HOT AND HOT TOMATO SALAD

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This month, we launched our “Friends of the Café” Dinner Series with James Beard award-winning chef Chris Hastings. When searching for like-minded chefs and restaurants to collaborate with for our ongoing chef series in the café, Chris was one of the first people who came to mind. His dedication to locally-sourced ingredients is something we value highly here at Alabama Chanin, and it was wonderful to see (and sample) his work at The Factory.

A big hit of the evening was the Hot and Hot Tomato Salad, a fresh and colorful take on an old Southern favorite: succotash. Guests watched in awe as Chris and members of the Alabama Chanin team put together mouthwatering layers of the tomato salad. The special version of the salad presented at our dinner was topped with fresh Alabama Gulf shrimp (and bacon), and served with fried okra on the side.

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Below, we share the recipe with you (and the tale of how it came about). In the following excerpt from the Hot and Hot Fish Club Cookbook, Chris’s wife, Idie, explains his transformation of the classic Southern dish into the crowd-pleasing (and just as flavorful) Hot and Hot Tomato Salad that has received a “cultlike” following at their restaurant.

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In the early nineties, upon our return to the South from California, we began thinking about our future. It was either time to make plans for our own restaurant or to move on to another big city to take a job as a chef at an established restaurant. The quality of life Birmingham affords made our decision to stay here to start our new restaurant a relatively easy choice. With that decided, we still had to figure out exactly what we wanted our restaurant to be. Obviously, our focus would be on southern ingredients but we had to differentiate ourselves.

One of the great lessons we learned out in California was the importance of ingredients going straight from the farm to table without missing a beat. Ingredients appeared on menus only when seasonally fresh and absolutely of-the-moment. But, beyond that, from a culinary standpoint, chefs there also adapted their techniques in the kitchen to the seasons at hand. During hot months, they would keep some things raw, serve cooked things chilled or at room temperature, and omit the big heavy sauces often served over meat, fish and game during cooler months. Chris became enamored by plates of incomparably fresh vegetables and tender greens tossed to order with a flavorful vinaigrette and served at room temperature with a small portion of warm meat or seafood on top. This warm-cool contrast really showcased flavors in a way that was bright and refreshing. He knew that if he applied that same concept to southern ingredients it could have awesome results.

Deconstructing succotash (blasphemy!), something Southerners eat their entire lives, by preparing the ingredients individually and then recombining them to serve in a new way was our first experiment. The goal was to create the quintessential southern salad, truly summer-on-a-plate, but, instead of following the traditional method of cooking the tomatoes, okra, corn, field peas, bacon, and onions together in the usual fashion, Chris decided to reinvent the technique. Alabama is tomato heaven, so building a tomato salad around classic succotash components made sense. The recipe went through several derivations with okra fried or not fried, corn on the cob or off the cob, field peas of every variety available, and so on. Everything was to be cooked separately and served at room temperature with the exception of the hot okra and the crisp bacon just out of the pan to provide the pleasing temperature contrast. Vinaigrette made with fresh basil, balsamic vinegar, and scallions is a tomato’s best friend and an absolute harmonious mix, plus you can’t beat balsamic with tomatoes. Vinaigrette made with fresh basil, balsamic vinegar, and scallions is a tomato’s best friend and an absolutely harmonious mix, plus you can’t beat balsamic with tomatoes.

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We start receiving calls in April asking when the tomatoes will arrive at the restaurant, signaling the beginning of tomato salad season. We are stopped on our days off and field calls at home asking about the availability of tomatoes. There is a tomato frenzy at the farmers’ market. In May, Chris calls Mike at the market asking about the status of the first of the season tomatoes. Occasionally he receives a call from the market to come out and look at the tomatoes, but returns empty handed when the quality is not up to our standards. Meanwhile, customers are arriving at the restaurant to ask if the tomato salad will be served that evening. Usually when people run into us outside the restaurant, they ask us how our boys are, but during April and May we’re asked only about tomatoes. When we finally send out a newsletter announcing the much anticipated news, our restaurant phone lines are ringing constantly with reservations. Once the tomatoes arrive, the floodgates open. We have one line cook that is solely dedicated to preparing tomato salads night after night. At the end of the season, he or she is usually still dreaming about tomatoes. We display the tomatoes on the chef’s counter and educate the customers on the heirloom names such as Pink Beauty, Brandywine, Ida Gold, and Cherokee Purple, to name a few. Yes, life is good but busy during tomato season!

Our approach to this tomato salad illustrates how we take a dish we’ve grown up with and then over time and through our travels, training, and experience, apply what we’ve learned to those very same ingredients to make something brand new and uniquely Hot and Hot. That tomato salad is probably the single menu item that best exemplifies our style of creativity in the kitchen. We know we’ve gotten it right when our guests return year after year when it reappears on the menu and every single time, without exception, they are awed all over again. The Hot and Hot Tomato Salad, like shad roe, is a memory cuisine for many of our patrons now. To know we have created a dish that has developed an almost cultlike following and creates such an excitement makes us proud. This is really what the food industry is all about; making people happy through food. We are very fortunate.

