THE WASHINGTON POST – I’m a firm believer in the theory that sometimes the dishes that taste the best are the ones that require the least amount of work. And that’s not only because these days, whether in the kitchen or not, I feel like I’m on the constant hamster wheel of life with no break in sight.
It’s also because when you have amazing ingredients, there’s not much you need to do to them to make them shine.
That’s especially true when it comes to Caprese salad, the signature Italian dish of tomatoes, mozzarella and basil.
A successful Caprese rests largely on “the quality of ingredients”, said Centrolina chef Amy Brandwein in Washington. I’m offering a simple, flexible recipe to get you started.
“You have to wait until it’s tomato season,” Brandwein said. Don’t bother with out-of-season fruit.
Preferably the tomatoes are vine-ripened and bursting with flavours and juice.
You can exclusively use smaller cherry or grape tomatoes, or mix them in with larger ones.
If for some reason you’ve refrigerated ripe tomatoes (it’s okay, I promise), be sure to give them at least an hour on the counter to come to room temperature for ideal flavor and texture.
Go for the good cheese. I’ve tested this recipe with buffalo mozzarella and fresh cow milk mozzarella, each packed in liquid.
These types of cheese are delightfully stretchy and moist, which is why I recommend staying away from the shrink-wrapped products.
(Vacuum-sealed fresh mozzarella is okay if that’s all you can find).
The super-dry, rubbery mozzarella you’ll find near the block and shredded cheese in the grocery store? Avoid.
The olive oil “doesn’t have to be terribly expensive”, said Brandwein, who favours a fruity Ligurian option.
As long as it’s something you enjoy the taste of on its own and isn’t rancid, you’ll be good to go.
Brandwein said people tend to not put enough oil on their Caprese, which is why I’ve gone with a generous quarter cup here.
You want to see it pool somewhat at the bottom of your serving dish, so that it mingles with the tomato juices and whey from the cheese to form an irresistible elixir great for dunking bread in.
Homegrown herbs are your best bet for freshness and quality. I agree with Brandwein when she said she prefers to use young, smaller leaves, which are still packed with flavour but are tender and small enough to not make you feel like you’re eating a green salad.
You can absolutely use more conventional larger basil, but for the best appearance, tear by hand rather than cutting with a knife.
To keep it from wilting or turning black, don’t add the basil you’re ready to serve the salad.
Sufficient seasoning is another important part of Caprese success, Brandwein said.
Salt brings out all the sweet and acidic flavors of the tomato. I like using a flaky sea salt – the bigger flakes mean you have more control when sprinkling them ensures everything is laced with flavour.
Don’t be shy in adding more to taste, either. Brandwein recommended coarsely ground or cracked black pepper instead of a fine powder. Here’s where to pull out your mortar and pestle.
Tempted to throw some balsamic vinegar on your Caprese? Resist the urge. And if you like pesto, save it for a sandwich riff, which I’ve included in the recipe below.
Four to six servings
A simple Caprese salad made with the best in-season summer tomatoes and good mozzarella is a thing of beauty.
Feel free to tweak the amount of the ingredients to your liking. These are flexible guidelines. For a suggested sandwich option, see the VARIATION, below.
– 340 to 454 grammes ripe slicing or heirloom tomatoes of various colours, cut horizontally into quarter-inch slices (may substitute halved cherry or grape tomatoes)
– Quarter teaspoon flaky sea salt, plus more to taste
– Quarter cup (60 millilitres) extra-virgin olive oil
– 226 to 283 grammes buffalo or fresh cow milk mozzarella, at room temperature, torn into bite-size pieces
– Five whole black peppercorns, cracked or coarsely ground
– 16 basil leaves (small to medium leaves, torn if larger) or quarter cup loosely packed micro basil
Arrange the tomato slices on a large plate or wide, shallow bowl. (You want something that will contain the olive oil and juices, and make for easy scooping.)
Sprinkle with half of the salt, then drizzle with half of the olive oil.
Scatter the mozzarella pieces on top of and around the tomatoes.
Drizzle the remaining olive oil over the entire dish, then sprinkle with the black pepper and the remaining salt. Season to taste with more salt, if desired. Scatter the basil leaves and serve.
VARIATION: You can use approximately the same ingredients here to make three or four Caprese sandwiches.
For each sandwich, split a ciabatta roll or six to eight-inch length of baguette in half.
If desired, divide one tablespoon homemade or store-bought pesto between the cut halves.
Layer three to five ounces of salted quarter-inch-thick tomato slices on the bottom half of the bread and dollop with about two ounces buffalo or fresh cow milk mozzarella torn into bite-size pieces.
Drizzle with one teaspoon olive oil, and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Scatter basil leaves on top, then finish the sandwich with the remaining bread half.