Above: Chef Justin Smillie with Francis Lam and a dish of freshly
made summer tomato panade at Upland restaurant in New York City.

Summer is the best time to think about cooking with tomatoes, and Chef Justin Smillie has the perfect dish to showcase the juicy, sweet and rich flavors of tomatoes. His Summer Tomato Panade is like a savory bread pudding but instead of soaking the bread in custard, it's soaked in grated fresh tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and herbs, and also includes olive oil-cured salt cod. It's a wonderful dish that Francis Lam admits he can't stop thinking about, so he visited Smillie's restaurant, Upland in New York City, for a lesson on making the dish.

Raid your garden for tomatoes to make the recipe for Olive Oil-Cured Cod and Summer Tomato Panade from Smillie's book, Slow Fires: Mastering the Way to Braise, Roast and Grill. It's a great family or group project. As discussed in the conversation below, be prepared to make the dish one day and let it sit overnight in the refrigerator before baking the next day.

Francis Lam: As you see, I've conveniently arranged to be in the same room with you as you make your tomato panade again. I have never forgotten that photo shoot where I tried to steal all your mise en place and destroy your shoot because it's so delicious. I'm hoping you can walk us through making this dish.

Justin Smillie: Absolutely.

FL: For your ingredients, you have a lot of them but it's pretty simple stuff. You have beautiful tomatoes, toasted bread, herbs – oregano and parsley – and you have your salt cod.

JS: Which has been quickly poached in a little bit of olive oil.

FL: I am a huge fan of salt cod. My wife is Portuguese, so it’s like whatever the legal version of “in my blood” is. But, for people who are not into salt cod – or potentially not into fish – would you make this with anything else or would you just do without?

JS: You could absolutely do it without. I've done it with grilled, sliced portobello mushrooms. You could do it with just a little bit of green tomato. In Sicily they have these whole, trombone-like zucchini; those are beautiful if you dry them out with a little salt in the sun and pack them in. It still gives you that nice, chewy texture.

The important thing is you want something that's soft, supple and fruity – like the fresh tomato – and the punch of grated tomato, and then whatever else you want to put in there.

Justin Smillie Justin Smillie Photo: Starr Restaurants

FL: Tell me about this bowl of deliciousness you have here.

JS: One of my favorite things to eat in the summer time is pan Catalan; this is a riff on that. I wanted to take pantry staples like stale bread, passata, and vinegar, have something that you could eat or serve for a late brunch or a late afternoon lunch.

FL: And what's passata?

JS: It's a paste tomato product. In this instance, we take fresh tomatoes, split them in half – top to bottom – and put them over the large tooth of a box grater to capture all the pulp. And we chop a little bit of garlic, Fresno chili – which is like a red jalapeño – olive oil, parsley and oregano. We’re building layers of flavor and saturate every different level.

FL: You have this beautiful gratin dish with some of that passata on the bottom and the herbs, garlic, and oil.

JS: Then fresh whole tomatoes, so we have different alternating textures all the way through. The salt cod that we made is Atlantic cod; we salt ours for about three days and then we soak for about 24 hours.

FL: Fresh cod buried in salt for three days. Take it out, rinse it, and soak it in water?

JS: We actually do a mixture of water and milk. The milk helps sweeten the cod a little bit.

FL: Okay. You have these beautiful toasts; you're just kind of breaking them up and mashing them into the tomatoes.

JS: The most important thing with the bread – and this is the same thing if we're doing croutons or some kind of fry bread – it’s a really wet dish, so you want to make sure that the bread has enough time to stale first.

FL: Okay.

JS: Typically, after dinner service, we'll let it stale whole for a couple days, then slice it and let it continue to dry out. That helps it drink up all those natural juices and form that barrier. The most important thing when you're building this is tucking all the extra pieces into the pockets. You want to press down, too, because this is going to sit overnight and soak up all those nice juices. The bread will act as a natural thickener when it bakes.

