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Articles & Essays

"Savor BLTs of Summer"

Published 08/24/08
The News & Observer (Raleigh, NC)
Some people look forward to the Thanksgiving turkey. Others anticipate Hannukah latkes.  

I long for the BLTs of summer, made with real tomatoes that lazed in the summer heat, reddening like Norwegian beachgoers, before arriving in my kitchen. If you crave real tomatoes, as I do, this time of year is as joyous as Christmas. And nothing celebrates summer tomatoes like the bacon-lettuce-tomato sandwich.

This is how I created my first BLT of the season. 

I bought a brand-new jar of mayonnaise for the event. A friend told me that she prefers a fresh, unsullied jar of mayo for her sandwiches, and I can see her point. A new jar hasn’t been thinned or corrupted by other ingredients, and that clean swirl of white is fresh and appealing.

 As to what kind of mayo for me - if you have to ask, you haven’t been paying attention.  

I started with lightly toasted bread. The bread shouldn’t be too whole-grainy - all those seeds and chunks get in the way - but some texture is OK. The bread should be just a light sandy color, like the shore at midday. Over-toastlng leaves an unpleasant carbon flavor, and the sandwich is too hard to bite into. Plenty of mayo on both slices. 

For the L in my sandwich, it was leaf lettuce, fluffy and crunchy. No iceberg. Lettuce is mostly a texture thing; the bacon and tomato are the crucial flavor components.

I give my BLTs the best in bacon achievement. No turkey bacon, no precooked stuff, certainly no fakin’ bacon. I use a very smoky, thick-sliced bacon that I order from Tennessee, but get any good quality you can find. 

Don’t overcook the bacon. Many people make that mistake, and it kills the bacon flavor, leaving a charcoal taste. Because the bacon I prefer is so smoky, I used just two slices, broken in half, on my sandwich. But I have certainly, in porky moods, used more.

Now, the tomato, the inspiration for this shining star in the sandwich universe. Only the best, most flavorful ones are worth this effort. I used heirloom varieties from the community-supported agriculture farm that I joined this year. Go for heirlooms if you can find them. 

I like tomatoes whose flavors are on the acid side, because I prefer tartness in most things. Also, the acid of the tomato is essential to contrast with the rich fat of the bacon and give balance to the sandwich. A sweeter-tasting tomato would be fine, provided it has enough oomph to stand up to the bacon.  

Just slap these primo ingredients together? No, true BLT lovers. Architecture is important. 

I adapted a layering technique from the famous BLTs at Merritt’s Store in Chapel Hill. With layering, you get a little bit of every ingredient in each bite, and the sandwich comes together better.  

Here’s the structure I came up with: Lettuce-tomato-bacon-tomato-bacon-lettuce. Salt as needed, and plenty of black pepper.  

I believe that the tomato should always touch the bacon on at least one side, providing that acid-fat contrast I was talking about. Bacon should not directly touch the mayo on the bread, because that’s too much fat in one place. Therefore, bacon should be neither the first nor the final layer.

Lettuce is a good buffer between the fat of the mayo on the bread and the rest of the ingredients, plus the unctiousness of the mayo is a good contrast with the crispiness of the lettuce. Having the lettuce on the outside also lends a structural soundness to the sandwich and prevents excessive sogginess.

Some of you might want tomato to touch mayo, putting it on the outside next to the bread. I considered that option, and it is a good combination. But if you believe, as I firmly do, that tomato and bacon need to be together, the idea leads to a construction challenge.

If you really want a mayo-tomato union, make a tomato sandwich. This simpler treat has entirely different parameters, but still requires the best of tomatoes.

With tomato sandwiches, sogginess is part of the charm. No whole-grain bread, and no toasting - how else would it get soggy? The key here is excess. Lots of mayo. lots of tomato. Add salt and black pepper, then let the sandwich sit a few minutes, if you can stand it. Some people let it sit a whole lot longer, even making the sandwich, wrapping it and letting it sit in the refrigerator overnight.  

Yes, tomato sandwiches are fine things, but they don’t top the BLT - its balance of tartness and richness, its combination of creaminess and crispy bite - in honoring fine tomatoes. And my first of many did my heirloom summer gems proud.  

Anyone want to sing some tomato carols?

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