Thursday, August 9, 2007

Insalata Caprese (Tomato, Mozzarella, and Basil Salad)

In my husband's family, it is a tradition to get together to celebrate birthdays with a big old stumble-from-the-table-No-please-can-we-wait-for-dessert meal. Part of the tradition is that the birthday boy or girl gets to select the menu, as thoroughly as he or she wishes; perhaps the only request is for Homemade Peach Ice Cream (Lindsay), or Banana Cream Pie (Abe), or perhaps the birthday girl has very specific wishes about every element of the meal (Moriah). Since my summer falls within prime grilling season, I usually ask for Grilled Chicken Kebabs with a fantastic Margarita Marinade. MMMM--good. This year, we're combining my birthday and Lindsay's for a big beach birthday bash. Now, the beach may be good for a lot of things, but it's not a great place to assemble raw chicken into kebabs. Apart from my standard kebabs, I didn't know what to ask for. Lindsay's request was the aforementioned Ice Cream, but I hadn't made any requests until my other sister-in-law, Beth, suggested adding this salad to the menu. When I saw this addition to the list, I made Insalata Caprese (of course, we just call it "That tomato-mozzarella-basil salad") my official birthday request, sealing its position in the birthday feast.

I first had this simple and simply astonishing dish while living with My Aunt Caroline and Uncle Lawrence in Massachusetts. I was fresh out of college, working as a day camp counselor while trying to figure out what to do next. My Aunt Caroline had, at that time, a strict policy about cooking dinner on Fridays: that was, she wouldn't. So regularly, Uncle Lawrence would bring home pizza from Pizzeria Regina or Papa Gino's (I don't recall which at the moment), and we'd feast on good, old-fashioned, greasy, thin-crust pizza. One one particular occasion, though, Aunt Caroline suggested we go out for dinner instead, so we kept with the Italian food theme and headed over to Bertucci's. Bertucci's serves Tuscan-style food--a departure from the food I had traditionally thought as Italian food, food like the rigatoni with meat sauce and hot dog bun garlic bread from Parasson's in Ohio (don't get me wrong--Parasson's was a big and very enjoyable part of my youth, and I'll go there even today). Being from the East Coast, Aunt Caroline and Uncle Lawrence are naturally much more sophisticated eaters than I was at the time, and when they ordered the Caprese Salad, I was timid to try it. It almost seemed too simple. The fresh mozzarella looked a bit...squishy. And I couldn't remember ever having fresh basil before--what on earth would it taste like?

A little slice of heaven, that's what it tasted like.

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, my future roommate-to-be, Beth, was enjoying the same salad. When we moved in together two years later, we both thought we'd introduce the other to this amazing concoction--only to discover that it already held a place on our respective Most Favorite Foods lists. We happily served this salad to guests at our apartment--that is, when it didn't get scarfed up before hitting the table.

I had planned this recipe for a future post, but was prompted by a comment from Gregg to add it now. Great timing, Gregg! Check out his comment on the Apricot-Glazed Pork Chops post. (If you've been reading this blog, you might remember Gregg's mom from my ode to Chicken Salad.)

This is a great salad, but be aware--only the freshest ingredients will make it taste the way nature (or the Italians that invented it) intended. Use fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes (nothing from a greenhouse), fresh basil (not dried), and fresh mozzarella. Not shredded, not sliced--fresh mozzarella has a much softer texture. You might find it in little balls packed in water, called bocconcini. You might just find it in your gourmet cheese case. You probably won't find it near the pre-shredded stuff. Is all this "Fresh ONLY! Or you'll be SORRY!" talk a little food-snobbish? Maybe. But I've tried it with the shortcuts (hothouse tomatoes, shredded mozzarella, dried basil), and it just doesn't hit the mark.

Here it is:

Insalata Caprese

4 medium to large vine-ripened tomatoes, sliced into 1/4-in. slices
1 lb. fresh mozzarella, sliced to similar thickness
1 c. fresh basil leaves, chiffonaded (finely chopped into thin ribbons)
2-3 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
sea salt to taste
freshly ground pepper to taste

Layer tomato and mozzarella slices, in such a way that each tomato slice is accompanied by a slice of mozzarella. You could do this in a fan-like arrangement, or simply in flat layers--I don't think it makes much difference. Season the tomatoes and mozzarella with salt and pepper, sprinkle with basil, then drizzle olive oil over all.

*To chiffonade, stack basil leaves and roll into a log. Slice through the log to produce these fine, ribbon-like pieces of basil.
*Some people also use vinegar on this salad. You may if you wish, but my understanding is that vinegar tends to "toughen" the mozzarella and "wilt" the tomatoes, so I usually refrain.

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