What to Eat in JulyTomatoes, Plums, and Soft Tofu with Vanilla Oil and Mint
At the height of the North Fork summer, there are few things more delicious than the marriage of perfectly ripe, flavorful tomatoes and fresh-made mozzarella. But what if your menu skews Asian? What if you are entertaining vegans or if you’re simply in the mood for something lighter than a classic insalata caprese? At those times, you might consider a salad of tomatoes, plums, and soft chilled tofu. It comes together in an instant. You dress the aforementioned ingredients with a vinaigrette consisting of two parts avocado oil and one part rice wine vinegar, the juice of a lime, two teaspoons of tamari, and a few drops of sesame oil. Then you scatter on finely slivered spring onions, a few shiso leaves, or Thai basil, or even cilantro, if that’s the only herb you have on hand, and serve. It’s a wonderfully light-tasting, refreshing salad, perfect for a hot day.
Recently I came across a recipe for an equally unconventional insalata caprese by the great chef Alain Passard. In Passard’s version, tomatoes and mozzarella are dressed in vanilla bean-infused olive oil and a drizzle of syrupy balsamic vinegar. Instead of garnishing the salad with basil, Passard uses fresh mint leaves. Which got me thinking: What would happen if you gave tomatoes and soft tofu the Passard treatment? I am happy to report that the results are nothing short of sublime. You wouldn’t know it, but tomatoes have a wonderful affinity for vanilla. And, it turns out, so does soft tofu with its custardy texture and ability to absorb other flavors, and also plums, whose flavors are deepened by vanilla oil.
This salad is an elegant way to begin a meal. Most of the labor resides in the careful sourcing of ingredients. First, buy a good quality vanilla bean. If it is fresh, it will be pliable and have a heady aroma. I like Bourbon vanilla, which has chocolate-y undertones. Next, use a mild-flavored olive oil that leaves no bitter aftertaste. (You’ll have more vanilla oil than you need, but you can drizzle the surplus over a cold tomato soup or a batch of homemade granola.) The plums should be ripe, but if they aren’t up to scratch, you can successfully substitute organic raspberries. Don’t be tempted to omit the fruit, which adds a much-needed hit of sugar and acid. Finding soft tofu is easy, though to remove it from its package in one piece requires a certain dexterity. To accomplish this maneuver, peel back the plastic, then run a butter knife around the edge of the tub and gently invert the tofu onto a plate. You can then either cut the tofu into squares of any size or dress and serve the salad on one big plate, allowing guests to help themselves. The first way is prettier, but the second is more practical and it is every bit as delicious. Finally, seek out the best tomatoes you can find. The East End tomato harvest begins slowly, but by the end of July, the tomatoes will have achieved their full potential and your salad will have achieved its full potential, too.
Tomatoes, Plums, and Soft Tofu with Vanilla Oil and Mint
About five tomatoes, any variety, sliced however you like
1 tub of organic silken tofu
¼ vanilla bean, split in two
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
Two handfuls of microgreens
Four purple plums, diced
Balsamic vinegar to taste
Make the vanilla-bean infused olive oil: Pour the oil into a small bowl. Using a paring knife, scrape the contents of the split vanilla bean into the oil and leave it to macerate for at least an hour. Reserve the rest of the vanilla bean for another use. Meanwhile, in another bowl, season the sliced tomatoes with coarse sea salt and a good twist of black pepper. Just before serving the salad, arrange the tomatoes, purple plums, silken tofu, and a handful of microgreens on a plate. Scatter on heaps of finely slivered spring onions and Asian herbs, then drizzle the vanilla oil and balsamic vinegar over the top and devour the results.