Even though fresh local tomatoes start popping up at the market in July, they don't really hit their peak until August — and that's when I get happy.
The tomato is absolutely my favorite vegetable (even if it's technically a berry). This crispy tomato salad combines cooked tomatoes and raw tomatoes, the large guys and the small guys. You can call it a medley but I think of it as a party.
Before we start to cook these fellas, let's take a minute to talk about buying and storing them.
How do you know if a tomato is worth buying? Fragrance is everything. Out-of-season supermarket tomatoes have zero aroma. If you put your nose to the stem of a given specimen and it smells like a tomato, you're home free. As for color, a tomato doesn't have to be red from top to bottom to be good to go; it continues to ripen after it's been picked from the vine. How to store them? Put your tomatoes on the counter out of the sun. Don't refrigerate them. It will kill their taste.
I like to maximize the flavor of a ripe tomato by using a salt soak. After you've sliced your tomato, sprinkle it with salt and let it drain for at least 20 minutes. Salt not only pulls out excess water, it also intensifies the tomato essence. I salt my tomatoes this way before adding them to any salad.
This recipe is my take on Fried Green Tomatoes, a classic of Southern cuisine. The standard recipe features unripe tomatoes coated in cornmeal and deep-fried. Here we're working with ripe tomatoes, not green ones, and sautéing them, not frying them. How ripe is ripe? Not so ripe that they've gone soft. You want them to be firm. The ripe ones hold together better when cooked.
The salad is finished with a simple buttermilk dressing made with mayonnaise, buttermilk, garlic and fresh herbs. Which herbs? I've suggested a mix of tarragon, parsley and chives, but the tomato goes equally well with just about any herb under the sun, so feel free to sub in your own favorites.
Sara Moulton is host of public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals." She was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years and spent a decade hosting Food Network shows including "Cooking Live." Her latest cookbook is "HomeCooking 101."
Crispy Tomato Salad with Buttermilk Ranch Dressing
Start to finish: 1 hour (40 minutes active). Serves 4.
• ½ cup low-fat buttermilk
• 1/3 cup mayonnaise
• 2 tablespoons mixed fresh herbs (such as tarragon, chives and parsley), finely chopped
• 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
• 1 teaspoon garlic, minced
• Kosher salt and black pepper
Crispy tomatoes and salad
• Two firm, ripe beefsteak tomatoes (10-12 ounces each)
• 2 cups assorted cherry tomatoes, halved
• Kosher salt
• 1 large egg
• 2/3 cup buttermilk
• ¾ cup cornmeal
• ¼ cup all-purpose flour
• 1 ounce finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
• ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1. Make the dressing: In a medium bowl, whisk together all the ingredients and add salt and pepper to taste.
2. Make the crispy tomatoes: Slice the beefsteak tomatoes crosswise, 1/3-inch thick. (You should get 4 slices from each tomato.) Sprinkle both sides of each slice with salt and let drain on a cake rack for at least 20 minutes. Halve the cherry tomatoes. Place in a bowl and sprinkle them with salt. Let them stand for at least 20 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, in a shallow bowl or pie plate, beat the egg; add the buttermilk and whisk until combined well. In a separate shallow bowl, stir together the cornmeal, flour, cheese and ¼ teaspoon salt.
4. Pat the large tomatoes dry with paper towels. Coat half of them with the buttermilk mixture, letting the excess drip off, and then dip them in the cornmeal mixture, making sure they are coated all over. In a large nonstick skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil over medium-high heat. Add the coated tomatoes and cook them until golden, about 2 minutes a side. Transfer 2 slices to each of two plates. Repeat the procedure with the remaining tomato slices, buttermilk mixture, cornmeal and oil and transfer those slices to two more plates.
5. Spread the cherry tomatoes on paper towels and quickly pat dry. Mound one-fourth of the cherry tomatoes on top of each portion and drizzle with the buttermilk dressing.