Friday, January 7, 2011

Insalata Caprese

The Insalata Caprese or Caprese Salad -- with tomatoes, mozzarella cheese and fresh basil -- is perhaps one of the most well known "salads" to come out of the Campania region in Southern Italy.  It is not so much a salad as it is an appetizer.

The appetizer was created by a small restaurant on the island of Capri during the 1950s for customers who wanted a light lunch.  Those customers would ask for a tomato and some mozzarella cheese.  Later, the restaurant added arugula leaves (or basil leaves) on top of the tomato and cheese.  And, right before serving it, the restaurant would dress the "salad" with olive oil.

A great Insalata Caprese depends upon the freshness and quality of the ingredients. First, only vine-ripened, fresh tomatoes should be used.  Look for tomatoes that have a good red color, with no bruises.  Second, only fresh mozzarella should be used.  Never use cheese that has been processed in any way.  Third, look for fresh basil leaves, preferably large leaves with no black spots or other blemishes.

Ideally, the presentation should consist of one slice of tomato, one slice of mozzarella cheese and one big basil leaf.  However, in reality, it is hard to find a tomato that has the same diameter as a batch of Mozzarella cheese, let alone to find a basil leave that is large enough to cover the tomato and the cheese.  So, this is where a little creativity may be helpful, as is shown by the recipe below.

Serves 4

4 medium sized, vine-ripened tomatoes
1 batch of Mozzarella cheese
1 package of fresh basil
2 to 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
Ground pepper, to taste

1.  Prepare the tomatoes.  Slice the tomatoes about one-quarter of an inch thick.  Try to ensure that all of the tomato slices are about the same size.  As for the slices that are too big or too small, just eat them as you prepare the dish.

2.  Prepare the cheese.  Slice the Mozzarella cheese into quarter of an inch slices.  Then cut each slice into halves or quarters depending upon the size of the cheese.  Place two to three slices of each cheese on the tomato, stacking them if necessary.

3.  Prepare the basil.  Chiffonade the basil leaves (i.e., cut them into long, thin strips).  To do a chiffonnade.  Take all of the basil leaves and stack them starting with the largest leaf on the bottom to the smallest leaf on top.  Roll the leaves tightly and then slice the leaves carefully, working from one end to the other.  Sprinkler the sliced basil leaves on top of the cheese.

4.  Finish the dish.  Grind pepper over the tomatoes, cheese and basil.  Drizzle the extra virgin olive oil over the tomatoes, cheese and basil.

Now, this is technically the end of the recipe; however, I usually add one more twist to the salad ... I add a drizzle of balsamic vinegar.  Traditionally, the addition of vinegar is frowned upon because of the effect that vinegar may have on the taste of the cheese.  However, I find that balsamic vinegar (as opposed to red wine vinegar or other types of vinegar) adds a sweetness to the salad that is very good.  And, I really love balsamic vinegar.  So, if you want, drizzle a little of some good balsamic vinegar over the tomatoes, cheese and basil.


For more about the origins of the salad, check out Epicurious.

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