The advent of summer triggers a garden-fresh craving for chef Hugh Acheson.
I grew up in Canada, a land of vivid seasons. Though not from a very culinary-minded family, I remember clearly the cadence of summer produce: when the first blueberries came, the arrival of tiny fraises des bois (wild strawberries that punctuate the forests of Ontario and Quebec), the plump blackberries that would come soon after, and the final push or raspberries, sweet from the heat in August. We knew that the good tomatoes arrived late in July and waited for the "peaches and cream" corn from the roadside stand—literally a truck with a bounty that would sell us some of the harvest from the Simpsons' family farm north of Toronto. At age 6, I knew the pattern of our agrarian community.
Savory summer is that time of tomatoes and corn and basil, all of which pile up in wonderful abundance a bit earlier now that I live in the American South. When you have bounty, you need a dish that is easy to prepare, that the whole brood enjoys multiple times in a week, yet will still pique palates and encapsulate the beauty and purity of the season. I make a simple salad about four times a week that is an ode to that trio of tomatoes, corn, and basil—a dish that my family eats up with gusto. It is a salad for hot nights with a cold simple beer. The tomatoes should be ripe and plump, the corn should be tender and cut from the cob right before eating, and the basil should be crimped from the tops of the plants, a cutting that allows them to keep on trucking through the remaining hot months of summer.
So in balancing the heady plumpness of tomatoes, the natural sweetness of corn, and the beautiful angular, peppery notes of fresh basil, we need a unifying vinaigrette—a marinating vehicle of great olive oil and puckery vinegar. I don't want citrus juice in this vinaigrette, as that sees contrary to what tomatoes meld with, and citrus has nothing to do with this seasonal bliss. But I do want the bold and bracing flavor of great red wine vinegar—bonus points if you make your own. I want big shavings of real Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, not finely grated powder that would lump up with the vinaigrette. I want a hint of mustard and a secret little dollop of miso and soy sauce for an umami jolt that shows earthiness and makes you smile.
This should be a staple dish, an essential part of a summer spread. Welcome to 'mater country.
Corn, Tomato, and Basil Salad
While corn and tomatoes are at their peak later in the summer, you can enjoy this simple salad all season long. White miso—the kind that's lowest in sodium—adds a powerful umami punch to the mix, enhancing the meaty flavor that tomatoes and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese provide. Salting the tomatoes and letting them stand draws out their juices so they'll meld with the dressing when you combine all the components.