Simple Pleasures: The Best Caprese Salad
Italian is the language of love. Take this week’s focus dish, for example. Tomato salad? Sounds pretty good, I guess, nice and familiar, not the least bit frightening. Take the Italian name for the dish, then, Insalata Caprese… Sounds, exotic, intriguing, tempting, doesn’t it? Like a dish you’d marry… Or at the very least make hot love to as the sun sets on an exotic beach, uhhh… Maybe that’s just me… Ahem, anyway, my point is this… Italian is the language of love, many scholars agree. And if Italian is the language of love, then Italian food is certainly a cuisine of love, of seduction and of sensuality. The art of transforming few, often simple, ingredients into not only nourishment but into simplistic, fulfilling and seductive dishes featuring vibrant flavors, great colors, intensity and texture.
Or at least that’s how it should be… Lately, Italian cooking for many home cooks has largely involved throwing a few, sometimes processed ingredients quickly together to create something passing for a quick weeknight meal, which begs the question: If Italian is indeed the cuisine of love, how come so little time, effort and, well, love goes into understanding and preparing these labors of love? Is it a matter of time? Convenience? Lack of lust (for cooking)? I don’t know. But it’s a crying shame that things have come to this in our busy, modern world where instant gratification has become the norm and processed food so familiar that we don’t always remember how intensely flavorful a few natural ingredients can actually be when treated properly. Which is why, friends, I’ll take a few thousand words today to speak about something as seemingly simple, yet utterly complicated, as everybody’s favorite height of summer salad: Insalata Caprese, or Italian tomato and mozzarella salad.
Insalata Caprese, when done right, is the epitome of Italian cooking: It’s five basic ingredients: tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, fresh basil, olive oil and salt, thoroughly mixed and transformed into something magical and divine: an explosion of tangy and sweet, crunchy and soft, creamy and acidic with a herbal kick and a floral peppery kick from the olive oil. It is an ancient and quintessential Italian dish – so Italian that it even mimics the colors of the Italian flag (much like its hot cousin, the Pizza Margarita, by the way) and is often – completely unnecessarily and largely offensively – jazzed up with both vinegar, garlic, onions and crunchy, even bitter, greens, either in attempt to cover up the taste (or lack thereof) of inferior ingredients or from a simple misunderstanding that simple can’t be perfect. But we’re here today, friends, to end this misunderstanding and travesty and bring back the real
Slim Shady Caprese.
And oh yeah, I know what you’re thinking: “Alright, Johan, I see how you can do this with a complex dish like Chili Con Carne, but why the fudge would you want to feed us a couple of thousand words on a subject so simple as tomato salad? Because, friends, these five-ingredient dishes have the potential of becoming some of the most vibrant and flavorful dishes in the world – if only we give those five ingredients the attention and understanding that they need! And lately we, as a society, haven’t. With some pretty terrible and disappointing results for the average eater. And this is why I, Johan, have taken it upon myself to tell you, dear reader, how the simplest dish of your summer can also shape out to be one of the best, most memorable dishes of your summer. Sounds good? Good! Our complicatedly lengthy tale starts with something as seemingly simple as a tomato and a terrible misconception.
Red is just a color: How to pick a ripe tomato
The single most terrible misconception about Caprese is that it is a dish that can be enjoyed whenever the mood strikes. This, sadly, is a completely faulty assumption. Caprese, you see, obviously rely on one key ingredient: Perfectly ripe, juicy and flavorful tomatoes. And those, believe it or not, are a pretty rare breed these days. At least for those of us living this far up north where the peak of tomato season may last as little as a couple of weeks.
Box: If ripeness is important, why are you talking Caprese at the end of summer? Well, elementary, my dear reader. For the simple reason that 2015 has been a terrible tomato year in Denmark and it’s only now in late August/early September that we’re seeing a small run of perfect tomatoes. If the growing season was better in your neck of the woods, you may have enjoyed tomatoes for a while now and may still be able to enjoy them for some time to come. If your season is sadly over. Well, I’m sorry, you’ll have something to dream about for next year, eh?
