In the heat of summer, if I ask Ron what he’d like for dinner, I already know his answer: Caprese salad! That lovely Italian mix of lush summer tomatoes, mozzarella cheese and fresh picked basil is his favorite. And I’m happy because it’s a vegetarian meal (not to mention, dead easy to fix.).
But after so many Caprese salads, I start looking for ways to up my game. Happily, there are many.
Caprese salad lives and dies by the perfect ingredients. Great summer tomatoes, of course, and basil from the garden. Mozzarella from the Italian couple at our Saturday Cluny market, though I don’t mind the grocery store version. It’s best to nap it with a balsamic reduction, nice and thick so it doesn’t just flood the plate. I used to make my own (just reduce balsamic by simmering it until it thickens), but now one can buy thickened versions. And of course, a tasty olive oil.
So after you’ve gathered your basic ingredients, it’s time to play. One way is to use the newly trendy burrata. If you haven’t encountered it, burrata is mozzarella with cream. It it comes in a ball, in the thinnest of sacs. When you break it open it collapses into a creamy ooze that you can eat with a spoon.
Next we shall consider the architecture of the salad. You can arrange your tomatoes in a circle with your burrata in the center, or you can overlap your slices of tomato and mozzarella in the traditional way, and shower it all with basil. You could serve it on a bed of romaine or arugula, or make it into a chopped salad. Or you could stack it into a tall tower and drizzle it with pesto.
Make your Caprese with a tumble of grape tomatoes, or a mix of heirloom varieties. Go wild and make it with fried green tomatoes. You can put it all on a pizza crust, and bake it. I once ordered a vegetarian burger at a French restaurant (the one and only time I’ve seen one on a menu here), and this is what arrived: a beautiful homemade sesame seed hamburger bun, stuffed to the brim with caprese salad. Not exactly a burger, but Miam miam!
Consider slipping some other ingredients on to your arranged salad plate. Here are some possibilities:
red onion slices
roasted peppers (yellow or orange ones make a pretty contrast)
very thinly sliced raw zucchini or yellow squash
thinly sliced scallions
olives or capers
additional fresh herbs: parsley, cilantro, tarragon, chives
Then there is the question of a dressing. I don’t like to veer too far from the traditional here. But sometimes, instead of the traditional balsamic and olive oil, I nap it with lemony French Dressing #1.
I encountered a very simple but assertive dressing recipe in the New York Times recently, in a recipe by a Parisian chef for a composed chicken salad. I tweaked it a bit and it’s now my new favorite Caprese dressing, as it happens to fit that classic salad perfectly.
Now my dear readers, how do you like your Caprese salad?
Photos: top, a traditional Caprese with the addition of avocados and chopped parsley. Center, a restaurant version from Nice, in the round. Left, a friend's Not-quite-Caprese, made with feta, cucumbers, red onions, and capers.
RECIPE: Caprese Salad with Balsamic Shallot Dressing
Make your salad in any of the above ways. For the dressing I used a combo of balsamics here, but regular balsamic works fine if that’s what you have on hand.
1/3 cup chopped shallots
1 tablespoon reduced balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
salt and fresh ground pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup finely chopped parsley
Place the shallots in a bowl. Add the vinegars and lemon juice and allow to soften for about 10 minutes. Add the salt and pepper, and whisk in the olive oil. Stir in the parsley, and you’re ready to drizzle.
In the COMMENTS: Clyde, a full outdoor kitchen would be pretty steamy in Charleston, too. Julie, I've never heard of a basement summer kitchen, how interesting. June, my neigbor and I figured out that that picture (from last year's party) includes potato salad, melon with jambon cru, tiny grey shrimp with a homemade mayonnaise, and we can't figure out the tart--some kind of pizza, I think. Natalia, I like that "spirited conversation under the stars". Exactly!
Favorite Reads: If you, like me, need to (eternally!) brush up on your French, our reader Herm has a recommendation: a free on-line program call Duolingo. He's well and happily into it, and at his grandson's high school, they use it in language classes. Merci for the tip, Herm.