I’m proud to say that I’m originally from New Jersey. It’s really beautiful in many areas, and there’s far more to it than teased hair, fake orange tans, and the occasional stinky industrial pocket off the turnpike. Did you know that New Jersey is nicknamed the Garden State? Agriculture is a pretty big deal there, and two of the best crops are tomatoes and corn. Having grown up looking forward to local beefsteak tomatoes and sweet corn every summer, I admit that I’m now a bit of a snob about these two ingredients so I only eat them when they’re in season and grown locally. And yes, for you Long Island readers, I consider your crops to be local too. Your tomatoes and corn are *almost* as good as Jersey’s so I’ll take ‘em if that’s what’s available [wink].
When I see beefsteaks and corn popping up at local markets, I get so excited that I tend to go overboard with my purchases. I’m typically cooking just for me, but I always end up hauling home pounds of tomatoes. This would be fine if I could make big batches of sauce and gazpacho and freeze them for the off-season, but as I’ve griped about before, I have zero space in my freezer. So, try as I might to eat all the tomatoes at their prime, I inevitably end up letting at least one or two of them get a bit overripe. Never one to let food go to waste if I can avoid it, my favorite way to salvage those overripe tomatoes is to blend them into a vinaigrette. All it takes is a touch of garlic, a little fresh oregano, some high quality olive oil and sherry vinegar, and you’ve got yourself a dressing that you’ll want to eat all summer long.
I happily pour this vinaigrette over everything from green salads to grilled meat and seafood, but to celebrate the Jersey-ness of those beefsteak tomatoes, I’m tossing the dressing with a salad of local corn, zucchini, and bell peppers. Yep, Jersey farms grow summer squash and peppers too. (And the best cranberries. And big, fat, sweet blueberries. And juicy peaches. And other delicious stuff. I’m telling you, the poor state gets an undeservedly bad rap. But I digress.)
Anyway, back to the salad. I’m talking about a zippy, fresh tomato vinaigrette drizzled over smoky, sweet grilled corn and zucchini and roasted sweet pepper. Sounds pretty great, right? How about if I add some red onion for crunch, briny feta for a salty kick, and creamy avocado for richness? Now we’re in business! And now I’m hungry, so let’s get to it.
The vinaigrette is up first, and it’s a snap to throw together. Just toss all the ingredients into a blender and puree until smooth. I know, I know. Some people remove the skin or the seeds when working with raw tomato but I’m not about to waste all that extra flavor, particularly since it’s all getting pulverized anyway – it’s not like you’re going to be chewing on seeds or pieces of skin. Taste your vinaigrette to make sure the seasoning is balanced, and adjust it with salt, pepper, or a bit more oil or vinegar if necessary. Set it off to the side.
Raw onion can overpower a salad, so before we tackle the actual cooking part of the recipe, put the sliced red onion in a small bowl, cover it with very cold water, and let it soak. In addition to mellowing out the sharp flavor, a cold water soak makes the onion wonderfully crisp.
Okay, time to heat things up! We’ll char the pepper first. Feel free to use any color bell pepper for this salad – I happened to find these beautiful striped flame peppers at the greenmarket. They taste the same as any other sweet bell pepper, and will “roast” the same way too. (Why the quotes? Because technically we’re not roasting the pepper; we’re blistering the skin, then letting the pepper steam. Semantics.) You can either char your pepper over an open flame – a gas burner works great here if you don’t have a grill – or stick it under the broiler. You’re looking for the entire skin to be blackened. Once it starts to char it may even pull away and split open, exposing some of the flesh underneath. That’s fine.
Here’s my blackened pepper. The areas that aren’t black are where the charred skin already shrank or peeled away on its own. Once your pepper is blackened, drop it into a bowl, cover it with a plate, and let it steam while you work on the corn and zucchini.
