This week we’re sharing two of our favorite ways to showcase fresh garden tomatoes, with our recipes for the classic Caprese Salad, and a spinoff we like to call Insalata Italiana.
Caprese Salad, or Insalata Caprese, literally translates to salad made in the style of Capri, and while it is unclear if the salad actually originated in Capri, it most likely is native to the Campania region, which is famous for its mozzarella di bufala, fresh basil (basilico) and luscious, red tomatoes.
These are the three main ingredients in a traditional Caprese salad, accented only by a sprinkling of salt and a generous drizzling of the very best extra-virgin olive oil you can find (right now there is a terrific variety of affordably priced, good quality olive oils from Italy and Greece at TJ Maxx in Fargo).
In Italy, Caprese salad is usually prepared only in the summer months when the tomatoes are ripe, fresh and juicy. The tomato is a favorite vegetable in Italy, where it is known as the pomodoro, or “golden apple.” Unlike green salads, which are traditionally served as a contorno (side dish), or after the main course, a Caprese salad is typically offered before the meal as an antipasto.
This is a composed salad, meaning “not tossed,” made by layering slices of ripe tomato, fresh mozzarella, and fresh basil. Up until about ten or twelve years ago, fresh mozzarella was a very difficult product to find regularly in Fargo-Moorhead, but it is now routinely available in the gourmet cheese sections of our local grocery stores, often in more than one presentation.
Traditionally, a Caprese salad is made with Mozzarella di Bufala, which is made from the milk of Italian water buffalo; however, this can be very difficult to find locally, and is ultra-expensive to boot. Luckily, fresh mozzarella made from cow’s milk, fior di latte, is widely available in the U.S., and at a much lower price than its high-end counterpart.
Fresh mozzarella is quite different from the processed mozzarella many of us grew up with, and for some it may be an acquired taste. It is smooth, soft and mildly-flavored, with a gentle milkiness in both flavor and texture. Eaten alone, it can seem a little bland, but in between layers of fresh tomatoes and basil this cheese really comes to life. It also has great melting properties and we use it for baked pasta dishes, too.
We prefer to use fresh mozzarella that is packaged in a plastic tub with water, as it tends to be fresher and truer in texture and flavor to the Italian varieties. However, this isn’t always available locally, so feel free to use the balls and logs of fresh mozzarella that come wrapped in plastic. You may even find it available in pre-sliced packages, or in little balls called bocconcini.
A great variation of the Caprese Salad is our recipe for Insalata Italiana, so named because the colors in the salad are the green, red and white of the Italian flag. Instead of cutting the tomato and fresh mozzarella into slices, we cut them into cubes, along with fresh avocado. Then, just before serving, we gently toss the ingredients with our easy Red Wine Vinaigrette (featured in our June 5, 2013 column), sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Enjoy either of these simple, summer salads while dining al fresco, with a loaf of good, crusty, artisan bread and a chilled bottle of Pinot Grigio. Oh, and just in case you were wondering, it’s pronounced “ca-PRAY-zee,” but we don’t care how you say it as long as you enjoy it.