If you were to pick two items that signal the climax of summer, they would be basil and heirloom tomatoes. Both of these heat loving crops peak and are at their most flavorful many long, hot days. In a way these items actually mark the beginning of the end of summer and they should serve as a reminder to all of us to indulge in the last sweet offerings of summer.
I will admit the majority of my summer heirloom tomato eating happens in a quickly made sandwich consisting of toasted wholegrain sliced bread, butter, sharp cheddar and tomatoes. I eat them for breakfast and lunch and as a snack during peak tomato season. It’s not that I don’t have bigger ideas, this sandwich just tastes dam good and is super quick to prepare.
Both basil and heirloom tomatoes are enjoyed immensely in simple form and even though that’s the cooking style I’m most associated with, on this one I tend to follow the crowd, consuming basil and tomatoes simply and always paired with salt.
Food, like people, are even better with the right companion, bringing attention to the best qualities and making them stand out. Salt and herbs together balance tomatoes perfectly tomatoes, they highlight the natural acid and sweetness and create a harmony of flavors.
The true essence of herbs, in my opinion, is in the power to extract and fine tune natural flavors from whatever they are paired with. It’s essentially a salt like ability, except fresh herbs also offer their own stand along, contributing flavors, which allow for extreme diversity and creativity in the final outcome of taste.
I don’t think there is a lot we need to say about heirloom tomatoes, except they are best and have the greatest intensity of flavor when it’s very hot. Vine ripened and healthy soil is another absolute necessity for optimal flavor. My suggestion is to take advantage of your local organic (healthy soils) farmers who specialize in this short season crop especially in summer’s when it’s really hot. Season with salt and lots of herbs, in particular basil which is essentially one of the best flavors and growing companions a tomato has.
If I had to give you one recipe to use on heirloom tomatoes it would be my basil forward Summer Salt. Whether you have a garden or not, you can make my most prized herbal recipe- Seasonal Herb Salt. The recipe varies by season and mood and the end result is extremely versatile and highly useful in not just salting foods but adding your favorite notes of the season. Use it in all your sweet and savory kitchen recipes.
Typically for me the recipe varies by what’s available- specifically to me, whether it be from my garden, the farmers market or my local grocery store. It also depends on what salts I have at my disposal or on hand. My go to is Maldon salt, I love the way the seasonal flavors melt onto and into everything. But I can also be flexible, as I had to when living in Ecuador, where I had access to either super fine salt or the thick gritty salt (reminiscent of Celtic salt). I chose the thick gritty salt of course and learned the fine art of using dense salt to season food. Forced flexibility can often be a gift.
Most important in the process of making my Seasonal Herb Salt is to choose fresh herbs, seeds, spices and flowers that are seasonal and capture the spirit of the season – which is totally subjective I may add. There is only so many herbs that grow naturally and at peak flavor each season – so outside of that the sky is the limit. Be creative, bold and risky. I like to use complimentary seasonal flavors that meld in with the various spices, flowers and seeds. Citrus zest of all kinds is amazing and I tend to really clamor onto those in the winter and spring when citrus is in production locally. (You can find my spring version of Seasonal Salt here.) Cracked peppercorns of all colors are a great additive, as is Aleppo and other red chili pepper flakes.
Tomatoes and Summer Salt
Makes 2 ½ cups
This feels like summer sunshine, and it celebrates the hottest year I have lived in Bolinas and the only time I have successfully grown basil in this cool coastal climate. This basil forward salt is one of my plainest in a way and is accented by a handful of other peak summer herbs as well as some of the more piquant tasting flowers. I use fresh red chilies to add a touch of fresh bright spice. Baking the salt on low is essential for removing a good deal of the moisture from the herbs as well as any fresh chilies and citrus used, it keeps the flavors bright while adding shelf life. Don’t overbake. Don’t be afraid to use this salt in your baked or sweet goods or your seasonal summer cocktails and mocktails. A pinch of this salt can adds a pop of summer to everything.