HOT AND HOT TOMATO SALAD

Yield: 6 Servings

Salad:
6 large beefsteak tomatoes
2 large golden delight tomatoes
2 large rainbow tomatoes
1/2 pint sweet 100 tomatoes (tiny cherry tomatoes can be substituted)
3/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons balsamic vinaigrette
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 smoked ham hock
1 large onion, peeled and quartered
1 fresh thyme sprig
6 ounces (1 cup) fresh field peas, such as black-eyed, pink-eyed, or butter beans
2 tablespoons peanut oil
3 ears of yellow corn, husked
6 slices Applewood smoked bacon, cooked until crisp
3/4 cup chive dressing
6 tablespoons chiffonade of fresh basil

Okra:
4 cups vegetable oil
30 pieces whole baby okra
1/4 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup corn flour
1/4 cup cornmeal
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided

For Serving:
3/4 cup Chive dressing
6 tablespoons chiffonade of fresh basil

Balsamic Vinaigrette:

Yield 2 cups

1 cup balsamic vinegar
1 cup finely chopped fresh chives
1/2 cup chopped green onions
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Whisk together the vinegar, chives, and green onions in a medium bowl. Slowly whisk the oils into the vinegar mixture until well blended and slightly emulsified. Season the vinegar mixture with salt and pepper. The vinaigrette can be used immediately or stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to five days. Be sure to bring the chilled vinaigrette to room temperature and whisk well before serving

Chive Dressing

If you are concerned about using a raw egg, try adding 1/2 teaspoon finely chopped fresh garlic, 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh chives, and a pinch of salt and pepper to 1 cup of a good-quality, store-bought mayonnaise.

Yield: about 1 1/4 cups

1 small garlic clove, peeled and finely minced
6 tablespoons finely chopped fresh chives
1 large egg yolk
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup olive oil
1/4 cup homemade crème fraiche

Combine the garlic and chives in small bowl. Add the egg yolk, lemon juice, salt, and pepper and whisk to combine. Add the oil in a thin, steady stream while whisking vigorously to create an emulsion. Stir in the crème fraiche. You may need to add a drop or two of water if the dressing is too thick. Cover and chill the dressing for at least 20 minutes before serving. This dressing will keep refrigerated in an airtight container for up to two days.

Homemade Crème Fraiche

Yield: 2 cups

1 1/2 cups heavy cream
2 tablespoons buttermilk

Whisk together the cream and buttermilk just to combine. Pour into a sterilized 2-cup jar (a mayonnaise or pickle jar works well) and cover tightly. Allow the mixture to sit at room temperature for two days.

After 24 hours, the crème fraiche will have thickened. If the mixture is slightly separated, whisk until smooth. The crème fraiche can be used immediately or refrigerated until ready to use. Homemade crème fraiche will keep refrigerated for up to two weeks.

To Prepare the Salad:

Core and slice the beefsteak, golden delight, and rainbow tomatoes into 1/4 inch thick slices. Toss the sliced tomatoes and the sweet 100 tomatoes with 3/4 cup of the vinaigrette. Season the tomatoes with the salt and pepper and set aside at room temperature to marinate until ready to serve.

Combine the ham hock, onion, thyme sprig, and field peas in a medium stockpot with enough cold water to cover the beans. Bring the peas to a simmer and cook until just tender, 12-15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat, drain, and cool. Remove and discard the ham hock, onion quarters, and thyme sprig. Place the cooled peas in a mixing bowl and set aside.

Shave kernels off the corn cobs discarding the silk hairs. Heat the peanut oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the corn kernels and cook until tender, 8-10 minutes. Season the corn with salt and pepper to taste and remove from the heat and cool slightly. Toss the corn kernels with the cooked field peas and the remaining 3 tablespoons of vinaigrette. Set the pea mixture aside to marinate at room temperature until ready to serve.

To Prepare the Okra:

Pour the vegetable oil into a deep-sided skillet to a depth of three inches. (Alternatively, a deep fryer can be filled with vegetable oil.) Preheat the oil to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Trim the okra stems and place the okra pods in a small bowl with the buttermilk. Toss until well coated.

Combine the corn flour, cornmeal, all-purpose-flour, salt, and pepper in medium bowl. Drain the okra from the buttermilk and toss in the cornmeal mixture. Shake off any excess cornmeal mixture. Place the okra in the preheated vegetable oil and fry for 2 to 3 minutes, or until golden. Remove okra from the hot oil with a slotted spoon and drain on a paper towel-lined plate. Season the okra with the remaining salt and pepper, if needed. Keep warm until ready to serve.

To Serve:

Arrange each of the different types of sliced tomatoes on six plates. Place the whole sweet tomatoes around the sliced tomatoes. Divide the pea and corn mixture evenly among plates on top of the tomatoes. Arrange 5 pieces of fried okra around each plate and place 1 slice of crispy bacon on the top of each salad. Drizzle 1 to 2 tablespoons of the chive dressing over the top of each salad and garnish each with one tablespoon of basil chiffonade. Serve immediately.

Hot and Hot Fish Club Cookbook, by Chris and Idie Hastings with Katherine Hobbs, is published by Running Press, Philadelphia.

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