There’s nothing quite like the kiss of a wood-fired grill. But when time, space, unbearable humidity or a lack of equipment makes turning up the heat near impossible, call in chef Jeff Mahin’s secret weapon: a flavor-packed tomato oil (see the recipe) that seamlessly adds sweetness and smoke to a bevy of summer dishes.
Mahin, the chef/partner of Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, found that the summer salads his cooks regularly whip up for family meal had a particularly massive depth of flavor from the tomatoes, onions and garlic they’d char on the grill before tossing with other ingredients. He started to play with the concept, folding charred tomato salsa into olive oil as a chunky dressing for a salad of shaved vegetables and peppery greens.
Realizing that the same flavors would be even more versatile if infused into the oil itself, he modified the recipe further, blasting tomatoes, garlic and red bell peppers under a broiler until they were almost completely blackened, then steeping them still warm in olive oil with oregano, chile flakes, anchovies and a fresh bay leaf. Once strained, the bright oil was full of umami with fat, salt, sweetness and heat working together in a pool of smoky char.
“All of these ingredients are amazing by themselves,” Mahin says. “But when you infuse them all together, wow. We leave a little residual juice in the oil so that it can be reminiscent of a vinaigrette, too. So when we use it in crostini, salads or pasta, it gives a depth of rich flavor from the char and smoke, while still remaining super delicate and light.”
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Here are a couple of other ways Mahin recommends using the oil. Start charring and happy summer.
On Peppery Greens: Because there’s a little water left in the infused oil, it works as a dressing on its own, dropping rich, warm flavor onto particularly strong bitter salad greens, like arugula, dandelion or mustard. “But if the green is too delicate—like butter leaf or romaine—the oil is far too aggressive, and you lose the taste of the lettuce itself,” Mahin says. “And with salads, you want to taste the ingredients.”
In a Smoky Vinaigrette: For a concentrated vinaigrette with more bite, combine three parts tomato oil to one part sherry vinegar, whisking it together by hand or shaking it in a closed container to emulsify. Add a teaspoon or two of whole-grain mustard if desired, too. “Don’t put too much on your salad, or you’ll lose the flavor of whatever else you’re eating. It should be a dressing, not a coating. It’s there to accentuate flavor, not mask it.”
Drizzled on Pizza or Meatballs: Because the oil has such a deep, smoky nose to it, it pairs particularly well with rich, fatty dishes that already have a tomato component like pizza or meatballs. Drizzle a bit of the oil on dishes right before serving, making sure not to use it on delicate pies, like a white sauce or prosciutto-and-egg combo: “Think red sauce, meat and hearty vegetables,” Mahin suggests.
Purée into a Spread: “I hate wasting things, especially when they’re delicious. If you’re having a party and make the oil, use the topping for a tapenade or on a sandwich.” After infusing and straining out the oil, remove the bay leaf, pour everything into a blender and purée until thick but smooth. Then fold into scrambled eggs, smear onto toast or layer onto pizza dough. Spread the purée on a slice of bread and a few pieces of cheese on another, and then toast them together for a “fancy grilled cheese that’s like heaven. It’s unbelievable in a quesadilla, too.”
To Finish a Grilled Steak: “Tomato and fennel pollen are meant for each other,” Mahin promises. “Fennel pollen has the taste of fennel seed but a bigger nose and bouquet. So when it chars, it burns the meat on the outside and perfumes it. You get a really subtle and smoky fennel nose.” Rub a steak with salt and fennel pollen, grill to your desired temperature, and then drizzle on the oil. Because the oil is already smoky, it will add a huge wood-fired nose to the steak: “The first thing you smell is the char of the steak, then the roasted fennel smell, and that aromatic oil, and a little of the herb, and the tomato.”
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