Tomato sandwiches can be as simple as bread, mayonnaise, tomato, salt and pepper. Or you can add ingredients with recipes such as — Grilled Tomato and Brie Sandwiches, Grilled Tomato Sandwich with Blue Cheese Spread.

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Consider the tomato sandwich.

It’s an excellent example of the maxim that the simplest ingredients yield the highest reward: Bread. Mayonnaise. Tomato. Salt. Pepper.

You can debate each element — which bread, which mayonnaise, which tomato. But add anything more and you’ve gone too far.

You may be able to buy a tomato in January, but you can only achieve tomato sandwich greatness in the months of tomato perfection. Earlier than July or later than September and you should forget it — eat grilled cheese.

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Of all the foods that define Southernness, the tomato sandwich may be right up there with grits as the true dividing line.

Molly Mullen can tell you that. A native of Charlotte who works at Wells Fargo, Mullen celebrated the Fourth of July the best way she knew how. She invited a couple of dozen friends for her first annual Tomato Sandwich Social She sliced tomatoes she bought at the farmers market, put out bread and mayonnaise — Duke’s for the purists, Hellman’s for everyone else. Friends brought cold salads and appetizers, and Mullen threw in 4 pounds of bacon for those who insist.

At first, she discovered, the people who were not from around here didn’t get the concept. Those from other regions wanted toasted bread, lettuce and bacon.

“They wanted club sandwiches,” she says. “They did not understand the concept of the white bread, tomato, salt and pepper.” But Mullen cajoled and fellow Southerners instructed. The two sides eventually came together.

“Those Yankees here are like, ‘A tomato sandwich — what else do you put on it?’ I say you have not experienced the true treasure of life if you haven’t had a tomato sandwich.”

The newcomers who tried it came around, she said. They went through all the bacon, all the tomatoes, three loaves of white bread and one of ciabatta. And everyone is still talking about it, she says.

Summer is long and the tomatoes are plentiful. So we’ll concede that you might get your fill. We’ve included recipes for a couple of variations on the tomato sandwich. But before you make them, consider the wise words of Molly Mullen:

“Sometimes, the simplest things in life, you think you have to make it better. And you really don’t with a tomato sandwich.”

Molly Mullen’s Tomato Sandwich

1. Start with an old-fashioned, plain, white bread.

2. Spread the bread with mayonnaise. No choice there: “It has to be Duke’s.”

3. Choose your tomato. “I will not discriminate because I will eat them all. The heirlooms taste so different. They’re so much richer. But I love a good beefsteak. Anything red and you’re ready to go.”

4. Slice the tomato. “If you can get a tomato that is the circumference of the bread, that’s the epitome. But sometimes the bigger aren’t always the better. I will put three slices on a sandwich (if the smaller tomato is better). But the best is if you can get one big slice of tomato on the bread.”

5. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Top with bread.

Grilled Tomato and Brie Sandwiches

Makes 4 servings

8 (1-ounce) slices 100 percent whole-grain bread (about 1/4-inch thick)

1 teaspoon olive oil

1 garlic clove, halved

2 teaspoons country-style Dijon mustard

4 ounces Brie cheese, thinly sliced

1 1/3 cups packaged baby arugula and spinach greens

8 (1/4-inch-thick) slices beefsteak tomato

Cooking spray

1. Heat grill, grill pan, griddle or skillet over high heat. Brush one side of each bread slice with oil; rub with cut sides of garlic. Spread 1/2 teaspoon mustard on each of 4 bread slices, oil side down. Top with 1 ounce cheese, 1/3 cup greens and 2 tomato slices. Top with remaining bread, oil side up.

2. Coat pan or grill with cooking spray. Cook sandwiches about 2 minutes per side until lightly toasted and cheese is melted.

From Cooking Light magazine, June 2009.

Grilled Tomato Sandwich with Blue Cheese Spread

1/4 cup blue cheese

About 1 tablespoon cream cheese

1 teaspoon chopped fresh chives

1/2 to 1 teaspoon milk

2 slices good-quality, crusty bread

2 to 3 slices ripe, red tomato

Salt and pepper to taste

1/2 to 1 tablespoon butter

1. Mash blue cheese, cream cheese and chives with just enough milk to make it spreadable. Smear a thin layer on each slice of bread. Top with tomato slices, salt and pepper and put bread together to make a sandwich.

2. Heat skillet and add butter. Swirl around pan until melted and pan is coated. Place sandwich in skillet and cook a couple of minutes, until toasted on one side. Press down sandwich gently with a spatula and turn. Cook until golden and gooey.

3. Cut on diagonal and serve hot. (If you’re making more than one, assemble them on a baking sheet, brush with melted butter and broil on both sides.).

Note: Adapted from “Mark Bittman’s Kitchen Express” Bittman’s recipes in this book are very loose directions with no measurements. These are our estimates, but feel free to use more or less or anything as needed.

(c) 2009, The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.).

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