There is no higher calling for a vine-ripened tomato than as part of a classic bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich. The time for this American classic is now! Tables are stacked high at the farmer’s markets with luscious, ripe tomatoes – smooth and plump, irregular and bumpy, bright shades of red, pink, yellow, green, and even purple.
It’s tomato season, a pleasure that more than compensates for the hot, humid, dog days of August. Tomatoes are great with fresh mozzarella, creamy burrata, splashed with olive oil, dabbed with mayonnaise, accented with fresh basil, baked into tarts, or tossed with greens. But for me, the BLT is the apex of the summer tomato experience. The magic combo of sweet lettuce, salty bacon, and juicy tomatoes on good bread with salt and mayo can’t be beat.
There’s nothing wrong with the tried and true: Oscar Meyer, iceberg and a slice of a red, ripe beefsteak on toasted white with Hellmann’s. But the BLT world is much bigger that that.
Thanks to the revival of heirloom varieties, we have lots of choice for tomatoes. Oddly shaped with a full spectrum of colors, heirloom tomatoes offer a range of flavors. This subject needs some research and study to learn the flavor of each heirloom variety, a task I’ll gladly take on. In the meantime, it’s fun to enjoy the shapes, sizes and colors.
Like the tomatoes, there’s increasing variety in bacon. Beyond supermarket brands we’ve always known, it’s easy to find maple flavored, apple wood smoked, thick cut, center cut, and even bacon with no pork in it, although I can’t see the fun in that.
A little more searching can yield bacon that is locally smoked, double smoked, peppered, flavored with juniper or nitrate free. Some are more smoky, saltiness will vary, and for reasons I don’t fully understand, some bacons will cook up crisp while others stay limp. I like thin sliced bacon, so crispy that it shatters on my tounge, with enough smoke flavor to be assertive, and salty but not too. Thick-cut and meaty can also work. Nodine’s Smokehouse in Goshen, CT (nodinesmokehouse.com) will be glad to ship you some pretty amazing bacon.
Boston or butter lettuce is my go-to for BLTs. Hydroponic heads sold with their roots on are a good year-round choice. At this time of year, farm stands can have good head lettuce, too – wash well. Romaine and iceberg are too heavy for the delicate bacon. Red or green leaf lettuces fresh from the fields can work just fine.
White is the traditional bread choice, usually toasted. I’ll confess that I’m partial to whole wheat. Fresh baked local bread is best, but this is not the place for a crusty loaf with a chewy crumb. If the bread is too tough, the sandwich will explode at the first bite. A sandwich loaf is a more practical choice. If you want to go upscale, try a crisp, buttery croissant.
Mayonnaise is a key ingredient. Hellmann’s is my mainstay, although once in awhile I can find some Duke’s – the favored brand across the South. Recently, I’ve been making mayo from scratch using Mark Bittman’s food processor recipe (franksfeast.com). With a food processor, making mayo is pretty easy and worth the extra effort for a summer BLT.
You can also flavor your mayonnaise, either homemade or store bought, with pesto, chipotle, garlic, garden herbs, lemon, mustard or almost anything else. Mayo from scratch also lets you include some olive oil or accent with other flavored oils.
I’ve always wanted to have a party featuring a BLT buffet. Imagine a picnic table of colorful platters: sliced tomatoes of all shapes and hues; lettuce straight from the garden; multiple flavors of bacon; sliced bread – white, wheat, or crunchy whole grain; and choices of mayo – store bought, homemade, or flavored. The lucky guests get to make their own, each choosing a different combination. I’d make half sandwiches to be able to try more matchups. Three halves should about do it. This idea springs from a similar buffet put on at the legendary French Laundry restaurant in the Napa Valley. Their purveyor laid out an heirloom tomato spread as a thank-you for the staff.
We recently enjoyed BLTs from the bounty of the Westport Farmer’s Market. Organic heirloom tomatoes – Brandywine, Cherokee Purples and Yellow – from Riverbank Farms along with their field lettuce and a multi-grain sandwich loaf from Wave Hill Bakery. Some thick cut bacon and homemade mayo rounded out the ingredients. With the sandwiches we had Jane’s Crisp Bread and Butter pickles, watermelon and feta salad, and Two Roads Lil’ Heaven IPA from Stratford. Heavenly!
The tomato season is short, or so it seems to me. Make sure you get plenty of BLTs while it lasts!