How could a salad named for a picturesque island off the southern coast of Italy be anything but gorgeous – both to look at and to eat! The Caprese salad became popular in the southern Italian region of Campania, where it was named for the island of Capri.
With August’s warm weather, salads are a natural choice for a nice lunch, a suppertime appetizer or – with an increased portion size, nice hunk of bread and glass of wine – a delicious light main course on a warm summer evening.
The Caprese salad combines fresh mozzarella cheese (traditionally this salad calls for buffalo milk cheese, or bocconcini), ripe tomatoes, fresh basil, good olive oil, coarse salt, fresh pepper and, if you like, a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. You could certainly add some lettuce greens as a base to create a more substantial meal. We love the way arugula compliments the flavours of this salad, adding a delightful peppery note. A handful of black olives are a nice garnish.
With a salad as simple as this, the quality of the ingredients becomes important.
You can buy fresh mozzarella at many supermarkets now, in a wet-pack plastic sleeve. To get buffalo milk cheese, though, you might have to go to a specialty store. Domestically produced cow’s milk Bocconcini, available in tubs and packed in liquid (whey), is quite readily available. It is ping-pong-ball sized white orbs of semi-soft, unripened mild cheese that have a fresh, almost sweet flavour, and very little salt. (They also come in a “mini-mini” version, the size of grape tomatoes.)
Fresh, local, ripe tomatoes straight from the farmer’s market – no need to say more! It’s nice to have tomatoes that are the same size as your cheese, and you can vary the colour with yellow, orange or interesting heirloom varieties.
Choosing a nice fruity, full-bodied olive oil that’s intended for drizzling rather than frying is important. More and more varieties are available at supermarkets and big box stores. And of course, specialty markets are a great source. If you can find an olive oil from southern Italy, that’d be very authentic!
A flaky kosher salt is wonderful. If you can find finishing salt, such as Fleur de Sel, Himalayan Black Lava salt or Grey Sea Salt, it will be worth the effort. Be sure to use freshly ground black pepper, too.
Your local farmer’s market should be a good source, while supermarkets also sell it. Sweet Italian basil is the natural choice, but you could have fun with lemon or opal basil, or whatever you have on hand. Dry herbs won’t do. (If you’re really craving this salad and can’t get fresh basil, a drizzle of basil pesto would be a tasty substitute.)
To assemble your salad: Slice the cheese and tomatoes in quarter-inch thick slices. You can either chiffonade the basil (by stacking leaves together, rolling them tightly and slicing through lengthwise with a sharp knife, to create thin strips) or use whole leaves. Put several slices of tomato on the plate, top each with a slice of cheese. Drizzle with olive oil (and balsamic vinegar if using). Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and garnish with basil. You can create individual plates or layer on a big platter to serve at the table. A nice glass of pinot grigio or sauvignon blanc will be a delicious pairing with this salad. Or, if you prefer red wine, you can’t go wrong with a nice chianti. Use hunks of fresh bread to mop up the tasty olive oil and juices.