A most wrongful assumption that many of us harbor about tomatoes is that red, juicy, ripe tomatoes are available all year round thanks to the beauty of globalization. The sad fact of the matter is that this is if not a blatant lie, then at least a horrible misunderstanding. The stone cold truth is that yes, fresh, red tomatoes are available year round thanks to globalization, but at the same time – not all red tomatoes are actually ripe tomatoes. Far from it. The only time and place that you will find truly, perfectly red, ripe and juicy tomatoes are when they’re in season, *in your local area*. And that, sadly, is the only time that you should really bother to eat fresh tomatoes and, hence, the only time we should bother to make Caprese salad. This, in the words of a flock of fading rock stars is indeed Sad But True, but for a very good reason that we will get to in just a second. Oh, and by the way, the Caprese we can make on that happy day when we find the season’s first perfectly ripe tomatoes? It’s out of this world, promise!
If not all tomatoes are ripe, how then, does one spot a ripe tomato? Well, ideally, you’d be able to just walk up to the vine, look at them, smell them, squeeze them and pick the most perfect ones. Simple, right? But for many of us simply not an option! If you’re stuck at the supermarket or any other market, though, there are still a few tricks you can employ to pick a great tomato. Firstly, take a look at the place of origin of the fruit in question (yes, a tomato is a fruit, it’s a long story). If it claims to be from somewhere where it couldn’t technically have been picked today (or yesterday) and made it to the market, just put it down and walk away… No, seriously, walk away! See, when tomatoes are ripe, they need to be picked, then consumed… Quickly! Ripe tomatoes don’t lend well to transportation as they’ll not only bruise and break easily during long hauls, they also spoil quickly. But how then do seemingly ripe and red tomatoes make it to your local supermarket from as far away as the other end of the continent? Well, the wonderful world of globalization has found a way around this problem. They simply pick the tomatoes when they’re unripe, then gas them with a “ripening” agent during transportation and the tomatoes show up at their final location nice and brightly red, but not technically ripe. They’ll look the part but be dense, watery and flavorless.
Got that? Good, now, when you’ve found some nicely local tomatoes, have a close look at them. Are they deeply, brightly red? Good! Now pick them up and give them a squeeze. Softly. Gently. This is love cuisine after all. Are they nice and firm to the touch (there’s so much innuendo here and it wasn’t even intended), with a slight give under your fingers without feeling overly mushy? Good, that’s what you want, grab as many as you can eat in a day, and head on home. Congratulations, you’ve found perfectly ripe tomatoes and they’ll be worth every second of your time spent poking around the produce section like some sort of crazy person. Take care, by the way, as you make your way home not to bang your precious cargo around too much and take specific care to store them properly when you get home. For tomatoes this means on the kitchen counter, not – and I stress this – *not* in the refrigerator. Fresh tomatoes have wonderfully vibrant flavor compounds that are forever destroyed by cold, so keep them at room temperature or just below, not cold. You’ll have eaten them before they spoil anyway!
Mozzarella: A Cheesy Wonder
The white center part of the Italian flag that is the Caprese Salad is played by the perfect counterpart to the tangy and sweet ripeness of the tomatoes, one of the world’s most simplest and at the same time most beloved cheeses: mozzarella! And the mozzarella we’re talking here is the polar opposite of the dry, dense, sometimes stringy stuff you get on your cheap pizza slices.
Mozzarella, real mozzarella anyway, is a fresh cheese, really fresh cheese. It’s a semi-soft, creamy and velvety cheese with a wonderful texture and an amazing freshness about it. It’s lightyears ahead of the cheap, shredded stuff sold in bags and the gummy cheap balls found in discount supermarkets. It’s also generally best consumed on the day it’s made or the one immediately after. Obviously, though, for many of us that’s not really an option unless we want to make our own – hey, there’s a project for the blog, by the way. Well, okay, if you happen to live in Italy or an area with a large Italian population or some really cheese-savy geeks you will more than likely be able to find specialty cheesemongers or farmer’s market stands that make their own mozzarella in house, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
If, like me and others, you’re stuck in fresh mozzarella limbo and your cheesemonger is of no help, I suggest doing the next best thing, go to a quality supermarket and look for an organic, Italian brand packed in brine. It won’t be as fresh and as creamy as a homemade variety, but it will be pretty good indeed, especially if you throw some money after the project. What you’ll ideally want is something labeled buffalo mozzarella or mozzarella di bufala which is fresh mozzarella made from buffalo milk. As with any quality product, it’s a little more expensive, but it does offer a superior taste, creaminess and texture that is well worth the extra buck. If you’re from the States, you’ll probably have trouble finding buffalo mozzarella as they’re usually made from unpasteurized milk and such cheeses are banned from import into the US. Try instead for a locally made mozzarella from cow’s milk. It will be fresher and creamier than anything you could get from Italy, anyway.
