In the past few weeks, a Reddit post dedicated to the perfect tomato sandwich has garnered over 670 comments. Among the points under debate are the correct breads to use (sourdough, ciabatta, a baguette), the necessary condiments, and whether a cheese—namely mozzarella—is required.
With all respect to the Reddit community, there is one right answer to this question and it can be found in the new cookbook The Chef’s Garden: A Modern Guide to Common and Unusual Vegetables, by Farmer Lee Jones with Kristin Donnelly (Avery; $60). In a section dedicated to tomatoes, Jones discloses the secret to the most perfect, sunny summer-day evoking tomato sandwich—and it’s not just to choose your produce wisely.
Jones knows what he’s talking about: he is one of the country’s best-known and most respected farmers. The Chef’s Garden is a 30-plus-year-old institution based in Huron, Ohio, that supplies everything from the brightest colored carrots, to more esoteric ingredients like edible apple blossom, Egyptian starflower. His customers are top chefs including Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, and Kwame Onwuachi, author of Notes from a Young Black Chef.
Lee’s encyclopedic book clocks in at 640 pages, showcasing hundreds of vegetables and fruits that are divided into six categories like ‘Stems and Stalks’ (fennel, asparagus), ‘Roots’ and ‘Leaves.’ Each has notes on how to choose and store. Cut basil, for instance, can be kept in a room temperature glass of water covered with a perforated bag, rather than a refrigerator.
The recipes run towards ambitious, with recipes for complex dishes like black salsify carbonara, celery root soup en croute, and beet marshmallows.
But the book’s simplest dish is the tomato sandwich. The authors acknowledge that unlike almost every other ingredient in the world, there’s not much you can do to make a perfect tomato better. To make the ideal sandwich, they stick with foundational bread, tomato, mayo and salt. “We do, however, explore the best possible combination of these humble ingredients,” writes Lee.
The books recipe developer, Jamie Simpson, who is also the executive chef at the Chef’s Garden, saw no reason not to fool around with a blown-out version of the summer classic. “There are few things we choose not to take creative liberties with,” Simpson explains. “And one of those is the tomato sandwich.”
He sees you, Reddit community: “Arguments may be made on the type of bread, the thickness of the tomato and we are prepared to defend our position,” Simpson adds.
The key to this excellent sandwich is simple: The tomato slice should at least as thick as the slice of bread. “When you’ve added two slices of bread, the tomato has a chance to remain on the hierarchical throne it deserves,” Simpson says. And he’s right. If you have enough tomato to try an experiment, stack one test case sandwich with thin slices of tomato and the other with one big, thick slice that matches that of the bread. The first won’t deliver the same pronounced bursting, tomatoey bite as the second.
Simpson argues that the amount and placement of mayo is important, too. It should be “creamy and rich to serve as a bridge between the two layers of bread and tomato.” The result is a taste of summer, a juicy tomato, accented with a little salt to bring out the sweetness with a light blanket of tangy mayo and tender bread that’s not so crusty it gets in the way of the tomato.
The following recipe is adapted from The Chef’s Garden by Farmer Lee Jones with Kristin Donnelly.
Tester’s note: In the book, directions for making the sandwich are written as a formula. We turned it into a recipe with ingredient notes from the book.
Ingredient notes from The Chef’s Garden
Tomatoes: “This is the time to use juicy beefsteaks. They should be ripe which means they give a little when pressed. If they are firm, leave them on the counter for a day or two. We promise the flavor difference will be worth it. Whatever you do, slice them no thinner than the bread.”
Mayo: There’s a recipe for mayo in the book. “But can you really make a better mayo for a tomato sandwich than Duke’s Mayonnaise? Probably not, and neither can we. We like about t tablespoons of mayo divided between the bread slices.”
Bread: The book offers a recipe for focaccia, which they recommend because it is thick enough for sandwiches. However, “any good-quality bread will do; just make sure its not crusty. Toasted or not toasted? Great fresh bread doesn’t need to be toasted but this might be the only decision you get to make. As a general rule, if your bread is a day old or so soft that the tomato juices will run through it, warm it up.”
Salt: “A fine fleur de sel has a delicate salinity, that brings out the sweetness of the tomatoes. It’s not too harsh or too flaky.” (This article’s author went with flaky salt and thought it was great.)
Perfect Tomato Sandwich
Makes 4 Sandwiches
8 slices of non-crusty bread, about ¾ inch thick
About half cup mayonnaise
2 - 3 large ripe beefsteak tomatoes, cut into ¾-inch thick slices
Fine fleur de sel
Arrange the bread on a cutting board and spread each slice with mayo. Arrange the tomatoes on half the slices and sprinkle with salt. Top with the second bread slice and serve.
Also read | An Italian chef's recipe for pizza margherita