chewing.
Virtually everyone agrees on these two ingredients. A few folks prefer homemade bread and it’s entirely possible that somewhere, at some time, someone has preferred whole grain bread, though this has never actually been confirmed. To toast or not to toast is another question involving personal taste that doesn’t arouse too much ire.
But the mayonnaise is a whole other story. Mayonnaise has a level of brand loyalty that defies description. Duke’s people are Duke’s people from cradle to grave. Hellmans, Kraft and JFG fans are almost as fierce and are fiercely united in their disdain of Duke’s. In North Carolina, if a Duke’s Dude were to marry a Hellmans Gal, it’s considered a mixed marriage and the chances for success are low, with the summer being a season of prime discord.
One possible solution might be basil mayonnaise. Torn basil leaves can be mixed into mayonnaise to disguise the signature taste of the underlying brand. And basil and tomato is a marriage made in heaven, even if Duke’s Dude and Kraft Gal is not. Possibly homemade mayonnaise might be investigated if mayonnaise choice seriously threatens family unity.
Some folks do everything possible to avoid any possibility of sogginess. For others, soggy is a desired characteristic, bringing back fond memories of the lunch bags of their youth.
Aside from assembling a tomato sandwich at the last possible moment, buttering the bread seals it against the tomato juices. You can also slice the tomato about 1-2 hours ahead of time, lay them out on a piece of paper towel to get rid of some of the excess moisture and sprinkle the slices with salt. Then just slap them on your bread when you’re ready to make your sandwich.
Lettuce is the most frequent optional ingredient, usually iceberg. A lot of people like to add cheese. And of course, bacon makes it into a BLT.
Ernest Matthew Mickler was probably the first person to feel a recipe was needed for a tomato sandwich and included one in his 1986 cookbook “White Trash Cooking.” He recommended two layers of tomatoes for maximum juiciness and originated the term “Kitchen Sink Tomato Sandwich” for a sandwich that is so messy it needs to be eaten over the sink.
In the spirit of gilding the lily, some recipes follow for variations on tomato sandwiches. Marinating the tomatoes as a sort of tomato salad, charring the tomatoes, ricotta cheese spread onto bread, or bringing garlic or onions into the mix.
Simple Tomato Sandwich
2 slices bread (homemade strongly recommended)
1 medium organic tomato or 1 medium garden tomatoes (room temperature or fresh from the stalk, do not attempt this with pale, store-bought tomatoes)
3 tablespoons Miracle Whip or 3 tablespoons mayonnaise
Tomato Sandwich with Basil Mayonnaise
1 cup good mayonnaise
10 to 15 basil leaves, chopped
1 tsp. kosher salt
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tbsp. good olive oil
1 tsp. minced garlic
2 slices country loaf bread
1 heirloom tomato, sliced
Whisk together the mayonnaise, basil, salt, pepper, lemon juice, olive oil and garlic. Spread the mayonnaise mixture on the top of 2 slices of bread. Place the sliced tomato on top of one bread slice. Place the remaining slice of bread, mayonnaise side down, on top of the tomato. Cut the sandwich in half and serve.
Grilled Bread with Ricotta and Tomatoes
1 garlic clove
1 tbsp. red wine vinegar
6 tbsp. olive oil, divided
¾ pound assorted small tomatoes, halved, quartered if large
Freshly ground black pepper
8 slices ¾”-thick country-style bread
1 cup (loosely packed) coarsely chopped mixed tender herbs (such as basil, parsley, small dill sprigs, and/or chives)
10 oz. whole-milk ricotta
Finely chop garlic, sprinkle with a pinch of salt, then mash with the side of knife to a fine paste. Transfer to a medium bowl and whisk in vinegar and 2 Tbsp. oil. Add tomatoes; season with salt and pepper and toss to coat. Let sit, tossing occasionally, at least 15 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare grill for medium-high heat. Brush both sides of bread with remaining 4 Tbsp. oil and grill until lightly charred, about 2 minutes per side. Just before serving, toss herbs with tomato mixture. Spread ricotta on toast and top with tomato mixture; cut toast in half. (Tomato mixture before adding herbs can be made 12 hours ahead. Cover and chill.)
