Week Night Yum Yum: Classic Caprese

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Insalate Caprese is one of those perfect dishes in my opinion. It's colorful and enticing, it's rich without being heavy, it's fresh without tasting "thin." It's also very simple to prepare and comes together literally in five minutes or less. That said, I've had many spectacularly bad caprese salads.

A traditional caprese salad consists of thickly sliced fresh ripe tomatoes, similarly sliced fresh buffalo mozzarella, crisp fresh basil leaves, an economical sprinkling of salt and pepper, and a drizzling of good quality extra virgin olive oil. On occasion one can add a good balsamic vinegar to the dish for added flavor and color. More on that later.

So how do you screw up something as simple as a "slice-n-serve?" Very easily: you buy shitty ingredients and use them.

First of all, the crux of this salad is the tomato. Don't use an under-ripe tomato -- it will totally ruin the dish. You need a beautiful red, ripe and juicy tomato so the juice can help flavor the cheese and so the sweet basil can contrast the acidity with. If you use under-ripe tomatoes the entire dish will be tasteless. It doesn't even matter what kind of tomatoes you use, as long as they're in season and properly ripe. Overly ripened tomatoes won't work either -- you won't be able to cut them properly, they'll turn mushy when the salt is applied, and it'll be a nightmare to eat as the pieces drop off the fork and splatter onto the plate. You want to choose tomatoes that are ripe and at their brightest in color, but that are also still firm enough to the touch to be easily sliced. If the tomato feels too soft and you can easily imprint your thumb into it forget it; save that tomato for a killer addition to a soup.

I like roma tomatoes the best for this salad -- they are naturally the same size and shape as a buffalo mozzarella so you can slice both to be practically identical (makes for nice presentation as well as being easier to eat). But you can also use heirloom tomatoes of various colors, big juicy beefsteak tomatoes, even small cherry tomatoes halved in two. Either way you go just make sure the tomatoes are at their peek in ripeness and color.

Once you've got the proper tomato then you have to get the right cheese. Buffalo mozzarella is usually the choice, prized for its creamy texture and mild flavor. The size is usually around a baseball, and one ball of buffalo mozzarella can usually match 2 good sized roma tomatoes. Caprese salads gone wrong have had the cheese be the issue. Usually held in a vat of water, the buffalo mozzarella must be drained properly and then sliced for the salad. Using a wet cheese will yield an unappetizing milky film on the rest of the salad and water it down too much, especially where the basil is introduced. To avoid this pitfall, simply drain your cheese first and then pat it very dry with multiple paper towels to remove as much moisture as you can. This will also help the seasonings stick to the cheese better so it tastes good too.

Finally, the third major part to this salad composition is the basil. You can serve it gently torn by hand or chiffonade then sprinkled on top, or I personally love including big whole leaves of basil right into between the tomato and cheese slices. Just make sure it's fresh, it's bight green (black spots means it's getting old and the flavor is getting muted!), and crisp to the touch. You should hear a "snap" sound when you pick the leaves off the stem; if you don't it's too wilted and will just die on the plate. Fresh basil picked right from the garden at the last minute is ideal for this salad if possible.

A higher quality commercial grade balsamic vinegar, the "Acetum" denotes

Finally, the seasonings. I like using a good quality course sea salt for this salad like fleur de sel or large crystal celtic sea salt. You want a punch of salty flavor but with a softened edge; commercial salts especially those with iodine added to them taste too salty. They can taste chalky, processed, and leave a bizarre after-taste in the mouth especially when paired with acidic foods like tomatoes. A natural sea salt (whatever you use) that has not been processed but rather naturally harvested has a more delicate salty flavor to it and enhances the food rather than masking it. Even kosher salt I think is too aggressive for a caprese. Plus the course natural salts add a crunchy texture to the salad that's just irresistible.

Freshly ground black pepper is a must. Try a courser ground if possible so the pepper comes through more and doesn't get lost amont the other flavors.

And finally, a good quality imported and fruity extra virgin olive oil is necessary. A generous drizzling over the entire salad after it's been seasoned will dress the ingredients and give a luxurious texture and taste to the ingredients. If you like you can also use a higher quality aged balsamic vinegar. Domestic balsamics tend to be far sweeter and more sugary than the imported properly aged ones. They certainly have their place in vinaigrettes and other dishes, but for a caprese I like something a little thicker in consistency with a taste of fortitude. Used sparingly and very lightly drizzled atop the salad, it can add a new level of brightness in flavor. If you're planning to serve bread, then I love the addition of vinegar as well.

This salad as you can see is more about choice than technique. You want to put all your efforts in properly choosing the ingredients, as there's no room for error given the scarcity of what's going on. If you enjoy the caprese salad it's a great time to invest in a good bottle of oil and vinegar, some more elegant natural salts, and play around with different fruit and vegetable combinations especially with spring and summer's garden fare coming up. And remember to serve the salad immediately!

Classic Caprese Salad
6 larger ripe roma tomatoes (or other tomatoes to your liking)
1 very large or 2 medium-sized fresh buffalo mozzarella
1 cup fresh basil
course natural sea salt (recommend: fleur de sel or celtic sea salt)
freshly ground black pepper (preferably set to course grind)
good quality extra virgin olive oil
good aged balsamic vinegar (optional)

Slice the tomatoes thickly, about 1/3-1/2" thick, discarding the ends. Drain the cheese very well and pat dry with paper towels. Slice into same thickness as tomatoes. Take a serving platter (or if making individual plates), begin alternating tomato slices with cheese slices in any pattern you wish. Gently nudge whole basil leaves in between slices and crevices to desired amount. Conversely, you can stack all three ingredients into a "tower" if doing individual portions. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste, then give a generous drizzle of olive oil. (note: if doing the tower presentation you'll have to lay out all your tomato slices and all your cheese slices into an even layer, season them, then stack them up) and vinegar if using. Serve immediately.

Serving suggestion: freshly baked, crusty Italian loaf bread is perfection with this salad and for an added salty bite, a few pitted kalamata olives in the middle or off to the side are beautiful.

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