Recipe: The Perfect Tomato Salad

It's not really fair to suggest something so definitive as The Perfect Tomato Salad. When it comes to vegetables, especially, so much of perfect has to do with the vegetable itself. But I had perfect on the brain.We were visiting friends up in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts and I cooked quite a bit. It started with an enthusiastic hop onto the Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie bandwagon. Then I found myself making dinner on Friday night, but trying to make it easy.

The previous night, in the sweltering city, I'd had a beautiful side dish at one of my favorite neighborhood restaurants, Salt. It struck me as the perfect treatment for pert and juicy summer grape tomatoes.

Sliced lengthwise (to expose the cross-section of their shapely forms) and tossed with a balsamic-heavy dressing and a chiffonade of basil, I made it hours ahead of time and let it steep on the counter until dinner. Just before serving, I gave it another balsamic treatment (straight, reduced, balsamic), and a fresh sprinkling of basil.

Sure, you could augment the experience with goat or feta cheese, or chopped greens. It's a salad, there are no rules. But this simple way of preparing tomatoes honors them while they're at their peak, which for most of us, is right now.

The Perfect Tomato Salad

serves 4 as a side dish

3 tablespoons best-quality olive oil
1/4 cup best-quality balsamic vinegar
1 pint grape tomatoes, rinsed and halved length-wise (cherry tomatoes are a fine alternative)
1/4 loosely packed basil leaves, sliced thin, as in a chiffonade
coarse salt
freshly ground pepper

Heat the olive oil and a little less than half the vinegar over a low flame until bubbling and just beginning to reduce, about 2 minutes. Toss the tomatoes with the hot liquid, sliced basil and salt and pepper to taste. Go easy on the salt, you'll add more just before serving. Cover and allow to sit out before serving, up to 4 hours. Just before serving, reduce the remaining vinegar in the same manner as before: over a low flame, watching it bubble until it begins to reduce in volume. Toss the tomatoes in their own juices, then drizzle the newly reduced vinegar over the mixture and toss lightly. Add a final sprinkling of coarse salt, to taste.

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