If you’re fortunate enough to have an actual grill on which to cook the vegetables, definitely use it. Right now this city mouse is stuck on the 26th floor with no outdoor space, so I use a grill pan. (You can also use a regular cast iron pan. Char/color is more important here than perfect grill marks since the pepper is getting skinned and the corn and zucchini will be cut into smaller pieces anyway.) Get the grill or pan nice and hot – I preheat on medium-high for about 5 minutes – then add the husked ears of corn and let them go for about ten minutes, turning occasionally so they’re evenly cooked and charred on all sides.
This corn is looking great. It’s got a gorgeous char, and the kernels are slightly tender when I press them. Set the corn aside to cool while you cook the zucchini.
I use a pastry brush to give the zucchini planks the lightest possible coating of oil, then sprinkle them evenly with Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper before laying them in the pan. The zucchini will only take about 3 minutes on each side to get where you want it. We’re going for color and flavor, but it should hold its shape – no mushy vegetables in this salad!
These planks are perfect. Nicely grilled, but still a bit firm in the center. Now they get diced and tossed into a large bowl. Use a sharp knife to slice the corn kernels off the cobs, and add the corn to the bowl with the zucchini.
Grab the roasted pepper that’s been steaming, and carefully rub off and discard the skin. Remove the stem and seeds, slice the pepper into strips, and add them to the bowl. Drain the onion that you soaked in the cold water, and add it to the bowl along with the avocado, herbs, feta, and optional chili flakes if using (I always do). Drizzle the salad with about a third of the tomato vinaigrette, and toss everything to coat. Taste the salad and decide if you want to add more dressing; the leftovers will keep in an airtight container in the fridge for up to a week.
- For Vinaigrette:
- 8 oz very ripe beefsteak tomato (about 1 large), cut into chunks
- 1 small clove garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
- 1 Tbsp (lightly packed) fresh oregano leaves, roughly chopped
- 25ml (5 tsp) extra virgin olive oil
- 30 ml (2 Tbsp) sherry vinegar
- ¼ tsp kosher salt
- 3-4 grinds black pepper
- For Salad:
- 1 ½ oz red onion (¼ small onion), very thinly sliced
- 1 sweet bell pepper
- 2 large ears (about 8" long) fresh corn, husked
- Neutral oil such as avocado or grape seed
- 1½ lbs zucchini (3-4 medium), sliced into ¼-inch thick planks
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 oz (about ⅓ cup) sheep’s milk feta, crumbled
- ½ avocado, peeled and diced
- 1 Tbsp chopped basil or Italian parsley
- Optional ¼ tsp cayenne or Aleppo pepper flakes for heat
- Optional cooked white beans, chicken, salmon, or steak
- Make vinaigrette: Add all ingredients to blender, and puree until smooth. Taste and season with additional salt, pepper or vinegar if desired. Set aside.
- Soak onion: Add onion slices to a small bowl and cover with very cold water. Let soak.
- Cook vegetables: Set a grill pan or cast iron pan over medium-high heat (or heat an outdoor grill) to preheat for 5 minutes.
- While grill or pan is preheating, char pepper directly over open flame or under broiler, turning several times, until skin is blackened. Transfer to a bowl, cover, and set aside (the pepper will steam in the bowl, softening the flesh and making it easier to remove the skin).
- Add corn to hot grill or pan and cook for about 10 minutes, rotating occasionally, until just tender and evenly charred on all sides. Set aside to cool. Brush zucchini planks very lightly on both sides with oil, season with a sprinkle of salt and pepper, and lay in pan or on grill. Cook for about 3 minutes on each side, until charred and slightly softened, but not mushy. It should still have some bite to it.
- Assemble salad: Cut zucchini into medium dice and transfer to a large bowl. Slice corn kernels from cobs and add to bowl with zucchini. Carefully peel pepper, discard skin, stem, and seeds, and cut pepper into strips; add to bowl. Drain soaked onion and add to bowl with all remaining ingredients, drizzle with bout a third of the dressing, and toss to combine. Taste and add more dressing if desired; leftover vinaigrette will keep refrigerated in an airtight container for up to one week.