Insalata caprese: A summer classic

Posted: August 09, 2007

With tomatoes coming into peak season, the beloved insalata caprese is once again enjoying its annual surge.

And at this time of year, it seems some people practically live on Capri's famous salad, the classic trinity of tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and basil.

Even a kitchen neophyte can make a caprese in less time than it takes to set the table, which probably explains the salad's broad appeal. And even a neophyte can make a perfect one, with the right ingredients.

But it's the ingredients that trip people up, purists say. With so few components, each one must be pristine. Cutting corners with limp basil or cheap olive oil ruins a caprese, as does any attempt at embellishment.

You can combine tomato, mozzarella and basil in other ways - as the accompanying recipes suggest - but the textbook caprese is all but written in stone.

Associated with the southern Italian island of Capri, a famed vacation spot for the moneyed set, insalata caprese requires five ingredients, and five only: tomatoes, mozzarella, basil, olive oil and salt. Full stop. Vinegar, especially balsamic vinegar, doesn't belong.

"You could put me on record as saying that [vinegar] is the most nontraditional thing - and I see it all the time, and I cringe," says Nate Appleman, chef of A16 in San Francisco.

One reason Italians don't put vinegar on their caprese is that their salad tomatoes are already tart. They eat them firm and slightly green, at a stage Americans would consider unripe. For Viana La Place, a San Francisco food writer and cookbook author, a good caprese depends on less-than-ripe tomatoes.

"You get the tart quality of the tomato and the crispness, which is such a wonderful contrast to the pure, milky flavor of the mozzarella and its soft texture," says La Place, who has vacationed at length in southern Italy.

Those accustomed to vine-ripe tomatoes may be hard to persuade on that point - Appleman, for one, wants the "juiciest, ripest red tomatoes" for his caprese - but it would be hard to argue with La Place's other beliefs.

The mozzarella should be at room temperature and as fresh as possible. The olive oil should be extra virgin. The salt should be sea salt. And the basil should look as if you just snipped it.

"It has to have some bounce to it," says La Place. "If it's already bruised or wilting, it's not going to serve you very well."

Insalata caprese has taken a great leap forward in the last few years thanks to the influx of top-quality fresh mozzarella. Whether imported or domestic, water-packed mozzarella has a silkier texture and milkier flavor than the firm, rubbery mozzarella in shrink-wrapped plastic that most people think of as pizza cheese.

In recent years, mozzarella di bufala - made with the extra-rich milk of water buffalos - has also become a staple at many cheese counters, giving shoppers even more choice.

Customers in general have become a lot more choosy about their mozzarella, and many who try the bufala never go back to the cow's milk cheese.

Water-packed mozzarella declines quickly, especially once the container is opened. Milky, sweet and supple in youth, it rapidly sours and the texture deteriorates. If you don't use it all in one sitting, change the water in the container to slow the demise.

The downward spiral is perhaps even faster for burrata, a mozzarella relative that has skyrocketed in popularity - and availability - in the last couple of years.

Made by wrapping stretchy mozzarella curd around a filling of fresh curds mixed with cream, burrata is the sexiest of fresh cheeses, but highly perishable.

At some point in late summer, overexposure takes its toll on insalata caprese. That's when it's time to regroup, rethinking tomatoes, mozzarella and basil for palates tired of the format but not the flavors.

The following recipes should provide inspiration for celebrating this inseparable summer trio - until it's time to retire it for another year.

Spaghetti With Spicy Cherry Tomato Sauce, Mozzarella and Basil

Makes 6 servings

1 pound spaghetti

6 tablespoons extra virgin

olive oil

2 large cloves garlic, minced 1 to 2 small fresh

red chiles, such as Thai chiles, minced

11/2 pounds cherry

tomatoes, halved

Kosher or sea salt

2 tablespoons capers,

rinsed and coarsely chopped

1 dozen kalamata olives, pitted and halved

Approximately 1 dozen fresh basil leaves, torn

into small pieces

3/4 pound fresh whole-milk mozzarella, at room

temperature, in 1/2-inch cubes

1. Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook until al dente, 10 to 12 minutes.

2. While the pasta cooks, prepare the sauce.

3. Heat the olive oil in a 12-inch skillet over moderately

low heat. Add the garlic and saute until lightly colored.

4. Add the chiles and saute briefly to release their heat,

then add the cherry tomatoes and salt to taste. Raise the heat to moderately high and cook at a brisk simmer, stirring, until the cherry tomatoes begin to soften and release their juices; do not let them collapse completely. Stir in the capers, olives and basil. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Keep warm over low heat.

5. Drain the pasta and return it to the warm pot over low heat. Add the sauce and toss to coat. Remove from the heat, add the mozzarella, and toss vigorously. Divide among warm bowls and serve immediately.

Per serving: 630 calories, 22 g protein, 68 g carbohydrate, 30 g fat (10 g saturated), 44 mg cholesterol, 452 mg sodium, 7 g fiber.

Pistachio Confetti Canapes

Makes 12 canapes

1 pint yellow and red cherry tomatoes, stemmed and quartered

1 tablespoon balsamic


1/2 cup pistachios, toasted

2 tablespoons pistachio oil or other nut oil, such as almond or hazelnut

3/4 cup diced fresh mozzarel-

la cheese (about 4 ounces)

12 1/2-inch-thick baguette slices

Extra virgin olive oil

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

2. In a large bowl, gently mix together the tomatoes, vinegar, pistachios, pistachio oil, and half of the cheese. Place in a serving bowl and sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top. Set aside.

3. Lightly brush the baguette slices with the olive oil and place on a baking sheet. Bake for 10 minutes, or until the bread is toasted but still slightly soft.

4. Place the bread in a napkin-lined basket. Serve immediately with the confetti and small spoons for scooping it onto the bread.

- From Tomatoes & Mozzarella (Harvard Common Press, 2006)

Per Canape: 141 calories, 5 grams protein, 15 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 7 grams fat, 7 milligrams cholesterol, 218 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber

Tomato Risotto With Mozzarella & Basil

Makes 6 servings

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 small yellow onion, minced

11/2 cups peeled, seeded and finely diced fresh tomato

2 cups Italian Carnaroli or Arborio rice

Approximately 6 cups hot chicken or vegetable broth

Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black


6 ounces fresh whole-milk mozzarella, at room

temperature, in 1/2-inch cubes

12 to 16 fresh basil leaves, torn into small pieces

1. Heat the olive oil in a heavy 4-quart pot over moderate heat. Add the onion and saute until soft, about 10 minutes.

2. Add the tomato, raise the heat to moderately high and cook, stirring often, for 5 minutes to reduce the tomato to a puree.

3. Lower the heat to moderate, add the rice and cook, stirring, until the grains are hot, about 2 minutes.

4. Begin adding the hot broth 1/2 cup at a time, stirring often and adding more broth only when the previous addition has been absorbed. It should take 18 to 20 minutes for the rice to become al dente and absorb all or most of the broth. The risotto should be creamy, neither soupy nor stiff. If you need more liquid, use boiling water.

5. Season with salt and pepper, cover the pot and set aside for 2 minutes. Uncover, add the mozzarella and basil and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon. Serve immediately in warm bowls.

- From The San Francisco Chronicle

Per serving: 435 calories, 14 g protein, 46 g carbohydrate, 22 g fat (6 g saturated), 22 mg cholesterol, 182 mg sodium, 2 g fiber.

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