½ cup chopped super fine basil
2 tablespoons chopped super fine parsley leaves
1 tablespoon chopped super fine oregano leaves
1 tablespoon chopped superfine purple sage leaves
1 tablespoon chopped superfine chives
4 -5 nasturtium flowers, chopped fine
2-3 coriander flowers, chopped fine
1-2 calendula flowers, petals only, chopped fine
3 chive blossoms, petals only, chopped fine
1 red chili pepper, deseeded and chopped super fine
1 ½ cups Maldon flake salt
Fresh heirloom tomatoes, sliced thick
Pre Heat oven to 200 degrees F.
In a medium mixing bowl, mix together all of the fresh herbs and flowers. Gently fold in the salt and using your fingers, make sure the herbs and the salt is mixed well. Place the salt/herb mix on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper so that its spread out evenly across the entire sheet and flat. Place in the oven and bake for about 12 minutes or until the herbs seem to have a lot less moisture but are not totally dried. Store in a small bowl on your counter for a few weeks.
Toss the salt over fresh tomatoes for the best summer side dish, also an awesome meal on its own.
Grilled Cheese Tomato-Basil Sandwich
Makes 2 sandwiches
When its basil and tomato season, make pesto and make pesto mayonnaise and have it on hand and whip these sandwiches which are quick to make and easy to clean up. The mayonnaise on the outside of the grilled cheese, in lieu of butter not only makes the grilled cheese super crispy on the outside but it burns less than butter, making for more practical clean up for a quick sandwich. Never mind the recipes that tell you to put the cold tomato on the sandwich after its made by peeling away the bread a warm tomato cooked into the grill cheese is not only easier but it makes for a warm cheesy tomato sauce inside that taste glorious and feels rather decadent. Use the extra mayo on BLT’s, potato salad and homemade ranch dressing.
For the pesto mayo
½ cup purple or green basil leaves
1 clove garlic
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon salt
¾ cup mayonnaise
For the sandwiches
4 slices thick fresh sourdough bread
½ cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
4 slices heirloom tomato of choice
A few basil leaves
For the pesto
Combine the basil, garlic and olive oil in a blender and blend until saucy and pesto like. In a small mixing bowl combine the pesto and the mayonnaise and mix until all the pesto is combined and the mixture is creamy.
For the sandwich
Put a little mayonnaise on the inside of the bread. Place 2 slices of tomatoes on each sandwich followed by ¼ cup of shredded cheese. Add a few basil leaves and cover with the other piece of bread, forming the sandwich. Heat a fry pan to medium high heat and while the pan is heating up spread a decent amount of pesto mayonnaise over the top of the sandwich bread (outside of the sandwich). Once the pan is hot place the sandwich, mayo side down and allow to cook. While the first side is browning, spread the pesto mayonnaise over the side facing the top. Once the sandwich is browned on the first side, about 2-3 minutes, flip the sandwich and cook the other side for another 2 minutes or until brown, being careful not to burn it.
Heirloom Tomato Peach Basil Salad with Flowers & Feta
Serves 4 – 6
If you haven’t had peaches and heirloom tomatoes together, you’ve been missing out. There is no doubt that as the world’s creative ideas expand at an unprecedented pace and infiltrate every aspect of our lives, amazing new ideas are born and many of these clever ideas end up on our plates and many end up as permanent pairings that change cookbooks and media cooking platforms forever. Sweet, ripe peaches and peak flavor heirloom tomatoes are one of these sensational pairings, and just as mainstream today as basil and tomatoes.
This simple salad of fresh slices of peaches and tomatoes is accented with the essence of the season, Summer Salt and topped with a smidgen of salty fresh feta and a simple dressing. Tossing a few edible flowers on top, which is totally optional, adds a little texture and piquant flavor and of course an extra wow factor, which some would say makes this dish quite instagramable – another reminder that the new world order of food differs from that of the past.
