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End-of-Summer Tomato Salad

September 22, 2011

A few months ago, my friend Jill moved to Ventura, California and started a Garden Exchange. This is pretty much the brilliantest idea ever: not only can everyone in her neighborhood use the monthly Saturday morning exchanges as a social event to get to know each other, they can also bring their produce overflow from gardens, yards, and fruit trees to share with each other, and leave with a basket of their own filled with more local fresh fruit and vegetables from other people’s gardens, yards, and fruit trees.*


In July, Jill’s neighbors brought over: apples, blackberries, radishes, oranges, zucchini, avocados, lemons, tomatoes, bay leaves, and peaches. And in August: various squashes, figs, basil, apples, citrus fruits, green beans, chili peppers, and many many tomatoes. In September: more tomatoes and avocados, habañero peppers, bay leaves, figs, squash, chives, and lemons.

I’ve visited her now in time to catch two of these Garden Exchanges. And I felt bad that I had nothing to contribute (I live in a 2nd floor apartment, and have no yard for gardening**) but– after she distributed some of the extra food to the neighbors who couldn’t make it– at least I could help her out by volunteering to take home some of the extra avocados, lemons, figs, and tomatoes! (Anytime, Jill! Anytime…)

So, what to do with a basket full of fresh ripe tomatoes as the end of the summer nears? I’m still tempted to try out this “naked tomato sauce” recipe from Smitten Kitchen, and I make SK’s slow-roasted tomatoes ALL THE TIME, so I will surely post about those sometime soon here, as well. But these tomatoes tasted too good even to roast for a minute; I could have eaten them right off the plants and called it a meal. Instead, I decided to cut them up and make a quick and easy tomato salad, inspired by my absolute favorite side dish to order in one of my favorite restaurants in Japan: Orange Cafe in Shunan, Yamaguchi prefecture.***

I’ve never actually asked what’s in it, but the tomato salad at Orange Cafe is topped with a kind of salty garlic crumble, and garnished with a bit of fresh chopped basil. To approximate this, I used a type of fried garlic available at many Asian markets, which is often used as crunchy and garlicky topping for Vietnamese noodle soups, like Pho.

I used to eat at Orange Cafe once a week, and now it’s more like once a year, when I am back & visiting Japan, but the owner Mari-san, still never fails to ask me, with a big smile, as I walk in the door: “tomato salad?”

With tomatoes this delicious, who needs lettuce?


* If you live in or near Ventura, CA, and want more information about Jill’s Garden Exchange, leave a comment!

** It’s not just the lack of a yard: I’ve made multiple attempts at taking care of plants on my balcony, but I don’t have a green thumb AT ALL. (And maybe my balcony doesn’t get enough sunlight?) So now I have a sad little plant cemetery, where there once used to be tomatoes, Italian basil, Thai basil, thyme, rosemary, cilantro, and chives.

*** Shunan-shi is formerly Tokuyama, in Yamaguchi-ken in western Japan. Orange Cafe’s blog (in Japanese) is here.


End-of-Summer Tomato Salad

(Serves 2-4 as a side dish)

~ 1 lb. tomatoes (anything fresh and flavorful, like cherry tomatoes, heirlooms, or romas)
~ 2 Tbsp. olive oil
~1 Tbsp. za’atar (a Middle Eastern spice mixture of: sumac, thyme, sesame seeds, and salt)
~1 Tbsp. (or less) fried garlic, smashed or chopped
~1/2 tsp. sea salt (OPTIONAL)


How to make it:

1. Cut tomatoes into small, bite-size pieces (e.g., cut cherry tomatoes in half or in fourths). Arrange on a serving platter.

2. Smash or finely chop fried garlic until it’s reduced to crumbs.

3. Make the dressing: In a small bowl, stir or whisk together olive oil, za’atar, garlic, and salt. If you don’t have za’atar, you can still add some of its ingredients; the sumac is the strongest flavor, but since it tastes a little lemony, you could substitute a small squeeze of lemon or lime juice.

4. Drizzle the dressing over the tomatoes, and serve.

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