Charred Caprese Sandwich
½ cup mayonnaise
2 tsp. Dijon mustard
1 tsp. fresh lemon juice
1 large shallot, thinly sliced into rings
1 garlic clove, finely grated
3 tbsp. red wine vinegar
½ baguette, split in half lengthwise
4 tbsp. olive oil, divided
3 cups cherry tomatoes
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup (packed) torn basil leaves
½ cup (loosely packed) parsley leaves with tender stems
½ tsp. finely grated lemon zest
4 ounces fresh mozzarella, torn into pieces
Crushed red pepper flakes (for serving)
Mix mayonnaise, mustard, and lemon juice in a small bowl; season with salt. Toss shallot, garlic, and vinegar in another small bowl; season with salt. Let sit 10 minutes. Drain, reserving shallots and vinegar separately in small bowls. Prepare a grill for medium-high heat. Brush cut sides of bread with 2 Tbsp. oil total and grill until lightly charred, about 2 minutes per side. (Or broil bread halves, cut side up, until lightly charred, about 2 minutes.) Season with salt; let cool. Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high (you can do this directly on the grill grates or on a burner). Toss tomatoes with remaining 2 Tbsp. oil and cook, shaking pan often, until tomatoes are blistered and lightly charred, about 3 minutes. Add tomatoes to bowl with reserved vinegar; season with salt and pepper. Let cool slightly, then add basil, parsley, and lemon zest and toss gently to combine. Taste and season with salt and pepper as needed. Spread both halves of baguette with mayonnaise mixture. Top with mozzarella, tomato salad, and shallots, and sprinkle with red pepper flakes. (Mayonnaise can be made 3 days ahead. Cover and chill.)
Based on pan con tomate, this sandwich involves rubbing the guts of a ripe tomato all over garlicky toasted bread.
4 slices crusty country bread
1 fat garlic clove, halved crosswise
1 ripe and soft tomato, halved
Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling
Flaky sea salt
Mayonnaise, as needed
1 ripe but firm tomato, sliced
Thinly sliced white onion
4 slices cooked bacon (optional)
Toast the bread. Take each slice and rub one side all over with the cut side of the garlic clove. (The clove should start to disintegrate into the bread.) Rub each slice with the cut sides of the soft halved tomato, pressing so the tomato flesh sticks to the bread. Drizzle bread with oil, then sprinkle with salt. Spread mayonnaise over the tomato pulp. Place the sliced tomatoes on top of 2 pieces of the bread. Cover tomato slices with onions and sprinkle with salt. Top with bacon if using, then use the other 2 slices of tomato-rubbed bread to make sandwiches.
Broiled Tomato Sandwich
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
4 ripe tomatoes, sliced
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
1/2 teaspoon dried parsley
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese, divided
4 slices bread, lightly toasted
Preheat oven to broil. In a shallow bowl, whisk together the olive oil and vinegar. Marinate the tomatoes in the mixture, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine mayonnaise, parsley, oregano, black pepper and 4 teaspoons Parmesan cheese. Spread mixture on each slice of toasted bread. Place marinated tomatoes on 2 slices and sprinkle with remaining Parmesan cheese. Place on a baking sheet and broil for 5 minutes, or until cheese turns golden brown. Serve immediately, open faced or closed.
All ingredients should be at room temperature.
1 egg yolk
2 tsp. cider vinegar
2/3 cup rapeseed oil
¼ tsp. hot mustard
Put the egg yolk in the bowl. Whisk it for a minute or so until it is sticky and has bubbles. Add one teaspoon of the vinegar and whisk again until combined. Put your oil into a jug or bottle that is easy to control. Start dribbling the oil into the egg yolk, one drop at a time, whisking continuously. Keep whisking until the egg and oil mix resembles thick cream. Once it does, you can start being a little more generous with the oil, adding up to a teaspoon at a time. When you have about 2 tbsp of oil left, add the second teaspoon of vinegar. Whisk well. The consistency should be thick and spreadable, and stiff enough to hold the pattern that forms when you drag the whisk through it. If it is not quite there, gradually add as much of the extra oil as you need. Try the mayonnaise and add mustard, pepper and salt to taste.
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Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.