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Recipes and Stories

24 July 2020: Tomato Sandwiches

English-style tomato sandwiches for afternoon tea, the kind one can enjoy without straining ones social graces or staining one's good clothes.

 

This time of year, there's an awful lot of deeply opinionated nonsense written about one of summer's simplest and greatest pleasures: tomato sandwiches.

 

Among the silliest are the "we're just plain folks" types who claim that it must be made with gummy white loaf bread that sticks to the roof of one's mouth and is so insubstantial that a slice of it will compress to a peanut-sized nugget, and that it must squirt and run all over one's arms and shirt.

 

That's just about all that they seem to agree upon: Some authoritatively insist that the crust may never be trimmed off, others that it must always be removed, some that the tomato must be the size of a rib-steak and hang out the edges while others allow nothing thicker or larger than the bread itself. There are proponents of the dictum that the tomato must be peeled, others that it should never, ever be peeled.

 

And then there's the mayonnaise (which is taken for granted): Each has a specific commercial brand that is the One True Condiment for Tomato Sandwiches, and God Help You if you stray from it.

 

Well. There are only two things that a tomato sandwich "must" be: made the way you like it, and with good, truly vine-ripened, tart-sweet tomatoes. And if standing over the sink to eat supper is not your idea of a good time, why, there's no reason at all for you to have to do it.

 

Frankly, I never cared for bread that gummed between my teeth and stuck to the roof of my mouth, not even as a child. It made tolerable cinnamon toast but that was it. I put up with it because there was a sweet tomato inside. And as long as there was some of that in every bite, I didn't care if it hung out of the bread, was thick or thin, peeled or not.

 

Neither my mother nor my grandmothers made mayonnaise, so the one that was slathered onto those sandwiches was store-bought. But I also never cared what kind it was, because (1) I really didn't much care for mayonnaise until I started making my own and (2) what we used at home was whatever was on sale and my grandmothers were devoted to two different brands, so the tomato sandwiches of my youth, even over the course of a single month in the summer, rarely had the same one in it.

 

As for the messy part, I never minded that: I was a kid, and, as I say, there was a sweet tomato involved. Besides, it wasn't as if it was going to get on my shirt because it was summer and I wasn't wearing one.

 

So. To all the authorities on what a tomato sandwich must be, here's a startling bit of news for you: The South is not the only place in the world where this quintessential bite of summer is enjoyed, and it doesn't have a patent on The One True Way to make a perfect one. And while you all know that I love you more than my luggage, I must point out that neither, my dears, does any one person—myself included.

 

I get that we're all looking for comfort, especially in these difficult days of pandemic, social and political upheaval, unrelenting heat, and oppressive humidity. But we all find comfort in different ways, and it won't help a thing for us to try to cram our brand of comfort down the throats of either our loved ones or our enemies.

 

I'm not suggesting that you shouldn't have opinions about something as personal as your own supper, only that you and your neighbors will be a lot happier if you keep those opinions to yourself.

 

Meanwhile, here are some of my own favorite variations of that loveliest of all summer sandwiches. No single one of them is better than the other, but each one has its moment when it's perfect, because in that moment it was just exactly what was wanted.

 

English Afternoon Tea Tomato Sandwiches

 

Tomato sandwiches have long been a fixture of formal afternoon tea. As you might guess, it's not an occasion that would allow one to show up shirtless nor to retire to the kitchen sink with one's sandwich. Therefore moisture-rich fillings must first be divested of some of that moisture so that they don't slip or drip, making the sandwiches relatively neat but no less delicious.

 

One secret for tomatoes is that instead of slicing them crosswise, cut them vertically so that they stay in one neat piece in the sandwich, making it far less likely that it will slide out.

 

Serves 2

 

1 medium ripe tomato

Sea or kosher salt

Sugar

4 thin slices firm sandwich bread

About 1½-2 tablespoons softened butter

Whole black or white pepper in a mill

 

1. Peel the tomatoes with a vegetable peeler, core them, and cut them lengthwise into wedges. Remove the seeds and juice and put them, skin-side-down, in a colander or wire mesh sieve. Lightly sprinkle them with salt and sugar and set in the sink to drain for at least 10 minutes.

 

2. Meanwhile, trim the crust from the bread and spread one side of each slice with butter. Lightly sprinkle the buttered side with pepper. If you're using unsalted butter, you may also season it lightly with salt.

 

3. Gently press the tomatoes flat, wipe them with dry paper towels, then again gently press them to remove any excess moisture. Cover the buttered side of 2 slices of bread with tomato and then cover them with the remaining bread, buttered side down. Gently press and then cut each sandwich in half with a serrated knife. They can be made up to an hour ahead and covered with a damp kitchen towel.

