Ah, July in the South. A menial task like walking to the mailbox becomes a full-fledged workout, with sweat rapidly wrecking your clothes, appearing in places you didn’t know it could. There was a brilliant Twitter joke a few years ago along the lines of, “I see why the South produces so many dark writers. It’s so damn hot, you want to get blind drunk and die.”
Not too far fetched — we trade our bourbon neat for mint juleps, with mint being an herb everyone can grow. I was kicked out of Garden Club (true story), but my mint plant produces enough leaves to supply the infield of Churchill Downs.
I can’t grow tomatoes, and that’s a shame, because I have to wait until the first week of July when thousands of homegrown beauties are brought by local farmers to our weekly community market. Get there early, or they’ll be gone. Be prepared to use your elbows as weapons. Don’t hurt Doris, the dear elderly woman sweetly waiting behind you. Let her cut line, she’ll tell you that you’re pretty like her granddaughter, and share her secret for making the world’s best tomato sandwich, which I will share with you shortly. Prepare yourself. It’s life changing.
Southerners are tomato crazy, and we worship homegrown ones with unreserved reverence. For us, it isn’t simply a way to dress a cheeseburger, or an ingredient in spaghetti sauce. Tomatoes are the focal point of our summer dishes, if not an entire standalone meal. The best ones can be eaten like apples and if that’s too much — sliced with a dollop of mayonnaise. (We love mayonnaise.)
If you aren’t fortunate enough to live in the South, with her rusty pickup truck roadside vegetable stands, or have a neighbor who is an expert gardener, fear not! You can get pretty close at the grocery store with “vine ripened” varieties, but check the produce stickers. If it’s hydroponically grown or from a Southern state, you’re golden.
Now, what to do with them?
I have four favorite applications for tomatoes, full-sized and cherry, and Doris’s secret for the best tomato sandwiches. Doris, we salute you…
Best Tomato Sandwich Ever
2 – 4 slices white bread (Think, “What unhealthy processed white bread would I never buy?” and you have a winner.)
1 tomato (You can get two sandwiches out of it if you slice creatively.)
Mayonnaise (For the love of all things holy, do not use Miracle Whip. I use Duke’s or Blue Plate.)
Lawry’s Seasoned Salt (THE SECRET INGREDIENT, Y’ALL!)
Sprinkle the Lawry’s on the mayonnaise after you’ve spread it. Seems like a lot of salt, but as I mentioned, we sweat a lot in the summer.
(Optional add-ons: Thinly sliced Vidalia onions and bacon. Of course.)
1 Prepackaged refrigerated pie crust
3 – 4 large tomatoes (If you have too many, use the extra for a sandwich!)
1 ½ cups shredded, part-skim mozzarella
3 – 4 garlic cloves, minced
½ cup mayonnaise (I told y’all we love it. And don’t use Miracle Whip. It’s not mayonnaise.)
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup loosely packed fresh basil (Another easy herb to grow yourself!)
Cracked black pepper
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Roll out pie shell into a 9 inch pie plate. Line with aluminum foil, and bake for 5 minutes. Reduce oven heat to 375 degrees. Remove the aluminum foil, and sprinkle ½ cup of mozzarella on the bottom of the hot crust as a base for the magic you’re about to create.
Slice the tomatoes into disks, and arrange them all pretty-like on top of the mozzarella. Sprinkle some of the basil on top.
Combine mayonnaise, Parmesan, garlic, pepper and the remaining mozzarella. Glob it on top of the pie. Sprinkle remaining basil on top.
Bake uncovered at 375 degrees for 20 – 25 minutes, until the cheese is golden and bubbly.
Serve warm. Reheats well the next day, so refrigerate what you don’t eat and have pie for breakfast.
Lemon Dill Chicken Pasta Salad
5 oz. container plain Greek yogurt
¼ cup mayonnaise (Three for three on mayonnaise here…)
1 clove minced garlic
1 fresh lemon
A few sprigs of fresh dill (Another easy herb!)
1 pound cooked pasta, cooled (I prefer shells for this, but use whatever you have on hand.)
1 store bought Rotisserie chicken, pulled apart (Roll your eyes all you want, those things are God’s gift to busy cooks.)
1 cup grape tomatoes
2 large cucumbers, chopped
½ Vidalia onion, chopped (If you can’t find Vidalias, use a sweet onion or just move to the South, it tastes better down here.)
2 ounces feta cheese
Make your dressing first by combining all those ingredients. Refrigerate for a little while and let the flavors mesh.
I like to combine the remaining ingredients (minus the pasta) with the dressing, and mix the pasta in at the end. That way, the dressing sticks to the good stuff and the pasta becomes a flavor car instead of the focus.
This salad is even better the second day.
So this is actually a personal family recipe and my Ole Miss tailgating specialty in the Grove. Remember the blind hot drunk joke? These aren’t a joke, so please eat responsibly.
1 cup cherry tomatoes (You may want more…)
Dixie Black Pepper Vodka (Really any black pepper vodka will do and if you can’t find any, use high quality vodka and substitute the cracked black pepper with lots of lemon pepper.)
Cracked black pepper (there’s a theme here…)
Poke one set of holes in each cherry tomato with the tines of a fork. Arrange flat in a coverable container and cover with pepper vodka/plain vodka mixed with lemon pepper). Refrigerate overnight.
Serve individually with toothpicks, and don’t put too many out at once. They’ll be gone, and you’ll have some tipsy walkin’ folks on your hands.