“When it’s done right, a BLT is a work of art,” said Nolan Greene, produce manager of the Linden Hills Co-op in Minneapolis.
Truer words were never spoken.
The discussion was focused on heirloom tomatoes — those colorful, delicate, prodigiously juicy, deeply flavorful and fragrant varieties — and how they make the world’s best sandwich (that would be the bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich) even better.
The sandwich’s key ingredients are obviously listed alphabetically, rather than in terms of importance, because the BLT is clearly all about the tomato.
The bacon — and the sandwich’s wallflower component, the lettuce — are merely sideshows to the main event. Vital, yes, but supporting players nonetheless.
Fortunately for all of us, 2019 is shaping up to be a banner year for many Minnesota tomato growers.
One of Greene’s principal suppliers, Featherstone Farm in Rushford, Minn., is in the midst of such a plentiful harvest that Twin Cities consumers are about to benefit, big time.
“They have an influx of heirloom tomatoes to a degree that they need to unload a whole bunch of them, ASAP,” said Greene.
For the next few days — as long as supplies last — the co-op (and its sibling, Wedge Co-op in Minneapolis) will be cutting per-pound prices, from the usual $5.99 to $2.99. For those not immersed in the heirloom tomato market, that is a major deal. Let the BLT-making begin.
One of the BLT’s many admirable attributes is that the title is also the recipe. No elaborate instructions are necessary.
Still, some professional expertise never hurts, and two leading Minneapolis BLT makers were happy to share their know-how.
At Sandcastle, chef Doug Flicker’s bestselling BLT is a perfect example of the simple-wins-the-race genre. At Birchwood Cafe — and at the restaurant’s collaboration with the Minnesota Farmers Union at the Minnesota State Fair — chef Marshall Paulsen has devised a remarkable dolled-up version, adding a seasonally appropriate sweet corn-chipotle coulis and pesto aioli.
First lesson: When it comes to tomatoes, reach for the best available. Preferably, locally grown.
(By the way, for BLTs, Greene prefers the Striped German heirloom variety. “Because visually, on a BLT, they just look so awesome,” he said. “But the one that kind of wins out, flavorwise, is the Cherokee purple. It’s a beautiful tomato, and it’s really, really good.”)
When slicing, remember to balance the tomato’s acidity against the bacon’s fattiness. And always season the tomatoes with a bit of salt and freshly ground black pepper.
“You’re losing flavor if you don’t do that,” said Flicker, who recommends using Diamond Crystal brand kosher salt. Paulsen likes coarse sea salt.
The oven is bacon’s best friend
As for the bacon, “You have to have a quality bacon, or what’s the point?” said Flicker. “For me, it has to be good, thick-cut bacon, and it can’t be overly crisp. You still have to have a little bit of that chew in the fat.”
In terms of preparation, Paulsen suggests skipping the frying pan.
“Frying it on the stovetop is a mess,” he said. “The oven is a much better alternative. It gives the bacon a bit of a buffer, because when you’re using the oven, there’s a bigger window in between ‘perfect’ and ‘burned.’ ”
Here’s how: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, line a rimmed baking sheet in aluminum foil and arrange the bacon slices in a single layer. Roast until the bacon is browned and crisp, about 8 to 12 minutes, rotating the pan from front to back halfway through baking; the timing will depend upon the oven’s eccentricities and the bacon’s thickness (“My advice is to turn on the oven light and check the bacon often,” said Paulsen). Remove the pan from the oven and, using tongs, transfer the bacon to a paper towel-lined plate.
Lettuce? Flicker believes in cold iceberg.
“It’s got snap, and it’s succulent,” he said. “It’s not bitter, like arugula. And it’s probably the way my mom made it. I know my mom didn’t put romaine on her BLTs. But what you grew up with, that’s definitely an element.”
Paulsen advocates a more universal approach to greens.
“It’s really whatever you like, and the crunchier, the better,” he said. “In the end, it doesn’t really matter. I’ve made BLTs with kale, broccoli leaves, microgreens and sprouts. We use Bibb, because one to two leaves is the perfect size.”
When it comes to bread, the Birchwood’s bakers create a dense, seed-packed loaf; the restaurant’s State Fair version is built with a Kernza-rich focaccia from Baker’s Field Flour & Bread in Minneapolis. At Sandcastle, Flicker relies upon toasted slices of white bread.
“It has to be white bread,” he said. “Something neutral, because the BLT is super-simple.”
Don’t forget the mayonnaise (at home, Flicker prefers Miracle Whip brand salad dressing), and plenty of it. If they’re on hand, chop basil and/or chives and blend them into the Hellmann’s.
“Look in the refrigerator, and experiment with stuff,” said Paulsen. “If you have hummus, or cream cheese spread, or pesto, it’s probably going to be great on a BLT. But even a not-great BLT leaves people pretty satisfied.”