August 7, 2013

Recipe: Tomato Tartine with Caramelized Onions and Creamy White Bean Spread

If you had told me a few years ago that I would come to crave tomato sandwiches, I would have said you were crazy. Until recently, raw tomatoes were one of my least favorite foods - slimy and watery and in desperate need of cooking. Tomato sauce? Delicious. Tomato slice? Gross. The best I could do was a thin slice stealthily tucked into the depths of a sandwich, and even then, I wasn't happy about its presence. Then I tasted locally-grown heirloom tomatoes, and suddenly the clouds parted whilst organic-farmer-angels sang. It turns out that eating a great tomato - one that's perfectly ripe, freshly picked, and not bio-engineered to be bright red but flavorless - is like biting into sweet, fruity-yet-savory, juicy perfection. After years of hiding tomatoes in my sandwiches, I am suddenly making sandwiches that are about the tomatoes. It's a revelation. So, friends, let's talk about the perfect tomato sandwich.

First of all, I've found that the perfect tomato sandwich is open-faced - a tartine, as the French call it. A tartine places its ingredients front and center, free of the smushing action that a second piece of bread would bring. This is particularly important for delicate raw tomato slices. On a tartine, those jewel-like slices keep their integrity, with the added bonus of having their prettiness on display instead of hidden. So, Perfect Tomato Sandwich Lesson #1: Tartines are a tomato's best friend.

Lesson #2? Get your hands on the freshest, tastiest, at-the-height-of-tomato-season 'maters you can find. Farmers' Markets are typically the best bet for finding perfect tomatoes, with the added benefit of having the opportunity to talk with a grower who can guide you to the best tomato for your tastes. With the help of Kittitas Valley Greenhouse, I've learned that some of my favorite varieties are Black Prince, Black Krim, and Brandywine. I also learned that proper tomato storage can make or break your tomato experience. I'd always kept my tomatoes in the fridge, which, as it turns out, was a huge mistake. The cold causes the cell membranes of a tomato to rupture (making them mealy) and halts the enzyme activity (hindering flavor development). Storing your tomatoes at room temperature protects their texture and allows them to ripen fully.

Finally, Lesson #3: Choose your bread and sandwich ingredients wisely. The best bread for a tomato sandwich is a hearty, crusty loaf of bread that provides a good textural crunch when toasted to contrast with the softness of the tomato. I love the Pain de Campagne, Multigrain Sunflower, and Walnut Levain loaves from Columbia City Bakery. As for additional ingredients, I prefer keeping it minimal so you don't overshadow the tomato-y goodness - one or two additions to "back up" the tomatoes is all you need.

Today's tartine is my favorite combination to date. Juicy, meaty tomato slices are perched atop jammy caramelized onions and a rich white bean spread fragrant with herbes de provence. As if that wasn't tasty enough, the sandwich is topped off with drizzles of good olive oil and balsamic vinegar, plus a crunchy sprinkling of finishing salt. It's a wonderfully messy tomato celebration, down to the last crunchy-juicy-sweet-rich-herbaceous bite.

Tomato Tartines
makes 6-8 tartines, depending on the size of your bread slices

1 loaf crusty, hearty bread
3 medium tomatoes, heirloom varieties if you have access to them
1 batch Caramelized Onions (recipe below)
1 batch Creamy White Bean Spread (recipe below)
olive oil
balsamic vinegar
finishing salt (grey, maldon, smoked... all great)

To assemble each tartine: Toast one slice of bread until crisp and golden. If necessary, reheat onions briefly in microwave until warm. Top toasted bread with a schmear of creamy white bean spread, followed by a layer of caramelized onions. Cut a few slices of tomato - enough to cover the top of the toast - and arrange over caramelized onions. Finish tartine with drizzles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, along with a sprinkling of finishing salt. 

Caramelized Onions

The secret to perfect caramelized onions is cooking them "low and slow" in a covered skillet. This recipe gives you succulent, sweet onions with an even bronze color in 45 minutes.

4 medium white or yellow onions, very thinly sliced into half-moons
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper

Bring a large skillet over medium heat (that's a "5" on my stovetop) and add olive oil, followed by sliced onions. Cook uncovered for five minutes, stirring occasionally. After five minutes, season with salt and pepper, reduce heat to medium-low (a "3" on my stovetop), and cover. Cook onions covered for 40 minutes, uncovering to stir every five minutes. Each time you stir the onions, scrape up any caramelized "brown bits" developing on the bottom of the skillet. You should see a gradual deepening of color at each check-in, but the onions should always remain moist. If your onions look at all "crisp", you need to turn down your heat a bit. After the 30 minute mark or so, you may want to deglaze the pan with a splash of water to prevent the bottom of the pan from getting too dark. After 40 minutes of covered cooking, the onions should be deeply golden and completely soft. Deglaze pan if necessary before removing onions from heat. 

Creamy White Bean Spread/Dip

This silky bean puree is excellent as both a spread for sandwiches and a dip for crusty bread or pita/flatbread chips. If you don't have herbes de provence, feel free to experiment with marjoram, thyme, rosemary, or any other favorite herb you have on hand - you'll need around 1/2 teaspoon of dried herbs or a tablespoon or so of fresh herbs.

1 (15 ounce) can Cannellini or Great Northern beans, drained and rinsed well
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon dried Herbes de Provence 
2 tablespoons olive oil
salt and black pepper to taste

In a food processor or blender, add the beans, garlic, lemon juice, and herbes de provence. Blend to puree, scraping down sides as necessary, until mixture is a thick puree. Using the feed tube, slowly drizzle in the olive oil while continuing to blend, until the spread is completely smooth. If using as a spread, store in a small tupperware container in your refrigerator for 5-7 days. If serving as a dip, scoop into a small bowl and drizzle with a bit of olive oil for presentation. 


  1. This looks delicious! I've recently delved into making sourdough bread and have tomato sandwiches all the time! But I'm also looking for other sandwich ideas. I can't wait to give this a try, thanks for posting it.

    1. Thanks! I am a sucker for a great sourdough bread, but I haven't tried making it at home before. Any tips? :)