There are few things that capture the taste of summer like a freshly-assembled Caprese salad made of perfectly-ripe heirloom tomatoes. It is my go-to dinner on a hot summer day. There is no cooking involved and my kids love the assembly process. The mozzarella is so hearty that a large Caprese is a satisfying and nutritious meal.
Over the years, I have made little discoveries about the method of preparing the salad that elevates a simple salad to one that showcases it’s star ingredients.
To begin, I won’t belabor this post with the recipe: the salad is simply a combination of tomatoes, basil, fresh mozzarella, olive oil, salt and pepper. My secrets are in the method and preparation of this gorgeous summer dish:
1. Select perfectly-ripe tomatoes of different colors. I am a strong believer that we eat with our eyes first (especially the kiddos!). My grandmother always used to tell me that the colors in fruits and vegetables are visible signs of the vitamins they contain. Besides, how can I not show off the bursting color varieties of peak-of-season heirlooms? Selecting different colors of ingredients is like choosing the color palette that the final dish will be painted with. In this case, the season gives us a cornucopia of options.
2. Cut tomatoes into wedges. I like to ensure that each bite of the salad retains as much integrity of each ingredient as possible, that is why I cut the tomatoes into wedges, instead of slices or cubes. By cutting the tomatoes into 1″ wide wedges (just like cutting orange wedges), each bite retains more of the tomato juice and seeds. When tomatoes are sliced, diced, or cubed, the juices pour right out when the salad is tossed.
3. Tear, not cut, the mozzarella. The fresh mozzarella is a star ingredient of the Caprese and I see my role in incorporating the star ingredients is to make sure they don’t compete with each other, but instead highlight each other’s beauty. I choose the large balls of fresh mozzarella that are sold floating in water. Then, instead of dicing them like I would for any other dish, I rip it into pieces with my hands. What happens is the mozzarella tears along the natural threads of its composition. Those threads create ridges to which the seasoning and juices of the salad stick, creating a gorgeous flavor and rustic texture.
4. Freshen up the basil. Oftentimes I purchase basil ahead of time, since it comes in large bundles in the summer. To make sure my basil is as fresh as possible, I treat it like flowers: trim the ends of the bushel and stick it in a jar with water. Then when I am ready to use it, it is as fresh as it would be if I picked it from the garden.
5. Use very good olive oil. Olive oil is the fourth most important ingredient in a Caprese. Choose wisely. I use a California extra virgin olive oil I picked up in the Santa Ynez valley. Simple rule of thumb for me is if the olive oil is good enough to serve for dipping bread, then it is good enough for a Caprese.
It is important to prepare this salad immediately before serving to really get the full flavor of each ingredient.
I love the simplicity and rustic feel of a huge bowl of freshly-prepared Caprese. There is no better way to showcase the gorgeous peak-season heirloom tomatoes that are bountifully available mid-summer. My favorite way to serve it is with a hand-torn piece of rustic bread with grass-fed butter.
Other ideas: I have been known to implement improvise the Caprese disguised in other dishes. For example, tossing this salad over freshly cooked whole wheat spaghetti. Another simple idea is to throw it atop of a pizza crust and bake for 15 minutes at 425 degrees.
Another variation on a theme is to carefully slice the tomatoes into rounds, place on a plate, and top with the mozzarella pieces (creamy buffalo mozzarella can be substituted here for a more decadent treat) and chopped basil. Add olive oil, salt, pepper.