3-4 heirloom tomatoes, different colors, sliced into thick rounds
3 peaches, halved and sliced into wedges about a ½ inch thick (about 16-18 wedges)
1 ½ teaspoons Summer Salt (substitute Maldon salt)
3 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar
1/3 cup good quality extra virgin olive oil
Pinch of salt
¼ teaspoon cracked black pepper
Small handful of parsley leaves
5-7 basil leaves, torn into small pieces
5-7 mint leaves, sliced thin
2 tablespoons finely chopped chives
¼ cup crumbled feta cheese
Edible flowers (optional)
2-3 chive blossoms, petals only
6 nasturtium flowers
Anise Hyssop flowers
Place the tomato slices down flat on a large plate and gently lay a few peach wedges prettily over the top. Season the peaches and tomatoes with the flake salt and let stand while you make the dressing.
Whisk together the white balsamic vinegar and the olive oil until its emulsified. Season with a pinch of salt and cracked pepper.
Gently toss the fresh herbs over the top of the tomatoes and peaches and drizzle the salad dressing over the top. Season with the remaining ½ teaspoon of flake salt and toss the feta over the top, followed by the flowers.
Heirloom Tomato “Butt” Seafood Paella with Chicken, Chorizo & Pesto
This is one of my favorites -use it all up- recipes after indulging in thickly sliced fresh heirloom tomatoes for a few days. Much like eating freshly baked bread a thick slice from the middle of the tomato tastes better and lays flatter for use. Unlike bread butts tomato butts are easier and less of a chore to use and they melt magically into a paella, alleviating the need to use canned tomatoes. Summertime is the perfect time to indulge in paella cooked on the grill. It takes a bit of time, but I like it because I can drink wine and stir things outside, it feels very summery to cook this dish and the loads of fresh tomatoes and herbs make it feel summery and fresh. I like to overload my paella with meat and seafood. The chorizo is a must and chicken and shrimp make a great trio. I take mine a bit further and add fresh halibut, because where I live summer is halibut season.
You can use any combination of seafood and fish- whitefish, prawns, shrimp, mussles clams, or lobter, don’t forgor the Chirizo but the hciken is optional. I add it mostly to flavor the broth as the dish is cooking, store bough stocks are too salty for me and I find it easier to add chicken than make a borth ahead.
1 cup hot water
A pinch of saffron, plus a few threads extra
3 tablespoons olive oil
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 medium red onion, chopped
½ shallot, chopped
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 fresh red chili, deseeded and chopped
2 teaspoons salt
½ pound chorizo (about 2 links, removed from casing)
½ pound chicken thighs, chopped bite size
1 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined (about 20-22 shrimp)
½ cup chopped parsley leaves
2 teaspoons smoked paprika
½ pound halibut, chopped in 2-inch squares
¼ sherry vinegar
Juice of 1 lemon
½ cup basil pesto
2 cups chopped tomatoes (heirloom butts)
1 cup white wine
1 ½ cups Bomba, Arborio or short grain white or brown rice
2 cups water (2 ½ if you are using brown rice)
Summer Salt (flake salt)
Fresh basil for garnish
Prep all of your items first and make sure everything is in little bowls/containers and out by your grill which you have pre-heated to about 400 degrees if using gas or very hot if you are using wood or charcoal.
Place the paella pan on the grill and add the olive oil. After a few seconds add the garlic, onions, shallot, zest and chili and cook, stirring constantly for about 3-4 minutes or until the onions are a little less firm and turning translucent. Season with salt and add the chorizo. Stir and cook, making sure to break up the chorizo into small chinks as it cooks. Add the chicken after a few minutes, continuing to stir and cook. You can shut the lid on the grill and allow it to heat up for a minute and then add the shrimp and continue to stir and cook a few more minutes. Add the parsley leaves and the smoked paprika and mix everything really well, continuing to stir. Shut the gill and allow it to heat up again. When you open the grill the shrimp should be turning red. Add the halibut, vinegar, lemon juice, pesto and tomatoes and gently stir. Close the grill again and let it cook for a few minutes, the tomatoes will begin to melt down into the other ingredients. Add the wine and the rice and the remaining teaspoon of salt. Stir and then shut the grill and allow to cook for about five minute intervals, opening the grill and stirring in-between for a total of 20 minutes or until the rice is cooked aldente and the fish is falling apart. Serve with some freshly torn basil leaves strewn on top and a pinch of Summer Salt.