This tomato salad is a reinvented caprese salad. Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten (yes, I had to google the spelling of his name) calls it the best thing David Chang has ever made.
Let me tell you a story about Mr. Vongerichten.
Last summer, I had lunch with some of my girlfriends at Jean-Georges’s 3 Michelin star restaurant in NYC. We ate in the main dining room, which was light, airy, and beautifully green thanks to the Central Park trees outside.
I had the parmesan-crusted confit leg of chicken. The first bite was delicious! Crisp on the outside, juicy on the inside. Everything about this dish was beautiful, even the hair embedded in the parmesan crust was pretty. Wait, what!? The waitstaff was, of course, deeply apologetic and replaced my chicken immediately with a hairless one (and ended up comping my meal). The macaron for dessert (the best I’ve had in North America) more than made up for it, but needless to say, I took the whole “best thing David Chang has ever made” thing with a grain of salt.
Still, I had pretty high hopes for this salad, because I love caprese. The cherry tomato salad is a simple recipe: tomatoes, shiso, tofu and dressing. Sounds easy, right?
Nothing’s easy when you’re OCD. In the book, the helpful photo accompanying the recipe has colourful little red, yellow, and green cherry tomatoes. Of course, I too had to have the multicoloured tomatoes so I went to every grocery store in my nearby vicinity to find the perfect mix. I looked at many, many clamshells of red cherry tomatoes to be had, but the colourful mix I so desired was nowhere to be found.
I finally found success after four stores. Urban Fare, a boutique-ish type grocery store around the corner from us, not only had the technicolor tomatoes, but some of them were beautiful little mini heirloom types!
With my tomatoes in hand it was time for a quick blanch to peel off their skins. My paring knife was so dull it couldn’t cut through the tomato skin (I know, I know, I should keep my knives sharp). While Mike helpfully sharpened my usual paring knife, I used one of the knifes I hardly ever use to cut little Xs in the bottoms of the tomatoes. They were dropped in boiling water for 10 seconds and then put into a ice bath. Not having a timer or watch (who wears a watch these days?) I counted out loud from 1 to 10.
“That’s about 10 seconds, right?” I asked Mike.
“That was 1 second,” he answered. “Try, 1-one thousand, 2-one thousand, 3-one thousand…”
That worked all fine and dandy for the new batch of tomatoes, but I ended up fishing out the ones that were in the ice bath and re-blanched them. I guess I don’t count seconds a lot in real life. But there’s a quick cooking lesson: real 10 second blanched tomatoes look different from my 10 second tomatoes (and peel differently too).
I tried one of the tomatoes right after peeling – delicious! Fresh tomato flavour without any chewy skin in the way. After all the tomatoes were peeled (which by the way, freezes your hands if you leave them in the ice bath) I dressed them in sherry vinegar, light soy sauce, sesame oil, and grapeseed oil. Thinly sliced shiso leaves were used as garnish.
Shopping for the shiso leaf was almost as bad as the tomatoes. I originally thought it would be pretty easy to find shiso, because I know I’ve seen it recently while shopping at T&T. This time though, when I needed it, there was none to be had. We checked out a few other grocery stores with similar luck. I was getting so obsessed with shiso that, while Mike was waiting in line at Urban Fare, I decided to ask the produce guy if they had any. Such was the wild look of intensity in my eyes that the produce guy looked a little scared. The exchange went a little like this:
“Do you guys have shiso?” I asked.
“Shiso? Is….that a produce item?” he stammered.
“Yes, it’s a produce item. It’s a leaf.”
“Uh…we don’t have that here,” he answered.
Vancouver being the sort of town that it is, I got the feeling that he thought I was using some sort of code for pot. He was probably thinking: 1) Is shiso some kind of variety I haven’t smoked yet? and 2) What’s this crazy girl trying to buy some off me in a grocery store?!
Urban Fare dude, shiso is a produce item, not another kind of leaf. As further testament to my commitment (and craziness), I made Mike stop the car while we were on our way to a Chinese New Year Dinner with my friends when I saw a Vietnamese market named Supermarket 88. It looked like the kind of store that would have shiso, and it did! I think it’s shiso anyway – it looks like it, it tastes like it, we should all just agree that it is shiso.
Tomatoes and shiso aside, you need to cut your block of tofu into rounds. Cookie cutters make doing that really easy, but if you want even more convenience, just buy the round tofu!
Finally, plate it up and you have the best tasting Asian-style caprese salad ever. It was a revelation for me, truly. The creaminess of the tofu, the sweetness of the sherry vinegar in the dressing and the freshness of the peeled tomatoes came together perfectly. Even Mike, who doesn’t even like tofu thought this salad was good. He actually willingly ate tofu, that’s how good this salad was.
Jean-Georges, I don’t blame you for the hair in my chicken. You probably weren’t even there that day. The chicken was insanely delicious, even the one bite out of the hairy one. Your opinion of this cherry tomato salad? Bang on! Mr. Vongerichten, you have good taste!