So, I did a dumb thing. Less than intelligent. I decided to try my hand at starting a weekly blog in the same year that my fiance and I were planning our wedding. In the weeks leading up to it, the deluge of “this needs to get done or else” got me a little off track. I’m not sure if you’ve ever heard of the phrase “like herding cats,” but this was a little closer to planning, outlining, and executing a number of seminars designed to train cats to herd even more rambunctious, anarchic, “why do we need to get our suit jackets now, when we can wait till the week before the wedding when there wont be any time to get them adjusted” kittens. But, after a month off; after Christmas, New Year’s, and a fantastic wedding – I’m back. It’s time to get back into it. New year, same tasty food. I don’t know about you, but after all the Holiday feasting I was dying for something fresh. And nothing quite hits the spot like a Caprese Salad.
Prep Time: 5 minutes of chopping, peeling, and plucking, then 30 minutes to 8 hours overnight marinating time
This recipe will make enough for 2 entrees or 4-6 appetizers
For the Salad:
5 large, off-the-vine Tomatoes
8 ounces Mozzarella
1/4-1/2 cup fresh Basil
1 Fresno Chili Pepper, halved
1 Tablespoon Balsamic Vinegar
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
As with the other salads I’ve done, rather than hold your hand and write out a pointlessly short recipe (step 1: cut everything up; step 2: eat everything; step 3: wipe drool from side of mouth), I’m going to go over each ingredient and talk about why it’s in the mix and how you could play around and recreate this dish to your own tastes. This is a decidedly simple recipe, but with a big payout; loads of flavor and wonderfully fresh. It’s also versatile. You could do this as a sandwich – it’s fantastic on a piece of toasted ciabatta. It also works pretty well with pasta – either cold with a macaroni/penne type noodle or hot with a tagliatelle or ravioli.
Make no mistake, this recipe is all about the tomatoes. (Duhh). You want to get tomatoes that are as fresh and flavorful as possible. If you happen to live somewhere with a farmers market that sells heirloom tomatoes and you’ve seen, but not been sure what to do with those lumpy, funky purple and orange tomatoes – this is a great option. After fresh, the next thing to consider when choosing your tomatoes is complexity – both of texture and flavor. The dressing for this salad will break down the tomatoes slightly, so something like a Roma tomato is not your best bet, unless it’s super firm. They’re great to cook with, but can go to mush in a salad. Same story with Beefsteak tomatoes. Cherry and Green Tomatoes (Green Tomatoes require a longer marination period, at least 2 hours) work great. The aforementioned Heirloom and standard off-the-vine should be your go-to. I don’t usually bother buying organic (that’s another conversation), but for this kind of recipe, organic tomatoes can have more complex flavors and are worth the extra penny.
When preparing the tomatoes for the dish, I like mine in rough, large chunks. If you go too small, this turns into a salsa. You want a nice big bite every time. If you use Green Tomatoes, you may need to go a little smaller with your pieces, otherwise the dressing won’t “cook”/soften the bite and it’ll be too acidic. If you are make this for a sandwich, obviously go for big slices instead of chunks, unless you want half your meal to abandon ship as soon as you raise the bread to your mouth.
Everything else that follows is in this recipe to compliment the tomatoes. You want to keep this thought in your head as you prep this dish: “this is a sweet fruit, with acidic and umami notes, and has the crispest, juiciest bite you just can’t find anywhere else. How do I make that taste even better?”
This is the place where people slip with this dish. I’ve ordered Caprese sandwiches before that have come with a big fat steak of mozzarella and then the smallest whisper of a tomato. No. This the Tomato show featuring Mozzarella, not the other way around. On a sandwich, you can bump the ratio up to 50:50 cheese and tomatoes, but in a salad, it should be 1 chunk of cheese per every 2 or 3 pieces di pomodoro.
The mozzarella acts as a foil to the tomatoes; where the tomato is acidic, the mozzarella is creamy. Where the tomato is sweet, the mozzarella is salty. Tomato crisp, cheese smooth. Get both in a bite together, and it’s like that scene in Ratatouille where Remi is explaining combining cheese and grapes. It’s all jazz and flavor fireworks.
Use fresh Mozzarella; if it’s swimming in whey – that’s a good sign. Don’t use kraft mozzarella or any mozzarella that looks shiny or waxed, it’ll be too salty, too hard, and won’t taste right. You monster. Cut or tear into chunks roughly the same size as the tomatoes.
Basil is key. The third member in the other Holy Trinity. A little grassy, a little nutty. It stops the tomatoes from being too sour or too sweet, the mozzarella from being too salty. It binds everything together and keeps the dish fresh. Up to you exactly how much you want to put in, as it can be a tad bitter. You don’t want to overwhelm the dish, but some people can’t get enough basil in their Italian food. Not a lot of preparation needed either, just tear the leaves right off the stem and throw it in the mix. The color will darken and go brown over time as it marinates (this will not affect the flavor), so if you want to present it bright and green, save some leaves to put on right at the end.
Everything else serves a dual purpose. Obviously to flavor the salad, but also to marinate and preserve. Onions and garlic go well with this flavor palette and up the umami flavor, but in the mix raw, they’ll be too strong. Shallots are the compromise. A little sweeter and not as harsh, but still carrying the astringency you find in onions and garlic. Half a chili brings warmth without being spicy, which is nice in a cold dish. If you wanted to up the spice, use a whole Fresno or even a Habanero (habaneros are nice and sweet, but can be too spicy for some). With the pepper and shallots, mince them as thinly as possible or even put them through a cheese grater, you want to taste them without catching a chunk of either in a bite.
Olive oil and vinegar are the interstitial fluid that brings this dish together. They also help “cook” the tomatoes over time. Then salt and pepper to top everything off.
Bringing it Together:
Like I said, chop and toss together in a bowl. Make sure everything gets coated in the oil and vinegar. The marination time is up to you, I have a sister who makes a caprese along these lines and swears it’s even better after a few days. I can’t wait that long. The tomatoes will soften and release a lot a fluid, you could take that and use it as a salad dressing by itself. The cheese (if you use fresh mozzarella) will soak everything up and take on a kind of purple color. They become these amazing spiced tomato cheese flavor sponges that create the kind of drool inducing bite that forces an audible “oh wow.”
All in all, I could eat this dish just about every day. When we first started dating and several year thereafter, Alexis hated tomatoes and couldn’t understand my joy whenever I munched on a fresh caprese sandwich. Through years of quietly adding more and more tomatoes into her diet, (effectively conditioning her) she now can’t eat a burger without a good slice of red. Now, at the beginning of the year, I knew exactly how I wanted to kick off eating fresh, (semi) healthy, and tasty. And this dish was just right.