Tomatoes are one of summer’s greatest pleasures and, for many people, the ultimate tomato creation is the BLT. Unless, of course, you don’t eat meat.
There is a strange phenomenon among some vegetarians, however, even strict, long-term, sincere vegetarians: they occasionally lose their resolve when faced with bacon. “It’s the smell,” a seemingly committed vegetarian friend recently confided to me, “it gets me every time.”
Indeed, in all the couples I know of where the party of the first part is a vegetarian and the party of the second part is not, it is usually the preparation of bacon by the party of the second part that leads to the ultimate downfall of the party of the first part. In short, it’s a slippery slope, made all the more slippery by the application of aromatic, sizzling bacon grease. From enjoying a once-in-a-blue-moon BLT, it’s not a far cry to the occasional sampling of prosciutto at parties (“social” bacon use) to regularly adding ham hocks to soups “just to flavor the stock” to late-night, shame-based trips to 7-11 for a handful of Slim Jims. “It’s a gateway meat,” explains The Late, Late Show‘s Craig Ferguson — and he’s so right.
It needn’t be that way. I eat meat now and then, but even I don’t necessarily want to eat bacon every time I fancy a BLT (which is constantly, when decent tomatoes are to be had). So I’ve come up with some bacon alternatives. Or, I suppose I should say, alternatives to bacon alternatives. I don’t have anything at all against soy-based strips made to look and taste (kind of) like bacon, I just don’t think they’re necessary when there are so many other choices.
My favorite option is to season tomato slices with smoked salt. Smoked salt comes in many flavors and colors. A quick internet search will yield several salt purveyors that offer many varieties, but be sure to check out a few different websites, since not all of them offer the full range of salts available. For a faint smoke flavor I like a Welsh salt called Halen Mon (it is smoked over Oak), and for a stronger flavor I like Salish, a salt from Washington State that is smoked over Alderwood. I also tried Bali, a salt from Bali that is smoked over coconut shells and Kaffir lime leaves, but its flavor is so delicate that it’s better suited to foods that don’t have a lot of their own flavor, like tofu and pasta.
Next on the list is something that has, until relatively recently, completely terrified me: Liquid Smoke. (I assume my anxiety about it has something to do with my deep-seated fear of fire, but it seems less cowardly, not to mention less weird, to say that I’m merely afraid of additives and preservatives.) Well, guess what. Several brands claim not to have any additives or preservatives, and several chefs whose opinions I respect tell me they use it without hesitation. It’s carried by a large, nation-wide natural food store (in the BBQ sauce aisle) as well as at most grocery stores. Add a small amount to a dollop of mayonnaise and see if you like it. Remember you can always add more, so start “small,” and if you do like it you can put it in your BLT next to the neighboring tomatoes (at least they should be neighboring, but more on that later) — you should have something that approximates the flavor of bacon juice running into creamy mayonnaise just barely tinged with the juice from the tomatoes. Ah.
Of course, smoked cheeses make a nice addition to a meatless “BLT” as well: smoked cheddar, smoked mozzarella, smoked provolone, and smoked Gouda are all good choices. There’s a nice Bavarian cheese called Bruder Basil that is smoked over Beechwood and has a mildly smoky flavor. There’s no basil in it (I think it’s named for a monk named Basil or something like that) and you can usually find in a respectable cheese store. A good cheesemonger or cheese counter in a gourmet shop will let you sample it.
If you want the sensation of warmth that bacon normally contributes to a proper BLT, sautée some of the tomato slices in a modest amount of butter. Salt and pepper them and then add them to fresh slices of tomato for the hot/cold contrast that is one of the most pleasing features of a BLT.
Lastly, whether you are making your BLT with bacon or one of its salty/smoky taste-alikes, you need to know that there is one and only one Right Way to make a BLT. I learned it at my father’s elbow. Deviation is unwise, resistance futile. It goes like this:
1.) Start with a slice of a lightly toasted bread of your choice, preferably something whose taste is mild and will not compete with the flavor of the bacon, tomato, or the bacon substitute. No rye! No pumpernickel!
2.) Next comes the butter. Yes, butter. Lightly butter the aforementioned piece of toast. You want the butter to blend with the flavor of the bacon or B.S. (bacon substitute).
3.) Now add the bacon or B.S. Some like it crisp and brittle, some like it pliable and barely warmed over. You make the call.
4.) It’s time to add the lettuce. Iceberg lettuce has its place (its cellular structure is such that it holds great quantities of water, which is what makes it so crisp and refreshing in a summer salad), but you want to use a less conspicuous lettuce in a good BLT — it’s a supporting actor, not the star. Use some leaves of Boston lettuce, butter lettuce, or red or green leaf lettuce. You can use a more strongly flavored green, like arugula, which is tasty and good, but then the sandwich becomes an Arugula, Bacon, and Tomato sandwich instead, as the predominant flavor of the arugula sort of guarantees itself top billing.
5.) Add the tomatoes. They rarely need salting as bacon is so salty itself, but some fresh ground pepper is always nice. Of course if you are using smoked salt in place of bacon, salt away! (In moderation, naturally …)
6.) Okay. Get ready. Here’s the most important part: a really good mayonnaise. Use whichever brand you like, but don’t, under any circumstances, use a sandwich “spread.” That is just a waste of time, tomatoes, and bacon. What you are basically trying to achieve here is direct tomato-mayo contact. Tomato-mayo contact is imperative if you wish to achieve the slightly pink-hued, runny orgy of creamy summer tomato goodness that is the BLT as we know it.
7.) Of course you don’t spread the mayo directly on the tomatoes. You spread it on the remaining slice of unobtrusive toast.
8.) Place the last slice of bread atop the rest of the sandwich. Stand back and admire your creation, maybe take a photo or two.
And there you have it: the One True BLT.
Just remember, God is in the details, and you don’t have to use bacon to enjoy one, so you can not have your meat and eat it too.