The ‘ubiquitous’ Middle Eastern ingredient

Explore the endless possibilities of summery tomato salads

Didem Senol Tiryakioglu’s tabbouleh salad is mixed with wheat berries, tomatoes and pomegranate syrup. (photo credit: ORHAN CEM CETIN)
Didem Senol Tiryakioglu’s tabbouleh salad is mixed with wheat berries, tomatoes and pomegranate syrup.
(photo credit: ORHAN CEM CETIN)
"Tomato salad is as ubiquitous on the Middle Eastern table as a green salad is in the US,” wrote Rawia Bishara, author of Olives, Lemon & Za’atar.
Many Mediterranean cooks make their daily summertime salads from tomatoes and herbs, and no cucumbers. Bishara, who is from Nazareth and is the chef/owner of Tanoreen Restaurant in Brooklyn, New York, makes her basic salad from diced tomatoes mixed with onions, garlic, hot pepper, fresh mint, olive oil and lemon juice. (See recipe.)
Whether you flavor your tomato salad with oil alone or add lemon juice or vinegar depends on your palate and on your tomatoes. Some tomatoes are so sweet that you might like a slightly tart dressing. Others have enough natural acidity and need no lemon juice or vinegar, or might be improved by a pinch of sugar.
Our friend Marie Eisman, who was born in Rabat, Morocco, flavors her delicious tomato salad with homemade preserved lemons, which she cuts in small dice. She used to add sweet peppers to the salad until she discovered that peperoncini – small, slightly hot pickled peppers – made it even better. To dress the salad, she adds olive oil to the diced tomato mixture and sprinkles it with chopped parsley. The first time we tasted the salad, we liked it so much we decided to prepare our own preserved lemons in order to make it at home.
Israeli-born chef Einat Admony, author of Balaboosta, loves her Aunt Chana’s tomato salad made of tomato wedges mixed with thinly sliced onion and chopped fresh basil or mint. It’s dressed with white wine vinegar seasoned with sugar and coarse salt. Just before serving the salad, Admony drizzles it with extra virgin olive oil.
Cheeses, both delicate and pungent, make terrific partners for tomatoes. When we have fresh mozzarella, we pair it with ripe tomatoes to make one of our favorite salads, Italian insalata caprese, with fresh basil leaves, fruity extra virgin olive oil and a light sprinkling of salt and freshly ground pepper. Some add balsamic vinegar to this salad, but we like the natural flavors of the tomatoes and the mozzarella to stand on their own.
Feta and Bulgarian cheeses also complement the taste of tomatoes. Bishara makes a tomato and feta cheese salad with fresh za’atar, and flavors it with chopped red onion, olive oil, lemon juice and red pepper flakes. For another tomato salad, which she also flavors with red onion, she adds grated Parmesan cheese in a basil pesto dressing with garlic, pine nuts, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper.
Fine tomato salads can also be made from grilled tomatoes. To make an unusual salad in kebab form, Didem Senol Tiryakioglu, author of Aegean Flavors and chef of Lokanta Maya in Istanbul, threads cubes of tomatoes, haloumi cheese and red onions on skewers and grills them briefly. She adds a dressing of basil, garlic and olive oil, and serves the mini-kebabs on a bed of greens.
For her colorful grilled vegetable salad, Admony flavors a mixture of grilled, coarsely chopped tomatoes, peppers and onions with roasted garlic and parsley, and dresses it with olive oil and lemon juice. She recommends serving the salad alongside kebabs or as an appetizer with pita. (See recipe.)
If you’d like to turn a tomato salad or tomato-cucumber salad into a more substantial appetizer, you can add soaked bulgur wheat to make tabbouleh. Tiryakioglu studs her tabbouleh generously with tomatoes; instead of making it with bulgur wheat, she uses cooked wheat berries, couscous or orzo (rice- or barley-shaped pasta). In addition to the usual tabbouleh flavorings – parsley, mint, green onions, lemon juice and olive oil – she adds garlic and pomegranate syrup. She notes that you can make a blackeyed pea salad or a vermicelli salad the same way.
If soupy tomato salads bother you, don’t add salt until shortly before serving time, as salt draws moisture out of vegetables. Better yet, cut the tomatoes at the last minute. When we bring Israeli salad (also known as Arabic salad) to potluck meals with friends, we might combine the cucumbers, onion, parsley, olive oil and lemon juice in advance, but we always add the tomatoes just before we leave, and the salt just before we sit down to eat.
For the best flavor and texture, keep tomatoes at room temperature until they are fully ripe. If they seem to be getting too soft, refrigerate them.
Tomatoes of any kind can be used in salads, but the best ones for salads are aromatic and ripe but firm. If you don’t want the salad to be too juicy, you can use small, meaty plum tomatoes. Large, juicy tomatoes make the salad wet, but when you use tasty, sun-ripened tomatoes to make your salad, you will enjoy one of the delights of summer.
