The tomato and three of the best BLTs

Aug. 24, 2021
A photo of a tomato
The tomato, botanically a fruit, is the ‘great American vegetable,’ and can help make the best BLTs. Photo: Getty Images.

Before the year 1600, no recipes existed — anywhere — for these: spaghetti with tomato sauce, Caprese salad, red gazpacho, tabbouleh, Israeli salad, chicken tikka masala, fried green tomatoes, cream of tomato soup, ketchup, pico de gallo, chicken paprikash or, alas, the tomato sandwich.

When I give talks on the history of Italian cuisine and mention that there were eons in the kitchens of Rome before the Italians figured out what to do with the tomato, few believe me.

‘Twas the Maya who first figured out what to do with the tomato 2,000 years before the year 1600, but that seems harder to swallow than anything from Chef Boyardee.

In truth, the tomato is the great American vegetable. (Botanically it is a fruit, a berry, though culinarily we consider it a vegetable.)

The tomato got to Europe in the holds of ships sailing East after Columbus, thence to the Pacific and into Asia and India via the Philippines and the Spanish conquering westerly from the New World. It is part of the Colombian Exchange, that vast interchange of foods that the globe experienced only after 1492.

A photo of a BLT sandwich
The BLT is perhaps America’s greatest sandwich. Photo: Getty Images.

The North American colonies didn’t even obtain the tomato from its native (what we now call) Mexico; it came to us from British settlers here. And from the likes of Thomas Jefferson, who planted tomatoes at Monticello in 1781. Long into the 19th century, for many Europeans including Italians, the tomato was an ornamental bush, often grown indoors for its aromatic leaves. It was not food.

But mamma mia, did that change when people got over their fear of it (it’s a member of the oft-poisonous nightshade family) and started eating it. Globally, it is now the second most popular “vegetable” after the potato, and a foodstuff extraordinarily high in glutamate for that umami, savory-juicy taste that keeps us baptizing other foods with ketchup. (It also is very high in vitamin C and in the antioxidant carotenoid lycopene.)

Cooking tips for tomatoes:

– Removing the skin, seeds and jelly, a common practice, before cooking raw tomatoes results in concentrating the fruit’s sugars. Keep that in mind when balancing tastes; perhaps putting some of the jelly into the pot might be a wise idea.

– Adding a tad of both sugar and acid (say, a squeeze of lemon) to a tomato-based dish ratchets up the intensity of overall tomato flavor.

– You also might consider adding a few tomato leaves, should you have any (especially homegrown) to your tomato sauce or masala. The prominent oil glands on the leaves contain enzymes that also intensify overall tomato flavor. Tomato leaves are tender, fragrant and eminently edible.

– Do not refrigerate fresh tomatoes; that doesn’t just retard flavor development, it kills it. Allow them to ripen fully on the counter. If, to avoid spoilage, you do refrigerate a fully ripe tomato, bring it back to life outside the refrigerator for a day or two. It will return to a semblance of its old self.

– The salt and preservative calcium chloride in many canned (especially cut-up) tomatoes isn’t dangerous at all, but it firms up the cell walls of the tomato and keeps the mash from becoming mushy. So, it keeps doing that even when the canned tomatoes are cooked, interfering with the breakdown of the tomatoes into a sauce-like form. If you want smooth, go for processed tomatoes free of forms of calcium.

This is the perfect time of the year to think about the tomato. It’s just so dang delicious when plucked off its aromatic bush or vine, bitten into, its sweet-tart jelly run down your chin. Few fruits of the garden contain so much sugar or electrifying acidity; they’re magic.

The best BLT

The three recipes here are three turns on the tomato’s awesomeness, spelled in three letters: B, L and T.

Get more tips and recipes from Bill St. John.

We begin with the bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich. It rings all the right taste bells: crispness and acidity enfolded in juiciness (tomato), fat and salt (bacon) and umami (tomato and bacon). It even provides a fine background canvas (bread and lettuce) against which all these tasties display their best.

What a sandwich. The best of them all?

Then there is a liquid version of the same, a gazpacho adorned with pieces of crisped pork, a kind of bacon as it were. Finally, a classic Italian salad, the panzanella, this time with some pancetta (more bacon, ha) added for more awesomeness.

Baguette BLTs, an American favorite

Makes 4 sandwiches

Ingredients

1/2 pound thick-cut smoked bacon

1/3 cup mayonnaise

2 tablespoons minced fresh basil

2 large ripe tomatoes, peeled, if desired, and thinly sliced

Several red or green leaf lettuce leaves

1 long or 2 short baguette(s), split horizontally

Directions

Place the bacon in a large skillet over medium-high heat; cook, turning occasionally, until crisp and brown on both sides, about 6 minutes. Remove from pan; drain on paper towels.

