Food for the Soul: Holy Tomato!

Story Jan Swoope | Photographs Birney Imes & Kelly Tippett

Mmm, mmm, here they come — those gorgeous, fresh-grown summer tomatoes. Plump, red, ripe and ready, the sun-loving fruit is turning up again in farmers’ markets, produce stands and backyard gardens everywhere. Can the perfect tomato sandwich be far behind?

“I just know in heaven we’ll get to eat all the tomato sandwiches we want, with all the bread and mayonnaise,” laughs Nona Sheaks of Columbus, her eyes alight. “And they won’t have one single calorie!”

She’s not alone. That ephemeral, sweet-tangy taste has inspired more than one tomato junkie to label the luscious orb “ambrosia of the gods.”

It wasn’t always so. When Spanish explorer Hernando Cortez discovered the native South American plant in Mexico in 1519 and transported seeds back to Europe, suspicious continentals mistakenly thought the little spheres to be poisonous. If only they’d known what they were missing.

M.C. Ellis knows a thing or two about ’maters. He and his wife, Frances, have grown them (and plenty of other produce) commercially at their Mayhew Tomato Farm in Lowndes County since 1997. Their son, Mel, joined the family business in 1999.

As far as M.C. is concerned, basic is best. His primo sandwich consists of two pieces of bread hugging “two nice slices from a 6- to 8-ounce tomato. Use real mayonnaise. Take two pieces of bacon and break ’em in half and put ’em on there, with some salt and pepper,” he instructs, his taste buds almost audibly singing.

Mel likes to add avocado to his sandwich. “And a lot of times at lunch, I’ll just have four or five tomato slices for dessert,” he grins. “It’s a rare day that I don’t eat a whole tomato. To me, it’s just the taste of summer.”

Tomatoes, of course, are not created equal. With more than 7,000 versions, how could they be? Varieties favored at the Ellis’ farm roll off M.C.’s tongue: Early Girl, New Girl, Mountain Spring, and Big Beef among them — like children, each with its own character and qualities. And trust a Southerner to appreciate them.

“Northern palates just aren’t the same,” opined the veteran grower. “It never gets hot enough up there to create the same flavors we get.”

SANDWICH SAVVY
Fill a room with tomato lovers, and you’re likely to hear just as many versions of the great summer sandwich.

Don’t want white bread? Try sourdough, ciabatta, multigrain, pita or French. (The great debate over toasted, or not, is left to you.) Avoiding mayonnaise? Substitute mozzarella cheese and a little olive oil, or ranch dressing, cream cheese or butter. Cheddar, American, and Swiss — even goat cheese—are touted as favorites, too.

Chopped herbs, arugula or watercress can enhance flavor and texture. Or, bring out your inner olé by rubbing toasted bread with the tomato, drizzle on olive oil and add serrano ham and a hint of garlic. Oh, the combinations are endless.

But, every perfect sandwich starts with a vine-ripened beauty, chin-dripping good, sliced while still warm from the sun.

“You can love watermelon, you can love cantaloupe, but you can’t eat but about two of those a week,” says Mel, a smile spreading. “But if you love tomatoes, you can just keep on eatin’.”

The season is here; the time is now. Indulge in the taste of summer. The “gods,” after all, have been known to share.


TOMATO SANDWICH WITH LEMON ZEST

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1/3 cup mayonnaise
1/4 teaspoon each salt and pepper
1 pound loaf French bread
3 large tomatoes, thickly sliced

• In a small bowl, combine lemon zest and juice, mayonnaise, salt and pepper. Stir well.
• Cut eight slices (about 1/2-inch thick) from center of bread loaf. Toast lightly under the broiler if desired.
• Spread mayonnaise mixture on each slice of bread. Arrange tomato slices on four bread slices; top with remaining bread slices, mayonnaise side down. Cut each tomato sandwich in half to serve. Serves four.

(Source: southernfood.about.com)


BASIL, TOMATO AND MOZZARELLA SANDWICH

1 pound loaf Italian bread
6 fresh basil leaves, chopped
2 tomatoes, sliced
4 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced
1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar

• Slice the loaf of bread in half lengthwise. Layer the basil, tomato slices and mozzarella cheese between the two halves of bread. Cut into four sandwiches.
• In a small dish, stir together the balsamic vinegar and red pepper flakes. Use as a dipping sauce.

(Source: allrecipes.com)


TOMATO PUREÉ

Big can of tomato juice
1 cup water
3 ribs of celery
1 large onion
1 lemon

• Boil all of this until vegetables are well done. Strain. Serve hot, with a slice of lemon.

“This is wonderful to drink when you feel a cold coming on. It is also good served as a first course with little finely chopped tomatoes on top.” — Joanne McClanahan Platt


TOMATO ASPIC

4 cups tomato juice
1 onion, sliced
1 tablespoon whole clover
Ground black pepper
2 packages lemon Jell-O
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped bell pepper
1/2 cup sliced green and black olives

• Mix together the first four ingredients, bring to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes. Strain.
• Dissolve two packages of lemon Jell-O in the hot mixture. Chill until thick. Add chopped celery, bell pepper and olives. Pour into an oiled mold and congeal.

(Source: Ethel Lee Mallory)