The writer is author of Feast from the Mideast and of the award-winning Faye Levy’s International Vegetable Cookbook.
TOMATO SALAD – Salatet Bandoora
“This is one of the most popular salads on the Palestinian table,” wrote Rawia Bishara in Olives, Lemons & Za’atar. “You would be hard-pressed to find a single household in the region that doesn’t serve a tomato salad with every dinner during the summer months. I prepare it the traditional and very simple way: tomatoes, onions and chile peppers... It is a colorful addition to the mezze table and is also eaten with anything grilled, whole fried fish and lentil pilaf.
“For the best results, use ripe summer tomatoes at their peak.”
Bishara uses liberal amounts of olive oil and lemon juice, but you can start with smaller amounts and add them to taste.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
❖ 3 to 4 large tomatoes or 8 plum tomatoes, peeled and diced, at room temperature
❖ 2 small red or yellow onions, diced
❖ 1 hot pepper such as jalapeno or medium-hot pepper, seeded and cut into small dice
❖ 4½ tsp. chopped fresh mint, or 2 to 3 tsp. dried
❖ ½ tsp. finely chopped garlic
❖ ½ cup extra virgin olive oil, or more to taste
❖ 4 to 6 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice, or more to taste
❖ ½ tsp. sea salt, or more to taste
In a medium serving bowl, combine the tomatoes, onions and hot pepper with the mint, garlic, oil, lemon juice and salt. Toss thoroughly.
Taste and adjust the oil, lemon juice and salt.
Einat Admony, author of Balaboosta, calls this a salsa but many would consider the mixture of cubes of grilled tomatoes, peppers and onion a salad. Admony feels that the salad/salsa is at its best when the vegetables are grilled just before they are served. “What you’re shooting for,” she wrote, “... is a genuine smoky flavor. You can use it as a dip with tortilla chips or pita, but it’s particularly good... inside a kebab sandwich.”
Admony flavors the salad with roasted garlic, which she prepares on the stovetop instead of in the oven. (See Note following the recipe.)
Makes about 2½ cups
❖ 2 large tomatoes
❖ 1 large sweet red pepper
❖ 1 large sweet green pepper
❖ 1 large red onion, halved
❖ 1 jalapeno pepper or other hot pepper
❖ 3 cloves Roasted Garlic (see Note below), finely chopped
❖ 2 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh parsley
❖ 1 Tbsp. olive oil
❖ 1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
❖ 1½ teaspoons kosher salt, or to taste
❖ Pinch of freshly ground black pepper
Ideally, you would roast your tomatoes, peppers, onion and jalapeno pepper over the grill, but using your broiler or an ungreased cast-iron skillet on the stove works just as well. In either case, get a deep brown, almost black, char on all sides of the vegetables, about 20 minutes; check often so they do not burn. Remove from heat and allow them to cool completely.
Peel away all charred skin from tomatoes, sweet peppers, onion and hot pepper. Remove stems, core and seeds from sweet and hot peppers.
Core tomatoes. Chop vegetables coarsely. (You might want to chop the hot pepper finely.)
Transfer mixture to a serving dish and stir in roasted garlic, parsley, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper.
Note – Roasted Garlic: Peel garlic cloves and put in a saucepan. Pour in just enough canola oil to cover garlic cloves completely. Put pan over very low flame. Simmer until garlic cloves are tender and brown spots start to appear, 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from heat and cool completely before transferring garlic to an airtight container, with just enough oil to cover the cloves.
Store the roasted garlic in a jar in the refrigerator up to 2 weeks. Store rest of oil in refrigerator as well; it will keep much longer than a few weeks. It is good for brushing on slices of bread before grilling them.
GREEK COUNTRY SALAD Tomatoes, feta cheese and black olives are standard elements of Greek salad. It often contains onions, cucumbers or green bell peppers, and sometimes includes spinach, lettuce or thin slices of fennel as well.
Makes 4 or 5 servings
❖ ½ small onion
❖ 2 or 3 large ripe tomatoes, cut in wedges
❖ 1 sweet green or yellow pepper, cut in thin strips
❖ 2 small cucumbers, cut in thin half-slices (optional)
❖ 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil, or to taste
❖ 2 tsp. wine vinegar or lemon juice, or to taste
❖ 2 tsp. dried leaf oregano, crumbled
❖ Salt and freshly ground pepper
❖ 8 to 12 pitted Kalamata or other black olives
❖ 85 to 110 gr. (3 to 4 ounces) feta or Bulgarian cheese, cut in cubes
Halve the half-onion and thinly slice each quarter. Separate onion slices in slivers. If you prefer a milder onion taste, rinse the pieces with cold water; pat dry.
Mix tomato wedges, onion slivers, pepper strips and cucumber slices in a large salad bowl or arrange on a platter. Mix oil, vinegar, oregano, salt and pepper, and drizzle mixture over vegetables.
Top with olives and feta cheese and serve.