The combination of bacon, lettuce, and tomato shines bright outside of the confines of a sandwich
I love the radical simplicity of a BLT, the way it’s never extra, and how each of its parts is integral to the balance of the whole. When those three core ingredients, the B, L, and T — smoky bacon, fresh lettuce, and juicy-sweet tomatoes — are paired together, they create a galaxy of flavor I want to visit every day of the summer.
But I never needed those three ingredients to be a sandwich, and neither did the BLT. They work together whether they’re in a sandwich, pasta, or salad. I realized this a few summers ago when I put a BLT salad on the menu at San Francisco’s Zuni Café, where I was a sous chef. Despite my best efforts, diners there didn’t come for sandwiches. But when I put the salad on the menu — without even calling it a salad — everyone knew exactly what that list of ingredients was. Their reaction wasn’t subtle: On the nights the salad was available, we’d blow through too many cases of tomatoes and the backup prep cook would have to re-prep the mise en place a few times. In other words, it gave me one of those “aha” moments: okay, I get what people want to order now.
This salad — an adaptation of the one I served at Zuni — is inspired by my love of the BLT’s individual ingredients, especially the tomatoes overflowing at every market during the height of summer. In sandwich form, they unfortunately don’t get enough attention, so in my salad, I try to compensate for this neglect by casting them in a starring role. I’m not dogmatic about types of tomatoes: I like a mix of sungolds, heirlooms, beefsteaks, the ones sold on the vine at supermarkets, or really any super deliciously ripe tomato you have. I toss them in a simple vinegary shallot vinaigrette and then add a lot of fresh parsley and arugula, which acts as the lettuce here. An added bonus of dressing tomatoes this way is that even if you end up with mediocre tomatoes from the market, a punchy vinaigrette acts like a quick marinade that improves even the most bland, watery ones.
Usually a BLT sandwich has mayonnaise, which is hardly even acknowledged beyond the ingredients list. That changes with my salad because I think that the creaminess of mayo is integral, like a soft landing for all the other punchy flavors and textures. I call for doctoring store-bought mayo with garlic, lemon, and a little olive oil, but if you’re feeling up for it, I also include a quick guide on how to make your own aioli spread. Either way you’ll use it to cover the plate so each bite of salad is as rich as it is juicy, herbaceous, and bright.
I also recognize that without bread or some starchy element there would be a major void in this salad. So instead of having the B here be just for bacon, it also stands for breadcrumbs. After cooking chopped bacon in a pan, I use the rendered bacon fat to toast breadcrumbs, and then toss them with coarsely ground black pepper. Sprinkled on top, they add a crispy, super bacon-y breadcrumb deal for this salad. It’s the best thing to happen to a BLT since — well, sliced bread.
BLT Salad Recipe
Say hi to BLT, but in salad form. Feel free to play around with the order of how you prepare things here. For example, you can make the garlicky mayo while the bacon is cooking (or even make it before) and you can also slice the tomatoes and dress them first, with the caveat that the bacon and breadcrumbs should cool down before serving.
For the breadcrumbs and bacon:
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ pound thick-cut bacon (about 6 slices), roughly chopped
2½ ounces (about 1½ cups) coarse raw breadcrumbs (panko is an okay substitute)
Freshly ground black pepper
For the garlicky lemon mayonnaise:
2 small garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 tablespoon lemon juice
½ cup mayonnaise
3 tablespoons olive oil
Or, for making aioli:
1 egg yolk
2 small cloves garlic, finely grated or finely chopped
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
½ cup olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
For the salad:
1 small shallot, finely chopped
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
½ teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
1½ pounds tomatoes such as a mix of cherry, heirloom, and whatever looks ripe and delicious
2 cups chopped fresh herbs and/or salad greens
First, make the breadcrumbs:
Step 1: Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium in a large saute pan. Once the oil is warm, add the bacon and cook, stirring often until it’s golden brown and crispy, about 8 to 10 minutes. Turn the heat down to medium-low and transfer the bacon to a paper towel-lined plate. You should be left with 3-4 tablespoons of bacon grease in the pan; discard any more than that, or reserve it for another use.
Step 2: Add the breadcrumbs to the pan, stirring constantly so they saturate in the fat and turn golden and mostly toasted with some delicious chewy bits too, about 8 minutes. Turn off the heat, transfer the bacon back to the pan, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, and toss well. Set aside until ready to use.
Next, make the mayonnaise:
Step 1: Finely grate or chop the garlic into a small bowl, add lemon juice and set aside for a few minutes to let the lemon juice tame the garlic. Add the mayonnaise and whisk to combine. Slowly and gradually whisk in the olive oil and season with salt, if needed.
Or, make the aioli instead:
Step 1: In a medium high-sided bowl, whisk the egg yolk, garlic, and mustard to combine. Whisking constantly, add the oil, drop by drop at first until the mixture emulsifies and thickens. (Please, please, please don’t add the oil too quickly or the aioli will break and separate.) Whisk in the remaining oil until it’s incorporated and the aioli is stiff enough to hold its shape when spooned. Whisk in the lemon juice and season with salt
Make the salad:
Step 1: Add the shallot, vinegar, and salt to a large bowl. Slice the cherry tomatoes in half and any larger tomatoes into ½-inch wedges or half-moons. Add the sliced tomatoes, olive oil, and herbs and/or salad greens to the bowl. Toss gently and season with more salt, if needed.
Step 2: To serve, smear the garlicky mayonnaise or aioli on a large serving plate or individual plates. Place the dressed greens and tomatoes on top and sprinkle with the bacon breadcrumbs.
Christian Reynoso is a chef, cooking columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, and recipe contributor to Bon Appétit, Epicurious, and Taste, among others.
Dina Ávila is a photographer in Portland, Oregon.
Recipe tested by Ivy Manning