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Tomato salads

There are obviously many ways in which tomatoes can contribute to salads, but I find these days that I like to keep my salads separate. The salade mixte which appears on so many French menus isn’t a particularly characterful dish - unlike, say, an authentic salade Niçoise. I always suspect that it’s the dumping ground for all the unwanted odds and ends after the authentic salads have been assembled.

To begin, then, at the beginning...

Rinse and wipe dry one large tomato for each person. Using a very sharp knife and being very careful about your fingers, cut it horizontally into the thinnest, neatest slices you can manage. By ’horizontally’, I mean across the axis of the fruit: lay it on the board with the eye (the bit where the stalk has been removed) to either the right or the left - not the top or the bottom - and slice straight down.

If your tomato is ripe, this is going to be difficult - particularly the last cut or two. If your knife isn’t razor sharp it will be quite impossible.

Put the end slices aside for something else - they’ll only make the salad look untidy - and arrange the rest in a elegant circle on a plate. I usually use one of those intermediate-sized plates between a dinner plate and a side plate (I’ve no idea what they’re for but they’re very useful). Use a bit of creativity here to ensure that you have a nice tidy arrangement.

Now sprinkle the slices fairly generously with fine sea salt.

Insalata Caprese (salad from Capri)

For me, this is the absolute classic tomato salad. Apart from Paris (below), I’ve seen it served in Italy (as you would) and halfway up a mountain in Switzerland.

Wife Number Two and I stayed in the Ibis hotel at Levallois, just outside the Périphérique in the north-west of Paris, for a couple of nights a few years ago. After a truly horrendous journey from Boulogne, with the road signs obliterated by a violent thunderstorm just as we hit the outskirts of the capital in the rush hour (two out of ten for timing), we finally found the hotel, got parked, showered and went looking for dinner. We found a quiet neighbourhood restaurant where Wife Number Two chose for her entrée a salad of tomatoes, mozzarella, anchovies and basil. She wasn’t sure about this, because she was convinced that she didn’t like anchovies, and only agreed to have the dish when I promised to eat her anchovies if necessary.

I didn’t get any, because that evening she discovered one of the fundamental principles of taste in food: that which you find quite horrible alone can be wonderful in combination with other ingredients. The intense saltiness of the anchovy fillets was perfectly balanced by the cool moisture of the tomatoes, the milky blandness of the mozzarella and the pungent aroma of the basil.

Drain and slice a whole mozzarella cheese - try to get a real Italian one made from buffalo milk, in a little bag of water - and arrange half the slices on each of two plates of tomatoes as prepared above.

Open and drain a can of anchovy fillets in olive oil, separate the fillets and arrange half of them elegantly on each of two plates of tomatoes. (Obviously you need two mozzarellas and two cans of anchovies for four portions...etc.)

Scatter several whole, large basil leaves, picked from the stalk at the last possible moment, over each salad.

Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil to taste, grind on some black pepper and sprinkle with extra salt only if necessary. Eat immediately with plenty of bread to mop up the spare oil and the tomato juice which has been drawn out by the salt.

Enhancements and variations

I used to use a vinaigrette dressing when I first started doing this salad, but I realised that the anchovies provided the element of intensity in the flavour and acidity just detracted from the balance. If you feel it needs a little acidity, try just a few spots of freshly-squeezed lemon juice or balsamic vinegar along with the oil.

Building the whole salad on a bed of uncooked young spinach leaves is nice from a presentation point-of-view and gives you something else pleasant and wholesome to eat.

Forget the mozzarella and cover the tomatoes with big, thin, crumbly flakes of parmesan made with a potato-peeler, or with big crumbs of feta cheese (fresh or marinated in olive oil).

Or try halloumi, the rubbery, salty but incredibly more-ish cheese from Cyprus.

If for any reason you can’t get hold of decent fresh basil (a rare circumstance these days with the supermarkets offering ever-larger pots of growing herbs), it’s probably best to eat something completely different. If you’re determined to have this salad, try one of Bart Spices’ little jars of ’fresh’ basil in oil, which has an excellent flavour even if it doesn’t look as attractive as the whole leaves. Stir the herb into your olive oil before you drizzle it on. Failing that, I guess you might even dilute some Pesto with olive oil...

Personal site for Paul Marsden: frustrated writer; experimental cook and all-round foodie; amateur wine-importer; former copywriter and press-officer; former teacher, teacher-trainer, educational software developer and documenter; still a professional web-developer but mostly retired.

This site was transferred in June 2005 to the Sites4Doctors Site Management System, and has been developed and maintained there ever since.