Mix mayonnaise with fresh basil in a bowl. Spread evenly onto open sides of baguette(s). Arrange tomatoes on one side. Layer with bacon slices and lettuce leaves. Place other side of baguette on each. Slice on an angle to create 4 sandwiches.

Gazpacho with crispy prosciutto, a different version of a BLT

Serves 6-10, depending on portion size

Ingredients

6-8 slices prosciutto

2 cups firm-crumbed bread, crustless, cubed

1/2 cup water

5 ripe, medium tomatoes, peeled and chopped

1/2 English or 1-2 Persian cucumber(s), peeled and chopped

4 leaves romaine lettuce

1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped

1/2 large white onion, peeled and chopped

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar or rice vinegar

3 cloves garlic

Directions

Make the crispy prosciutto: preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Place a wire rack on a large baking sheet. (Alternatively, if you don’t have a rack, you can roast the prosciutto on a parchment-lined baking sheet.) Arrange the prosciutto slices in a single layer on the rack and roast until quite crisp, 6-8 minutes. Roughly crumble the prosciutto and set it aside.

Make the gazpacho: Place the bread and water in a bowl and let the mixture rest for 10-12 minutes, or until the bread has absorbed most or all the water.
Transfer the bread mixture to a very large bowl; add all the remaining ingredients and toss everything to combine well. In the bowl of food processor or blender, purée everything until smooth. (It may be necessary to do this in batches.) Using a sieve or china cap, strain the gazpacho over another large bowl, unless you prefer a slightly coarse soup.

Cover and refrigerate for 3 hours until very well chilled. (Gazpacho may be prepared up to 8 hours ahead. Keep covered and refrigerated.) To serve, ladle gazpacho into chilled bowls or cups, topped with the crumbled crispy prosciutto.

Panzanella, a classic Italian BLT salad

The salted and drained tomato water is a terrific backbone for the vinaigrette. Toasting fresh, thick-crumbed bread in the oven is a tastier alternative to the traditional panzanella recipe asking for stale bread. Makes 4 servings as a main course.

Ingredients

2 pounds ripe tomatoes, peeled and roughly cut into 3/4-inch pieces

2 teaspoons kosher salt

4 large leaves romaine lettuce

6 cups rustic bread, such as ciabatta, cut into 1-inch cubes (most if not all a loaf)

10 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

1 small shallot, minced (about 2 tablespoons)

2 cloves garlic, minced (about 2 teaspoons)

1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons white or red wine vinegar

Freshly ground black pepper

3/4 pound thick-cut pancetta, sliced, cooked and roughly crumbled

1/2 cup packed basil leaves, cut into chiffonade

Directions

Place tomatoes in a colander set over a bowl and season with the kosher salt. Toss to coat. Set aside at room temperature to drain, tossing occasionally, while you toast the bread. Drain for a minimum of 15 minutes.

Remove the “rib” from each leaf of lettuce by slicing away the leaf on each side and chop the ribs into 3/4-inch lengths. Roughly rip up the leaves into small pieces. Set both aside.

Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350 degrees and adjust rack to center position. In a large bowl, toss bread cubes with 2 tablespoons olive oil. Transfer to a rimmed baking sheet. Bake until crisp and firm but not browned, about 15 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool.

Remove colander with tomatoes from bowl with tomato juice, setting the colander where it still may safely drip. To the bowl with the tomato juices, add shallot, garlic, mustard and vinegar. Whisking constantly, drizzle in the remaining 8 tablespoons olive oil. Season dressing to taste with salt and pepper.

In a large bowl, combine the toasted bread with tomatoes from the colander, the lettuces, crumbled bacon and the dressing. Add basil leaves. Toss everything to coat and season with more salt and pepper, if necessary. Let the panzanella rest for 30 minutes before serving, tossing once or twice more until dressing is completely absorbed by the bread.

Reach Bill St. John at billstjohn@gmail.com

About the author

For more than 40 years, Bill St. John’s specialties have been as varied as they are cultured. He writes and teaches about restaurants, wine, food & wine, the history of the cuisines of several countries (France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and the USA), about religion and its nexus with food, culture, history, or philosophy, and on books, travel, food writing, op-ed, and language.

Bill has lent (and lends) his subject matter expertise to such outlets as The Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune, 5280 Magazine, and for various entities such as food markets, wine shops, schools & hospitals, and, for its brief life, Microsoft’s sidewalk.com. In 2001 he was nominated for a James Beard Award in Journalism for his 12 years of writing for Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Bill's experience also includes teaching at Regis University and the University of Chicago and in classrooms of his own devising; working as on-air talent with Denver's KCNC-TV, where he scripted and presented a travel & lifestyle program called "Wine at 45"; a one-week stint as a Trappist monk; and offering his shoulder as a headrest for Julia Child for 20 minutes.

Bill has also visited 54 countries, 42 of the United States, and all 10 Canadian provinces.

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