Insalata Caprese is the fancy gourmet name for tomatoes, mozzarella and basil, a dish I eat all summer long as soon as the fresh local tomatoes are ready. Now I find out the Reluctant Gourmet is preparing them all wrong.
I was first told I was making them wrong by Connie Devlin, the mother of one of my wife’s close friends, Susan Devlin. Connie, of Italian descent, possibly makes the best meatballs I’ve ever tasted. During a weekend visit to Susan’s home in New Jersey, we were preparing Insalata Caprese for a dinner party and I suggested adding a little aged balsamic vinegar.
Connie jumped all over me and said, “No vinegar. You don’t mix tomatoes and vinegar.”
“What, no aged balsamic vinegar!” I didn’t believe her for a minute and continued my balsamic vinegar ways and enjoyed every moment.
News to Me
So here I am on vacation in the beautiful oceanside community of Avalon, New Jersey reading a week old food section of The Philadelphia Inquirer and lo and behold I come across an article on Insalta Caprese.
And what do you think they say about making this classic summer treat? No vinegar. I am shocked, dismayed and still disbelieving so I read further.
Insalta caprese comes from the southern Italian island of Capri and according to tradition, the salad is made up of only five ingredients: tomatoes, mozzarella, basil, olive oil and salt. No vinegar. In fact, according to the article and in support of Connie Devlin, vinegar and tomatoes don’t work together.
Why? Because Italians like their salad tomatoes firm, slightly green and tart rather than fully ripe and sweeter the way I prefer them. To them, there is absolutely no reason to add more tartness to the tomatoes with balsamic vineagar. Southern Italians believe the firm, tart slightly green tomatoes are the perfect complement to soft, milky texture of fresh mozzarella.
Speaking of fresh mozzarella, we are talking about the type you find sold packed in water, not the stuff you find at the grocer in shrink-wrapped plastic that is more often used for making pizza. Don’t even bother serving those rubber balls of mozzarella with fresh tomatoes and basil. Not prudent at all.
I usually buy a tub of fresh mozzarella at Costco. It saves me a lot of money but also means I always have some on hand. The shelf life is at least a couple of weeks but be sure to change the water every once in awhile. Good quality fresh mozzarella should be soft, milky and sweet in flavor. You will know when it is starting to go just by the smell. So if you do not plan to have mozzarella every other night, you may be better off purchasing it in smaller quantitites.
The olive oil should be the best extra virgin olive oil you can afford. I like the olive oil from Georgio Zampa’s farm in Sardinia that you can read about at GatewayGourmet.com, but you can find good quality extra virgin olive oil at any gourmet specialty store and now in your local supermarkets. You don’t want to overpower the other fresh ingredients with the oil so you only need a small amount.
The salt should be sea salt. I know I wrote an article called Salt is Salt that basically says all salt is NaCl and therefore there is no difference in taste, but I have been asking a lot of chefs and testing various types of salts myself and I agree with the chefs that sea salt has a cleaner salty flavor. I’ll work on a more comprehensive taste test and report back in a future blog. You can learn more about sea salt and where to purchase some high end product also at GatewayGourmet.
Of course the basil should be fresh and I like to use whole leaves depending on the size of the tomatoes slices. You want to make sure the basil is fresh, not wilted. This time of year there is so much basil around, you can pick it up in most supermarkets at a fairly reasonable price.
We grow our own basil in our backyard and I’m not sure why, but it seems to have a much stronger flavor than the basil we get at the market. I’m guessing the incredibly strong flavor has something to do with its type.
Putting the Insalada Caprese Together
There are lots of ways you can arrange the salad. I typically like to start with whole tomato slices arranged on a platter or individual serving plates but lately I have been cutting the tomato slices in half and sort of stack them like fallen dominos. How thick you slice the tomato gives you some more options. I think ¼ to ½ inch slices work fine.
Next I add a layer of fresh mozzarella to each tomato slice. Be sure to bring the mozzarella cheese to room temperature before serving. Cold mozzarella will not have the same flavor as room temperature cheese.
I then add the fresh basil leaves on top of the mozzarella matching leaf size with tomato size. Big leaves for the bigger slices, smaller ones for the smaller slices.
Then comes the extra virgin olive oil. I stick my thumb over the end of the bottle and drizzle it over the tomato, mozzarella, basil combination. Depending on your personal tastes, add more or less oil to the salad. You don’t want to overwhelm the flavor, just enhance it and remember, it is easier to add more oil then take it away.
It’s now time for a pinch or two of sea salt and some freshly ground pepper. If you don’t have a pepper grinder, I highly recommend you invest in one and then try out various types of pepper. You will be pleasantly surprised by flavor of good quality pepper freshly ground before using.
Balsamic Vinegar or Not
I’m sorry but I like aged balsamic vinegar on my insalata caprese. Maybe it’s the fact that our tomatoes are not unripe and tart or maybe it’s because the aged balsamic vinegar adds a wonderful sweetness to the dish.
Good quality aged balsamic vinegar is nothing like the inexpensive stuff you buy at the supermarket. It is very expensive and is used oh so sparingly. Just a few drops can add a whole lot of flavor to anything you drizzle it on. It is nothing like red or white wine vinegar and I would NOT add these to my insalate caprese.
You can read more about traditionally aged balsamic vinegar at gatewaygourmet.com and where to purchase it at great prices.
Great Time of Year
With all the wonderful fresh tomatoes and basil around, do some of your own experimenting with it and see what combination works for you. There is no perfect way to prepare it, just what tastes good to you.