Unless it’s summer, don’t you dare slip Pat Martin a slice of tomato. The Pitmaster doesn’t suffer from tasteless out-of-season produce – tomatoes in particular.
“There should be a law passed by Congress that tomatoes can only be eaten when they’re in season in your area,” he says. “This crap of picking tomatoes on the west coast greens, gassing them in a truck and sending them to us or somewhere else. They’re just grainy and tasteless. It really is an insult to a tomato.”
But during the three to four months of summer, when tomatoes are in season and Martin can find fat, colorful heirlooms at the farmer’s market or pick his own from one of the 93 tomato plants in his garden? He’s a very lucky man. And he and his family will have one of his open grilled tomato sandwiches.
“We do it every summer, every weekend,” he says.
Martin is the founder and owner of Martin’s Bar-B-Que with 10 locations (seven in Tennessee, one in Kentucky, one in West Virginia and one in South Carolina) and countless followers. He specializes in grilling whole hogs in West Tennessee and is one of the few pit masters to preserve the endangered regional grilling style. (Compared to the better-known South Carolina version, West Tennessee Whole Hog, he says, uses larger hogs that are pit-cooked with hickory, and the meat is pulled rather than chopped, and the different parts of the pulled meat are not mixed When served on a sandwich, the pork is topped with coleslaw and a sweet but still peppery vinegar sauce made with a combination of apple cider and white distilled vinegar.)
Martin has devoted himself to the craft of pit cooking and his new cookbook – he prefers to call it “the book of procedures” – life of fire: Mastering the art of pit grilling, grilling and smokehouse cooking, is a passionate, engaging and accessible guide to the many ways of working with fire. The 320-page book, co-written with Nick Fauchald and beautifully photographed by Andrew Thomas Lee, is organized around the life of a fire (from starting a fire – ‘Birth’ – to boiling with embers and ash – ‘Death’ ). It includes recipes for everything from grilled summer squash and pit-cooked pork belly to charred snow peas and cold-smoked duck breast. And yes, it includes detailed instructions for each step of roasting a whole hog the West Tennessee way.
Considering Martin spends his days sourcing ingredients, roasting pigs, and working on the pit, it’s not surprising that when he’s cooking at home for his wife, Martha, and their three children, he rarely or never does grilled.
“I don’t eat a lot of it unless I’m actually with one of my friends because I’m with my own stuff all the time. It’s not like I consciously say, “I don’t want to do this,” I just don’t do it. But you have to part with your work,” he says. “When I cook at home, I either stew something or I cook vegetables. I really, really, really love cooking vegetables.”
That love is easy to see in his recipe for an open-faced grilled tomato sandwich, which he first prepared at Martha’s request (hence the name) and which includes it life of fire. A thoughtful play on the Southern summer staple, it sees old tomatoes sliced, as Martin puts it, “about the thickness of a Bic pen”, grilled on both sides until slightly charred, down to a thick chunk grilled sourdough bread smeared with mayonnaise, and topped with light, flaky salt and a sprinkling of toasted hemp seeds.
“I want the tomato to speak for itself,” says Martin. “Everything else is complementary to it, no different than a barbecue sauce is complementary to the meat you’re cooking.”
The sandwich is a hit with everyone, including Martin’s children Wyatt (12), Daisy (15) and Walker (16). It’s easy to see why: There’s the smoky, charred tomato, the creaminess of the mayonnaise, the crunchiness of the bread, the texture of the hemp seeds (“They’re not a gimmick,” he insists. “They really bring a subtle note of weirdness, which really tops it all off.
It also helps if, like Martin, you enjoy it in the right circumstances.
“I’m telling you, man, that sandwich in the summer with a good glass of champagne for lunch? It really is a handsome dog that is hard to beat.”
Open grilled tomato sandwiches from Martha’s
Makes two open sandwiches.
- 1 large old tomato (use a meaty, sweet variety like Cherokee Purple or Brandywine)
- 2 tablespoons hemp hearts or pumpkin seeds
- 2 teaspoons olive oil
- Fleur de sel or other flaky salt
- 2 thick slices of sourdough or farmhouse white bread
- Mayonnaise (Duke’s brand strongly preferred), to taste
Cut the tomato into 3⁄4 inch thick slices. Refrigerate until chilled, at least 30 minutes.
Heat the hemp hearts in a small skillet over medium-high heat and toss for 2 to 3 minutes until the hearts start to turn brown and smell nutty, but trust your eyes and your nose more than a timer. Remove from heat and toss the hearts for another 30 seconds, then transfer to a bowl and set aside.
Prepare a medium-high grill. Clean and oil the cooking grates well.
Brush both sides of each tomato slice with the olive oil and season with fleur de sel. Grill the tomatoes until lightly charred on one side, about 3 minutes, then flip and grill until the other side is lightly charred, about 3 minutes longer. Meanwhile, spread both sides of bread with mayonnaise and grill until toasted, 1 to 2 minutes per side.
Spread more mayonnaise on one side of each piece of toast to assemble. Top with a slice of tomato and sprinkle with roasted hemp seeds and fleur de sel. Surcharge.