It’s Finally, Blessedly, Tomato Sandwich Season

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It’s Finally, Blessedly, Tomato Sandwich Season

Just as the summer temperatures reach their peak, so does the freshness of the tomatoes at your local farmers market. The beads of sweat roll down your back as you carry the swollen red orbs home, carefully protecting their easily punctured flesh from harm before you finally make that first delicious slice, the pale pink juice dribbling over the side of the cutting board.

The wait is finally, finally over. Gone are the sandy, barely ripened tomatoes of late spring. If you’re lucky and you live in a warmer climate, you’ve already been enjoying tomatoes for several weeks at this point. But for those of us in the Northeast and other cooler climates, tomato season is just beginning. The season is, admittedly, short-lived, so when the tasteless red fruit suddenly becomes ultra-ripe and sweet in the middle of July, I feel inclined to enjoy tomatoes as much as possible before the first frost of the fall.

In the winter, I use canned tomatoes for cooking, but in the summer, I’m all about the raw tomatoes—the fresh, bold flavor of midsummer tomatoes is too precious to waste on a bolognese or stew I could make any day of the year. Often, I just slice them, sprinkle on the sea salt and the cracked black pepper and enjoy in the stifling heat of my un-air conditioned kitchen, but I truly believe that the best way to enjoy the summer tomato bounty is by making a tomato sandwich.

Slapping tomato slices between two pieces of bread isn’t solely a U.S. American phenomenon, but the white bread, mayo-slathered version of the sandwich is a Southern classic. One of the first recorded references to this kind of sandwich dates back to 1911, when it was mentioned in the Virginia Chronicle. Since then, U.S. Southerners have been bringing together three main ingredients—garden-fresh tomatoes, white bread and mayonnaise—for simple but delicious results. It’s the ideal quick summer lunch, but it’s also great for those evenings when the heat lasts well past 6 p.m. and the thought of cooking anything with heat turns your stomach.

The tomato sandwich is often compared to the BLT, which is perhaps less location-specific than the simple Southern classic. And although I love a BLT, the tomato sandwich is so perfect specifically because of its simplicity. The fattiness of the bacon and the freshness of the lettuce in a BLT both complements and competes with the tomato. In a BLT, you can get away with using sub-par tomatoes, while a tomato sandwich requires the best quality tomatoes you can find. BLTs certainly have their place, but they’re not ideal for showcasing the red fruit at its finest.

Your Guide to Building the Tomato Sandwich of Your Dreams

Whether you grew up eating tomato sandwiches and just want to revisit the classic or you’re constructing the very first tomato sandwich of your life, you may be wondering how best to make your sandwich dreams a reality. The first factor to consider, of course, is the tomatoes themselves.

The fresher you can get, the better. If you have the space, time and patience, growing your own tomatoes almost always yields the best results. If you’ve ever enjoyed a tomato fresh from the garden, you’ll know that the flavor and intensity is unmatched; you simply can’t get the same quality from a grocery store tomato that’s been shipped across the country. In absence of a garden-fresh tomato, your local farmers market is likely to have some of the best tomatoes you can get your hands on. Your last choice should be the grocery store, but if you’re buying in season, you should still be able to find relatively good-quality tomatoes there as well.

The next step is picking out your mayo. I grew up with Hellman’s, but some swear by Duke’s. These days, I usually have Kewpie mayo stocked in my fridge, and I’ve found that this particularly rich, egg yolk-based mayonnaise is especially delicious when it’s paired with the juiciest of tomatoes. Whatever type of mayo you decide to use, make sure to spread it on thick.

Finally, we come to the bread. Plain white bread is a classic, but any type of soft bread, like brioche, will do. It’s important to only assemble the sandwich right before you’re ready to eat it, as the juices from the tomatoes will quickly begin to leak into the bread, rendering it soggy in a matter of minutes.

When I was a kid, my parents would always top our tomato sandwiches with salt and pepper, and that simplicity really makes the tomatoes shine. However, if you’re looking for more flavor, you might want to switch up the additional ingredients. Eric Kim recently published a tomato sandwich recipe for NYT Cooking that calls for furikake, the MSG in which really makes the bold flavors of the tomato pop. If you’re looking for some heat and texture, chili crisp can be an exciting addition, although the effect is slightly less cooling than the salt-and-pepper version.

Of course, you shouldn’t be afraid to experiment with your tomato sandwich, but don’t feel like you have to. The best, freshest tomatoes of summer will speak for themselves.

Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.

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