Caprese salad is the world's best use of tomatoes and possibly the world's best salad. This classic summer dish from the Island of Capri off the west coast of Italy is the essence of August on a plate. It is the ultimate use of a each of the ingredients. It is strictly seasonal and can only be made with the best and freshest components because there is no place to hide anything. On an August night, a big Caprese salad with an ear of grilled tarragon corn and a sparkling wine is a glorious dinner, even for a Meathead.
Tomatoes. The core of the dish, the foundation, the essence is the freshest, ripest, juiciest, sweetest summer tomatoes. I prefer tomatoes from a cool climate which, like grapes, swell with juice and sugar in the daytime, and retain their tartness during the cool evenings. In Southern climes, the hot nights tend to diminish the acidity. I want tomatoes that have both juice and meat. The juice, and the jelly that holds the seeds teem with flavor, and, when sliced, they bleed and mix with the oil and vinegar. Roma tomatoes and other egg shaped varieties work, but I prefer globe shaped bulbs because they tend to have more juice. No pink rocks need apply.
Basil. Basil abounds in summer, so use only fresh leaves. I especially like this dish with Thai basil, which is a bit stronger than regular basil. And in case you're wondering, that purple thing in the picture is a Thai basil flower. And you must use fresh leaves. Dried herbs just don't cut it in this dish. You can use large leaves and roll them like a cigar and cut them into thin ribbons, called a chiffonade, but I prefer to use whole small leaves from just below the flowers.
Cheese. Most recipes call for mozzarella cheese, and it is wonderful that way, but I prefer the more flavorful, more textural Parmigiano-Reggiano from Italy. It is called the king of cheeses for a reason, and there is no substitute (click the link above to learn why). Most definitely not the stuff called parmesan in the green toilet paper tube. Most of it is 18 months old, but if you can find it older, go for it. And don't grate it. Chip it off the block so there are chunks of varying size and bursts of crunchy flavor.
If you use mozz, use only fresh, milky cheese, like water buffalo mozzarella packed in its watery whey. Slice it thin (not an easy task), and be prepared to add more oil and vinegar because the cheese soaks it up.
Balsamic. Use a good balsamic vinegar. OK, the really good stuff, Balsamico Tradizionale or Balsamico Condimento is very expensive, so here's a trick. Get a nice grocery store balsamic and pour the whole bottle into a saucepan. Boil it until it reduces by half. No more. When you're done reducing it, you'll have a thicker, almost syrupy sweet -tartvinegar, perfect for drizzling on all salads. But don't reduce it more than half. Cheap grocery store balsamics have sugar added, and if you reduce it too much the bubbles will get thick and the vinegar will get gooey as the sugar caramelizes. If this happens, you'll have killer balsamic candy, but not the balsamic syrup you want for the ultimate Caprese salad.
Olive oil. This dish is the reason why they make expensive extra virgin oil. The best, usually bright green, has a strong olive aroma and a peppery aftertaste, and is far more than empty calories. It is a flavoring ingredient. I prefer it straight, from Italy, Spain, or California, with no garlic or other flavoring. Again, caprese salad is all bout the purity of the ingredients.
Salt. Use a large grain salt like sea salt or kisher salt so there are pops of flavor. Click here to learn more about the different types of salt.
Onion. Many recipes call for onion, especially thinly sliced sweet or red onions. I love the onion, but my wife doesn't care for it raw, so you don't see any in the photo (the sacrifices one makes for love). Thin slices or rings are better than chopped so people who don't like raw onion can remove them easily. They also look better.
Optional. A few grinds of black pepper are nice. Although not traditional, thinly sliced, cucumbers or minced jalapeno peppers are fine additions. I've seen it with chopped hardboiled egg, but not on my table. Occasionally I sprinkle fresh thyme on my Caprese salad. But then I sprinkle fresh thyme on everything except my wife. Hmmmmm....
Preparation time. 10 minutes
Serve with. A crusty bread to mop up the juices and a crisp white wine.
3 large fresh vine ripe globe-shaped tomatoes
2 pinches of coarse sea salt
4 tablespoons of chips of aged Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
15 small leaves fresh basil, or 5 large leaves
1/2 teaspoon fresh oregano, chopped
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1) The sequence of ingredients is important. First, slice the tomatoes thick, at least 1/4 inch, and lay them down. If you use mozzarella, alternate the disks of cheese with the tomato slices and spread the out, alternating, like a blackjack dealer.
2) Now sprinkle on the salt so it can start pulling out tomato juice. Not too much because the Parm is salty. The parm goes on next. Then the oregano and the basil. If you are using large leaves, stack them, roll them into a green cigar, and chop them crosswise into a chiffonade of thin ribbons before sprinkling them on.
3) Don't mix the oil and vinegar. Drizzle them on separately so the colors show. Go easy, you can always add more, and I set them on the table so people can do just that if they wish. If time permits, let the salad sit for about 5 minutes so the salt can coax out some of the juices and they can mingle with the oil and vinegar.
All text and photos are Copyright (c) 2011 By Meathead, and all rights are reserved
For more of Meathead's writing, photos, recipes, and barbecue info please visit his website AmazingRibs.com and subscribe to his email newsletter, Smoke Signals.