Whichever way you can, make sure you pick up the best possible product that you can, then do as you did with the tomatoes, bag it and bring it home. Only, completely unlike the tomatoes, you do want to store this particular product in the fridge – at least until about half an hour to an hour before using. Cheese really tastes better closer to room temperature than it does coming straight out of the fridge. Got it? Right, that’s two main ingredients down, three to go!
A Few Words on the Subject of Basil
You wouldn’t think I’d have to devote much time to the topic of basil. But having actually once been served Caprese with a sprinkling of dried basil at a so-called Italian restaurant, I guess there’s still a bit of a need here. Obviously for a stellar Caprese, which is indeed what we’re aiming for here, you’ll want to use fresh basil. And by fresh I don’t mean those cut off bunches you might find at your local supermarket. They’re better than dried, obviously, but herbs lose a lot of their aromatic qualities the minute (second, some argue) they’re cut from the mother plant, so you can probably imagine what will have happened once they make it from the plant to the supermarket and onwards from there to your kitchen.
In a perfect world, you’ll have all the basil and other herbs you need growing in your garden or your windowsill and in a perfecter (which is a word, I just made up) world, you’ll have some nice and sturdy herbs growing, not those scrawny little things you get in tiny, little pots at the supermarket. For years now, I’ve been getting my herbs one a year from Growing Home then kept them growing larger and stronger throughout the summer. I know they’re a little more expensive than the supermarket ones, but I just love their sturdiness and vibrancy. You can use whatever kind you want. Just remember, the more sturdy, well-kept and thoughtfully grown the plant, the better the flavor. And flavor, in case you hadn’t noticed, is a pretty big thing ‘round here.
So, none of that dried or pre-cut stuff, are we clear? Alright, so we’ve meticulously gathered our tomatoes and a bit of cheese, we’ve got our nice, fragrant and sturdy basil standing by, ready for the cutting, we basically need only the ties that bind, a little something to bring it all together. And in the case of Caprese, that little something is, of course, a bit of Extra Virgin Olive Oil. And that, friends, is a topic so vast and exhaustive that it could fill a post on its own, but I’ll try to keep it short, promise!
The ties that bind: Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Entire PhD’s could be written (and probably have been written) on the subject of choosing the right olive oil for a particular culinary application. In the interest of keeping this (somewhat) short, I’ll try not to get carried away and give you only the very basics of olive oil shopping:
Okay, so, what you want to do when shopping for olive oil for Caprese is look for the magic words “Extra Virgin” and “Cold Pressed”. The term Extra virgin basically means oil of superior quality and taste produced using only mechanical means and no chemical treatment whatsoever. Cold pressed, on the other hand, means that the oil has not been significantly heated during the extraction process, thus retaining more nutrients and going through a lesser state of degradation of flavor. By combining these two magic words, we get quite simply the best possible oil available. Theoretically, at least.
While an extra virgin cold-pressed olive oil will always be better than a non-cold pressed non-virgin oil of the same brand, quality, expression and taste amongst olive oil producers vary about as widely as quality and expressions amongst different wines. Some are good, some are bad, some are mild, some a pungent and peppery, some fruity some lightly bitter. It’s a jungle out there and I can’t tell you what to pick. Not only would our tastes probably differ, but I’m not even sure you’d be able to get the same brands in your neck of the woods as I have available here. Especially since I tend to prefer niche brands with a bit of history to them. Like hose brought home to me by friends touring the globe and what have you.
