Tomato season is just begging for this easy Tomato Salad with Deconstructed Pesto!
Juicy fresh tomatoes are topped with the ingredients of a classic pesto without bothering to blend them together.
It’s light, it’s simple and it’s the perfect side dish for a picnic, cookout or weeknight dinner.
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What you need for this easy tomato salad
The top priority here is, obviously, the tomatoes. This salad will be best from late August to mid-October when tomatoes are at their peak. I love a gnarly heirloom tomato but a classic red tomato will work perfectly well, too.
Then you simply top the salad with classic pesto ingredients like basil, olive oil, Parmesan cheese and pine nuts, without having to blend them. It’s fresh, it’s summery and it’s so simple!
Besides tomatoes, you’ll also need:
- extra virgin olive oil
- fresh garlic
- fresh basil
- Parmesan cheese
- toasted pine nuts
- red wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar or balsamic glaze (see recipe notes for how to make it)
- flaky sea salt
As for equipment:
- a cutting board (preferably with a moat to catch the tomato juices)
- a serrated knife for the tomatoes
- a small skillet
- a small saucepan (for the balsamic glaze, if making yourself)
- a vegetable peeler
- a serving platter
How to pick and store tomatoes
You’re looking for tomatoes that feel solid and heavy for their size. Some blemishes and small bruises are fine (you’ll notice my tomatoes in these pictures aren’t perfect) but the bruises shouldn’t be too big or dark.
Once you bring them home, store them at room temperature.
If you don’t have air conditioning and your kitchen gets really hot, you can store them in your fridge but definitely bring them to room temperature before serving. It’s not ideal but it’s fine.
How to make this tomato basil salad
It’s so easy but there are a few steps before you can start assembling the tomato salad.
You can dice the fresh garlic and sprinkle over the salad if you want. But some people find fresh garlic to be too harsh so instead we’re going to infuse garlic flavor into the olive oil.
To do this, you simply heat the olive oil with one fresh, peeled garlic clove. Once the garlic has turned golden on all sides, it has fulfilled its garlic destiny and you can dispose of it (or use it for something else). Your garlic oil is now ready to go.
Pesto traditionally doesn’t have any acid like citrus or vinegar added. And this salad doesn’t really need it either.
But if you want, you can drizzle a little red wine vinegar or balsamic vinegar over the tomatoes. They’re both mild enough to balance the tomatoes’ acidity. I think lemon juice would be too acidic.
A thick, syrupy balsamic glaze would also be great drizzled over the salad. You can buy balsamic glaze by the vinegars at a grocery store. But if you can’t find it, all you have to do is follow the steps below the recipe to reduce balsamic vinegar with some sugar or honey until it thickens up into a delicious syrup.
You can then use the leftover glaze on meats, vegetables and even vanilla ice cream.
You will also toast the pine nuts to bring out their nutty, buttery flavor.
Once your oil and choice of vinegar is ready to go and the nuts are toasted and cooled, it’s just a matter of assembling the salad.
- Slice the tomatoes with a serrated knife (like a bread knife). This kind of blade works much better with tomatoes than a traditional blade.
- Arrange them on a serving platter, slightly overlapping if necessary.
- Then drizzle with the vinegar (if using) and garlic oil.
- Then strew the fresh basil leaves (chopped if they’re too big) over everything.
- Use a vegetable peeler to shave off wide, thin slices of the Parmesan over everything. You can also use a knife to cut off small chunks if you prefer.
- Finally, sprinkle with the pine nuts and some flaky sea salt, maybe drizzle a little more vinegar and oil, and you’re ready to go!
Just don’t add the salt until the very last second before eating. The salt will eventually draw out the tomatoes’ water and make everything watery.
Variations and substitutions
- You can use any kind of tomatoes you like. Large or small, cherry or grape – they all work well here.
- Instead of Parmesan, you can use fresh mozzarella, burrata, feta or goat cheese.
- Instead of pine nuts, you can use chopped pistachios or toasted walnuts.
- Instead of basil, you can use fresh mint, tarragon or a combination.
- Instead of making garlic oil, you can just use plain extra virgin olive oil.
You can make the garlic oil up to one week in advance. Store at room temperature.
You can make the balsamic glaze up to 2 weeks in advance and keep it in the fridge. Bring to room temperature.
What to serve with this unpesto pesto salad
This tomato salad would work well with all kinds of summery meals:
Alongside a grilled steak would be perfection.
At a picnic or party alongside this bacon broccoli salad would be great.
Serve it with this Italian Egg Bake for a lovely brunch.
A simple, broiled or pan-fried salmon would round out the meal.
Serve it with this grilled Italian platter for a fresh side dish with all the grilled veggies and sausage.
Tomato Salad with Deconstructed Pesto
- In a small skillet, add the olive oil and garlic. Turn heat to medium and let cook, stirring occasionally, until garlic is golden on all sides, about 6-7 minutes. Let cool. Discard garlic (or save for another use) and pour the oil into a small glass cup or bowl. Wipe the skillet out.
- Add the pine nuts to the skillet and cook over medium heat, stirring and tossing occasionally, until they're golden brown and smell like popcorn, about 4-5 minutes. Pour into a bowl and let cool.
- Core the tomatoes (meaning, cut out the dark brown stem spot on top). Using a serrated knife, slice the tomatoes from top to bottom into 1/4" thick slices. Arrange them, overlapping slightly, on a platter.
- Sprinkle with the salt, then drizzle with the garlic oil and any vinegar, if using. Scatter on the basil and pine nuts. Use a vegetable peeler to slice off shavings of Parmesan onto the salad. Drizzle with just a little more oil and vinegar, if you like. Serve immediately.