You’ll never know how protective people are of their favorite sandwich until you write about it on the internet.
“Just. NO.” or even an actual “Humbug!” are just some of the reactions you might see if you suggest tweaks to the humble tomato sandwich, which, to a (surprisingly passionate) crowd, must be nothing more than a just-right bread, a just-right mayo, a very good tomato, and salt (1). I admire the people who feel this much joy and nostalgia about their favorite foods. I feel similarly about biscuits and gravy and a certain genre of weird ice cream float that doesn’t get a lot of competing variations, for some reason.
So I am here to say, yes, eat your beautiful, summer-warmed, elbow-licking (2) tomato sandwich your way. And again tomorrow! But maybe on day three, instead of the inevitably diminishing returns of having that same sandwich, take a break and try this Tomato Toast from the Estela cookbook and Chef Ignacio Mattos instead. It feels entirely new—bolder, richer, juicier, crunchier—for virtually the same number of ingredients and movements in the kitchen. In a sense, this recipe is simply a way to have more tomatoes, in the precious fleeting time that they’re good.
The food at Estela is famed for looking deceptively plain—a loose heap of endive leaves hiding cheesy granola crumbles and streaks of chile vinegar like pine needles covering the forest floor; bison tartare pebbled with sunchoke chips and pickled elderberries, all served in a messy jumble. Deceptively plain lasts until you take a bite. A loud, hot, bright, vibratingly delicious bite.
Even when cooking from Estela at home, you’ll be surprised at how little you have to do to conjure the same, thanks to Mattos’s subtle but decisive layering in each dish. (Or you’ll have to mince bison or make squid ink stock with six kinds of dried seafood, but you’re mostly doing much less.) To find out how he and his team carefully nudged the classic tomato sandwich just out of our comfort zone, I spoke to Chef de Cuisine Sam Lawrence. Here’s what I learned.
While the purist’s tomato sandwich relies on the squish of cheap white bread, Mattos leans crisp, taking some borderline fanatical measures to get there.
He slices a long, skinny plank from the bottom of a loaf of pumpernickel (or something similarly dense and seedy), lops off the side crusts, then singes it in a hot cast-iron pan in a little olive oil, pressing the bread against the smoking pan till it resembles a very large cracker. The last little chef’s kiss is a gentle scrape of the raw garlic clove over the toast, leaving just a hint of it behind—like bruschetta, like the easiest-ever garlic bread, like we should be doing to most pieces of toast we make.
Of course the Estela team use the abandoned bits of bread elsewhere—as breadcrumbs in the aforementioned cheesy granola crumbles; in romesco-like sauces and the cod roe spread taramasalata—but if you don’t want to have to find a use for them, feel free to do this same squish-’n’-griddle move with a normal slice of bread.
Some of you will say Hellmann’s mayo is perfect for tomatoes (3). That’s why Emma Laperruque’s BLT salad from Big Little Recipes, with a dressing of just cherry tomatoes crushed up with mayo, is its own kind of genius.
But Fromager d’Affinois, a double-cream, mellow, Brie-adjacent (4) cheese is also perfect. (You can use any other slightly funky soft cheese whose creamy middle spreads like butter at room temp, workaday Bries included.) It floats above the crispy toast as a soft bed for the tomato instead of sinking in, and makes a lustier, saltier foil for the tomato’s bright siren juices. It skews more meal than condiment.
And, as ceramicist and writer Marian Bull, who tipped me off to this recipe, wrote for Saveur about the goo, “A benefit of the edge-to-edge coverage is that the toasts can sit for a second without turning soggy, and therefore are a perfect thing to make for company.“
The best you can find. The kind you picked up at a roadside stand or carried home from the farmers market holding your breath or plucked from the twisting green vines in your garden, you lucky devil. Now is the time to make lots of toast, before the tomatoes can only be sauce. Mattos slices heirlooms barely 1/8-inch thick (using a fine-toothed serrated knife like this will help) then plates them across the toast like scales on a big shimmering fish.
Gray salt (or other fancy finishing salts) is great for big crunch and bursts of flavor. But what about the bites without it? Just a little bit of your standard seasoning salt makes sure the toast tastes its tomatoeiest on the places in between (while keeping the fancy bites exciting, too).
All of this care and thought from Mattos’ team will come swiftly to you, in shattering, lush, juice-stained bites. Maybe one day soon you’ll be fighting for their honor on the internet.
(1) None of this stopped us from messing with it before.
(2) Or, per Lucy S.: “DUKES DUKES DUKES DUKES DUKES DUKES DUKES DUKES”
(3) See: Vivian Howard’s elbow-lick sandwich.
Serves one, but can be easily multiplied.
• 1 rectangular loaf pumpernickel or other dense, seeded bread (you’ll have plenty left over)
• About 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil 1 clove garlic
• Generous 2 tablespoons softened Fromager d’Affinois, Brie, or triple-cream French cheese (with or without rind, as desired)
• 1 firm but ripe heirloom tomato, sliced into ⅛-inch-thick rounds
• Kosher salt
• Gray salt
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