FL: You layer this passata with the garlic, oregano, and parsley. That looks like a beautiful salsa. I just want to stick my face in that bowl!

JS: It's kind of like Southern California meets Spain. Again, you see how I’m pressing the bread in there with the bottom part of the spoon. Pressing it all the way, and making sure that the bread has a chance to soak up all those juices. At Upland we talk a lot about seasoning all the way through a dish. If you don't press it at this part, what happens at the end of it is you have really gnarly pieces of bread – which are also kind of fun, too. Sometimes we'll cook those in a little bit of egg and flour, and deep fry them. Or sometimes we put whole egg and cream on them and bake it like that.

FL: That doesn't sound bad either.

JS: It's good! It's a dish that you could eat for three different days and in all different ways. On the third day, I’ve even chopped it up and mixed it up in burritos.

Recipe: Olive Oil-Cured Salt Cod and Summer Tomato Panade Photo: Erika Romero

FL: Here comes more of the salt cod that been cured, soaked, and poached. It's in these nice big chunks. You flake it off into these half-inch pieces.

JS: Exactly. You want some big chunks and some little chunks. Again, it's adding that other dimension of flavor and texture.

FL: You keep alternating layer by layer and press it all in.

JS: Exactly. Push as much as you can, because as this bakes, it also soufflés up and then it sets again. That forms the structure.

FL: What I love about this is it's summer; it's hot. Lasagna is a year-round food, but no one wants to think about lasagna as a year-round food.

JS: Right.

FL: This is such an awesome lasagna-like vibe. You're layering, you're pressing, it's got tomatoes, it's got that deep-cooked tomato flavor. It's a fresh, almost raw tomato flavor when you get to it.

JS: Super bright.

FL: It feels like such a fun thing to put together.

JS: My kids love making this with me because you get to get your fingers dirty the whole time.

FL: A little more of that salt cod. More of that passata. It looks like there's no rules. Just make sure you're layering this, then layer that.

JS: When we teach people how to build a pizza for the first time I say, “When you're laying all your ingredients and garnishes on the pizza, make sure that every bite is jam-packed with flavor.” Here, you want to make sure that every bite is going to have a little salt cod, a little bit of the crispy bread, and a little bit of the tomato. It's a very rustic and dramatic thing in the end.

Slow Fires by Justin Smillie Slow Fires by Justin Smillie

FL: Okay, the top layer is usually important. What do you do with the top layer?

JS: At this point, I push out any of the excess juice.

FL: You're actually squeezing it and tipping it over a bowl to drip out some of the extra juice.

JS: This top part is like the crowning achievement, right? You want to create a mosaic of bread and salt cod. And it's okay if it seems a little wet at this point. Remember, it's going to sit in the fridge overnight and will have chance to soak up all these extra juices.

FL: Do you have to let it sit overnight?

JS: No, but I think it's better. I would say if you made it in the morning and then baked it when you came home, it's just better. But, the thing that's great about this dish is if you bake it the day before, you can actually slice it into nice pieces.

FL: Oh, cool.

JS: You’re going to have a nice pie wedge. Almost like a quiche on Sunday.

FL: Just serve at room temperature?

JS: Yeah. With a beautiful mixed green salad. And there you have it!

FL: We're done. Through the magic of audio, it’s now been 12 hours, and here it us! It’s beautiful, crusty, brown. It looks so good. Shall we dig into it?

JS: Absolutely.

FL: You can hear it. It's got a little bit of that good squish.

JS: A little squish, and you can still hear a bit of crunch. This dish is definitely, as they say in Italy, brutto ma buono – a little ugly but good. Grandma would be proud. Make sure you get some of the crispy bread on top and delicious salt cod.

FL: The garlicky oil that fuses in it.

JS: Delicious.

FL: Winner! Awesome! Thank you so much, chef.

JS: Thank you very much.

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Francis Lam
Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Vice President and Editor-in-Chief at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.