When Edward Lee was a young cook in Brooklyn, he lived with a girlfriend who loved tomatoes. He didn’t. “I was like, ‘Koreans don’t eat tomatoes,’” he says. “But she had spent time in Italy, so she was obsessive with them. She kept them at room temperature on the counter in the apartment.”
They started to fight. She’d storm out and slam the door by the kitchen, sending the smell of those ripe tomatoes through the shoebox-sized apartment. She eventually dumped him. He moved to Louisville, where he has risen to the top of his game, first at 610 Magnolia and then at MilkWood. He also runs Succotash in National Harbor, Maryland, which he will expand this summer with a downtown Washington, D.C., location.
A lot of good things came from his move: television shows, James Beard Award nominations, a book, a marriage to Kentucky native Dianne Lee, and a baby. He built a training program for young people who can’t afford culinary school. And he fell in love with Southern vegetables, including tomatoes. But as any Southerner who loves them will tell you, the summer crop can be overwhelming. “They’re so abundant,” Lee says.
He has devised a number of ways to preserve them. One is the quick-pickle. The method produces deeply flavored brine Lee uses as the base for the vinaigrette that dresses a salad that mimics a classic Southern tomato sandwich. The result is reminiscent of panzanella, the Tuscan bread salad. Cool lettuce provides the crunch; flattened, butter-crisped white bread the canvas; and tomatoes the color and tang.
“When I do tomato dishes, I want them to be very tomatoey,” Lee says. “The pickled tomatoes give you another way to do that.” You can use them in other recipes or as bar snacks, too.
Having a plan that allows you to enjoy half your crop raw and preserve the other half is Lee’s first rule of the road for tomato season. That, and never, ever refrigerate them—a lesson he learned from the long-gone girlfriend. “They really are better on the counter,” he says.