The Mothership Tomato Salad

I am always a big fan of motherships. My first apartment was down the road from the mothership of Thrifty’s drugstores, which took up an entire city block (it was a small city block) and was always open. That first summer after graduating college, when I’d managed to hold on to my little student job at the information booth and my BFF from out of state had finally come to live with me, was like a dream. We’d walk to the mothership at all hours of the night, purchase Thrifty’s ice cream, and browse the hair products. My favorite was two scoops in a cup, usually chocolate brownie and cookie dough, or mint chip and cookie dough.

The ice cream came in these cylindrical scoops, all neatly stacked like blocks. You could get two scoops for $1.19 or something (yeah, yeah–all the old people remember when it was a dime in the 1980s, but I was living in Connecticut in the 1980s and missed out) and they took your ATM card, which meant that I didn’t actually need to have any cash or go get any from a creepy ATM machine in the middle of the night, BFF bodyguard or not. (We lived very, very close to the mothership, on a very nice little street in a good enough neighborhood, but there were some unsavory shadows along our path, strewn with roaches of the Blattarian and Primate varieties.) There were four of us crammed that summer into our little apartment, and just leaving it–even as a foursome–was such a relief. Plus, you know, the heat. The mothership beckoned to us in our dreams, and we’d gather around the ice cream counter waiting sometimes ten minutes in line for our treats. Even after Rite Aid bought the whole franchise and turned the store into something even shinier, they kept the ice cream counter open.

It was a charmed life.

Clumsy segue.

Although it hasn’t been quite the summer of home-grown tomato splendor that I had dreamed it would be, it’s been enjoyable having tomato plants around. If I let things hang on the vine long enough, sometimes I even have enough tomatoes at one time to add to a salad. And–more important–because I am openly growing tomatoes of my own, other people are more willing to give me their own homegrown, larger, and tastier versions! This is how I found myself a few weeks ago with plenty of tomatoes on hand but no lettuce for salad and no onion for that salad thing. Where does one turn when one finds herself in this predicament? Why, to Google! And when I run into a recipe that calls itself a mothership, you know I’m going to make it.

The Mothership Tomato Salad

This is a recipe from a book by Jamie Oliver, Jamie at Home, and it is posted on the Food Network website. It required only ingredients that I already had on hand (including two pounds of tomatoes if I supplemented with the Campari tomatoes from Costco), and it took only as long to prepare as I could cut tomatoes, plus fifteen minutes of letting the tomatoes drain.

Ingredients:

* 2 1/4 pounds mixed ripe tomatoes, different shapes and colors
* Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
* A good pinch dried oregano
* Red wine or balsamic vinegar
* Extra-virgin olive oil
* 1 clove garlic, peeled and grated
* 1 fresh red chile, seeded and chopped


Directions (copied directly from the website):

Depending on the size of your tomatoes, slice some in half, some into quarters and others into uneven chunks. Straightaway this will give you the beginnings of a tomato salad that’s really brave and exciting to look at and eat. Put the tomatoes into a colander and season with a good pinch of sea salt.

Give them a toss, season again and give a couple more tosses. The salt won’t be drawn into the tomatoes; instead it will draw any excess moisture out, concentrating all the lovely flavors. Leave the tomatoes in the colander on top of a bowl to stand for around 15 minutes, then discard any juice that has come out of them.

Transfer the tomatoes to a large bowl and sprinkle over the oregano. Make a dressing using 1 part vinegar to 3 parts oil, the garlic and the chile. Drizzle the tomatoes with enough dressing to coat everything nicely.

Notes (entirely my own):

This was the easiest thing in the world to make.

I have now made this variously with cherry tomatoes, Roma tomatoes, yellow pear tomatoes, red currant tomatoes (the teeny tiny ones), and one big giant home-grown tomato of an unknown variety (plus the camparis, as mentioned above). I have not made this recipe with a fresh red chili pepper, but I added cayenne to the dressing (maybe too little, but I didn’t miss it).

I am starting to think that all my previous mediocre experiences with tomato salads has been the improper draining of the tomatoes; I have never, ever sprinkled them with salt first. It makes no sense in retrospect, because I’ve loved salting tomatoes for as long as I’ve eaten tomatoes, even to the point where I stop the deli sandwich makers at the tomato stage so they can salt my sandwich there (and again at the avocado, but I digress). The first time I made this salad I had some sea salt that I used instead of kosher salt, but it worked great. The problem came last night when I had no sea salt. It was obvious that table salt was going to lack the oomph to pull the liquid out of the tomatoes because it was too small, so I went with my second option, which was rock salt. That was a mistake. It was too big. It drew the liquid out, sure, but it didn’t flow through the colander with the liquid down the drain. There were bits of rock salt everywhere, which meant that I had to rinse the tomatoes with water before I could advance, and it added time and I am choosing to believe that it affected the flavor, because dinner was ready. I had to toss and serve immediately, and the wettish tomatoes meant that the dressing didn’t stick perfectly. It was a little disappointing, but the first taste of a tomato with pieces of rock salt on it was a little awful, so I think I did the right thing.

The first time I made this salad I used way too much oil and vinegar. I think I did a mix of 6 Tbsp/2 Tbsp, and had scads left over. I saved the remainder and still had enough to toss two more batches. I beefed up the garlic a lot, which is my thing, but because I wasn’t sure about the best ratio of red pepper to cayenne powder, I probably added way too little. I think it was undetectable. I didn’t fret too much about it, because I didn’t want to spice up the salad beyond the tolerance of the toddler, but that’s something I’d take bigger risks with if I was going to serve it to adults. Of course, if I was going to serve it to adults, I’d probably be at the grocery store buying the right ingredients in the first place, so I wouldn’t have to guess!

One recommendation Oliver makes on the website is to use dried flowering oregano instead of regular dried oregano. I had never heard of that and sort of missed the recommendation the first time, so that is a spice I will keep my eyes peeled for. He calls regular oregano sawdusty, and maybe it is, but it smells really good anyway.

This is me getting up to go smell the oregano jar. It’s real oregano folks–I’m not making a toke joke.

The picture of the salad provided shows it with all kinds of beautiful fresh herbs and tiny balls of mozzarella. They show it drizzled with a lot more dressing than I put on, too, so perhaps I made just enough. Even in my plain old glass bowls, with my boring tomatoes all of the same size and mostly the same color, it was pretty. I think I am definitely going to keep this recipe around and serve it when I need to impress people. I have white dishes. I could slice tomatoes to use as a foundation. I could buy tiny balls of mozzarella. I could scatter small pieces of fancy lettuce about. These steps are absolutely within my skill set.

I read once, perhaps in my Italian cookbook, that the secret to gourmet French food is the complicated preparation and the secret to gourmet Italian food is the wonderfulness of fresh ingredients. I know this is sort of a dig at the French, but it’s encouraging for another reason, too: Recipes like this really make me believe that I can make and present beautiful gourmet meals. I will be giving this recipe the honor of being handwritten on a recipe card, just in case a solar flare knocks out our satellites and we lose everything that we love online. It’s my own little form of cantankerous survivalist rebellion.

Postscript:

You learn all sorts of interesting things when you are blogging. For example, while looking stuff up for this entry today, I encountered something I’d never heard of before: Brutalist Architecture. Awesome. What’s next? Cruel shoes?

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