This recipe completely changed the way I think about tomato salads. When Jarod and I were in France recently — ok, yes, I apologize in advance: this is one of those posts where some blogger writes about his fabulous discoveries in Old Europe, but I promise to avoid as many clichés as possible! — while we were in France visiting some of his distant relatives, the family matriarch, Germaine, served this simple tomato salad at multiple meals.
I thought I had a fairly good handle on tomato salads. I knew to use the absolute most perfect tomatoes you can find, to let their natural acidity shine through unsullied by vinegar, to use the best olive oil possible: pretty much everything that J. Kenji López-Alt recently said in “How to Not F#&k Up a Caprese Salad.” But Germaine’s salad upended everything: vinegar! no cheese! no oil! not a shred of basil! multiple kinds of oniony garnishes! And it was superb. I mean really, shockingly perfect. My husband, who usually is entirely neutral on fresh tomatoes and generally doesn’t like vinegary flavors, actually fought with me over the last perfect, vinegar-laced globe of glistening slices.
So though I thought I knew tomato salads, I really knew only one particular idiom, an Italian one. And while a Caprese salad truly is one of the simple wonders of summer cooking, it’s only one way to go. Germaine’s salad is classically French. Shallots and parsley and chives gently flavor the tomatoes, which are also very traditional: just red slicing tomatoes, no exotic purple and green heirlooms here. Salt and pepper round out the simple dressing of mild vinegar, which lifts up the tomato flavor without disguising it.
The vinegar deserves a final word, though, because it’s the star of the show. Melfor vinegar has been produced in Alsace since 1922, and according to Germaine and her daughter Sylvie, you’ll find it in every Alsatian cupboard. I, however, had never tasted it on its own, which I had to correct. And let me tell you: if you’d like to reinforce stereotypes about weird Americans, you can do worse than asking to taste some straight vinegar before dinner. I’m glad I did, though, because Melfor, with its low acidity and infusion of honey, is the secret to the balance in this gorgeous tomato salad.
If you can get Melfor near you, you can take that shortcut, but if not: never fear! I played around with various vinegar combinations (and some back-of-the-envelope algebra) until I had a little ramekin full of tart sweetness that tasted just like the spoonful I slurped out of my palm in Alsace. It may be September, but the tomatoes are still beautifully red in Ohio; you can be sure that I’ll be pouring my ersatz Melfor over their taut, juicy skins as long as the weather holds, and thinking fondly of Alsace.
Germaine's tomato salad
This simple salad displays the best of French summer cooking: sweet, ripe tomatoes rounded out by gentle onion flavors, lightly salted, all tied together by a soft, barely-sweet vinegar dressing. If your tomato salad repertoire begins and ends with a Caprese salad, give this a try for a different take on the glories of the tomato. Served with some crusty bread and a crisp white wine, it’d make a perfect light lunch, but it’s also a perfect side dish for a late summer meal.
Adapted from the recipe as told to me by Germaine Rihn.
3 to 4 lbs. red globe tomatoes, very ripe
2 Tbsp minced shallot
1 Tbsp minced chives
2 Tbsp minced parsley
1 tsp coarse or kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
4 tsp white wine vinegar
4 tsp apple cider vinegar
3 tsp water
2 tsp honey
Core the tomatoes, cutting out the stem. Slice tomatoes very thinly, no more than 1/4 inch, re-forming the slices into whole, sliced tomatoes.
Arrange globes of sliced tomato, cored side down, on a platter. Scatter the shallot, chives, and parsley evenly over them. Sprinkle with salt and freshly ground pepper.
Combine the vinegars, water, and honey in a small bowl, then pour gently over the tomatoes. Let rest at room temperature for thirty minutes, then serve with some of the collected juices.
Leftovers can be kept, refrigerated, for up to 3 days; return to room temperature for best flavor.
Honestly? Don’t change it. It really is perfect as it is. Unless, that is, you actually have some Alsatian Melfor vinegar on hand, in which case you can replace the dressing with 4 tablespoons of the Melfor and have the thing itself!