Your best bet, my friend, is to go exploring – and I don’t mean at the supermarket, unless you happen to live near a large, Italian supermarket. I mean at the farmer’s market, the specialty stores or the food fairs… Somewhere where you can find someone with a bit of a clue about what they’re selling, someone who’s able to guide you, maybe even offer you a taste and help you pick the right oil for your taste buds. It might not be a cheap adventure, but it will be a fun adventure and remember, a little exceedingly good olive oil goes a long way when drizzled over salads or used to finish dishes. And that, incidentally, is the only way you should ever use your really good stuff. In the raw as an accent. Save the cheaper stuff for frying or vinaigrettes, skin care or whatever the hell else you want to do with it.
One hint I can give you, though, is that for my Caprese, I personally prefer a nicely fruity but not too pungent olive oil with a hint of a peppery bite. To me, it just brings everything together perfectly. And I do reckon it would be sacrilege to use anything else than an Italian oil in Caprese, even if the Spanish are the most popular and widely distributed these days. But really, it’s your salad, go with what makes you happy.
Making The Best Caprese Salad You’ve Ever Had
And speaking of go, I think I’ve proved my point here. So let’s, after 3.000 or so short words on the subject of ingredients bring it all together and have the best salad we’ve ever had, shall we? As you read this recipe, you may notice that I do things a little differently and a little more messy than your average pretty plate of Caprese, but there’s method to my madness and rustic behavior. Stick with me, will you, all shall be revealed soon enough. Alright, awesome. This is what you’ll need to get and what you’ll need to do.
- 200 grams of local, ripe tomatoes
- 150 grams of fresh, creamy mozzarella cheese
- One large handful of bright, green and fragrant basil leaves
- 1-2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil (the best you can afford)
- 1 large pinch of coarse sea salt
- 1 mere sprinkle of sugar
- freshly cracked black pepper to taste
- Thirty minutes prior to doing anything else, remove the cheese from the fridge
- Wash the tomatoes and cut them whichever way you like, I like chunks. Whatever you do, keep them as uniform as possible.
- Drain the mozzarella if it comes in brine, then either slice or tear it into pieces about as large as your tomatoes
- Cut the basil leaves into thin strips (chiffonade)
- Mix the tomato chunks and the mozzarella pieces somewhat carefully in a bowl, then scatter over the basil and mix again.
- Sprinkle the mixture with salt and sugar, then pour over the oil and a few grinds of black pepper to taste
- Leave to stand on the kitchen counter for as little as five minutes or as much as 30 to allow the flavors to mend and blend together
- Serve as a light lunch or an appetizer, preferably with a nice crusty piece of bread that might as well be used for wiping up the juices forming at the bottom of the bowl.
Wait? What in the hot mess just happened here, you might now be thinking. You’ve gone and done this simple dish wrong!
Now now, I agree, Caprese is usually such a pretty dish, made up of perfect slices of tomatoes, layered with perfect slices of cheese, topped with whole, perfect leaves of basil. And that’s great and all, but other than taking a long time, especially for idiots like me who can’t plate to save their lives, this whole presentation just doesn’t make sense to me. For starters, it takes effort to eat and might cause a major so-called ingredient land slide in the process. Secondly, I just don’t think it brings out the full flavor potential of the dish. By chunking up our tomatoes – possibly even using a mix of oddly shaped, strangely colored heirloom tomatoes if we can get our hands of them – and mixing them with the cheese and oil, then salting them (using some good quality flaky sea salt, thank you very much!) and adding oil, we create better, stronger more vibrant flavors, especially if we leave the whole, hot mess to just sit for a while. The salt will draw moisture from the tomatoes which will mix with the cheese, oil and fragrant basil to create a sort of natural dressing which in return gives us an excuse to break a nice piece of bread and wipe it through the rustic mess to mop up all those extra, rich, juicy summer flavors.
It’s rock and roll and by God, I like it! I say throw the fancy plating out the window for a minute and try Caprese, Johan-style. It’s rustic, messy, sexy… What’s not to like?