 

An Old-Fashioned Southern-Style Tomato Sandwich

 

If you've never had a tomato sandwich with homemade mayonnaise, well, you should have at least one in your life—that's all I'm saying.

 

Serves 2

 

1 large, ripe tomato

Sea or kosher salt

Sugar

4 thick slices firm white sandwich bread

Mayonnaise, preferably Homemade (recipe follows below)

Whole black pepper in a mill

 

1. This step will make the process of eating the sandwich a little less messy and it doesn't take a thing away from the flavor. Core the tomato and, if you like, peel it with a vegetable peeler. Slice it crosswise slightly less than half-an-inch thick and remove the seeds from each slice. Spread them on a colander or wire-mesh sieve and lightly sprinkle both sides with salt and the tiniest bit of sugar. Set them in the sink for at least 10-15 minutes.

 

2. Wipe the tomatoes with dry paper towels and pat them dry. Spread one side of each slice of bread lightly with mayonnaise.

 

3. Cover the mayonnaise side of 2 pieces of bread with tomato slices in one layer and season them very lightly with salt and pepper. Cover the tomatoes with the remaining bread, mayonnaise-side-in. If you like, cut them in half (either down the center or on the diagonal—your choice). They're best eaten right away, but can be held for half an hour or so covered with a damp kitchen towel.

 

 

A Classic BLT

 

When I used to visit my maternal grandparents as a child, my grandmother would take me shopping in downtown Anderson and we'd go to Woolworth's lunch counter for BLTs.  They're still one of my favorite sandwiches.

 

Serves 2

 

1 large, ripe tomato

Sea or kosher salt

Sugar

2-4 leaves crisp lettuce

4 thick slices firm white or whole wheat sandwich bread, your choice

Mayonnaise, preferably Homemade (recipe follows below)

Whole black pepper in a mill

5 slices crisp-cooked bacon

 

1. Core the tomato and, if you like, peel it with a vegetable peeler. Slice it crosswise slightly less than half-an-inch thick and remove the seeds from each slice. Spread them on a colander or wire-mesh sieve and lightly sprinkle both sides with salt and the tiniest bit of sugar. Set them in the sink for at least 10-15 minutes. Wash, drain, and pat the lettuce dry.

 

2. Wipe the tomatoes with dry paper towels and pat them dry. Dry toast the bread (either in a toaster or under the broiler about 6 inches below the heat source) and spread one side of each slice lightly with mayonnaise.

 

3. You can add the bacon, lettuce, and tomato in any order, so don't feel bound to what I suggest here. Some like to have the bacon on the bottom, some between the tomatoes and lettuce, and some like it on top, so suit yourself. Break the bacon into pieces roughly the same length as the bread and cover the mayonnaise side of 2 pieces of toast with them. Top the bacon with sliced tomatoes and season them very lightly with salt and pepper. Cover the tomatoes with 1-2 lettuce leaves and top them with the remaining toast, mayonnaise-side-in. Cut them in half on the diagonal, and serve at once.

 

Homemade Mayonnaise

 

I really don't know why anyone who owns a food processor wouldn't make their own mayonnaise. The machine does all the work and it's so much better than any store-bought brand.

 

Makes 1½ Cups

 

2 large egg yolks or 1 whole large egg

1 teaspoon dry mustard or 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

Salt and cayenne pepper

1 cup olive oil

Juice of 1 lemon or 2 tablespoons wine or cider vinegar

 

Hand or Mixer Method:

 

1. Put the yolks or whole egg in a mixing bowl with the mustard, a healthy pinch of salt, and a tiny pinch of cayenne, both to taste. With a wire whisk or hand-held mixer fitted with a whisk set on medium speed, beat until the mixture is smooth.

 

2. Have the oil ready in a container that has a good pouring spout. Pour a teaspoon of oil into the yolk mixture and whisk until it's incorporated. Begin adding the remaining oil a few drops at a time, whisking until each addition is thoroughly incorporated before adding more. Keep at it until you have used about half the oil.

 

3. Add a little of the lemon juice or vinegar and whisk it in, then alternate between adding vinegar and oil until both are completely incorporated into the sauce. Taste and adjust the seasonings. Keep the sauce cold until you are ready to serve it.

 

Food Processor Method:

 

1. The sauce is less likely to break in this method if you use a whole egg instead of yolks. Put the egg, mustard, a healthy pinch of salt, a tiny one of cayenne, and lemon juice or vinegar in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Cover and process 1 minute.

 

2. With the processor motor running, add the oil in a thin, steady stream. It'll take about 2 minutes; don't add the oil too fast or it might break the sauce. When the oil is incorporated, let process for a few seconds more, then stop the machine, taste and adjust the seasonings, and pulse a couple of times to mix them in.

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