During the months of June and July when our basil is springing forth, I like nothing more that to throw together one of the most simple salads I know – Caprese salad.
The main ingredients are fresh basil, mozzarella and tomato. This is a ‘composed’ salad like a salade nicoise, meaning you do not toss the ingredients but arrange them decoratively on a plate. The most important part of this salad is to ensure that all of your ingredients are of good quality and the best that they can be.
Italians call this an insalata caprese, or just caprese for short, after the island of Capri, off the Amalfi coast in the southern Italian region of Campania. Of course, mozzarella comes from the Campania region, as do the best tomatoes in Italy. However, the Caprese salad didn’t originate here. According to a piece in Gambero Rosso magazine, that tells of a native of Capri, Constantino Moffa, who worked as a maitre d’ in a Swiss hotel. He apparently used to make this salad for himself and shared it. People enjoyed the salad so much that it made it to the menu and the rest is history.
A real Italian Caprese salad
Ingredients for each dinner guest
- 1- 2 tomatoes, depending on size and appetite, at room temperature
- One medium ball of fresh mozzarella cheese
- A sprig of fresh basil
- A pinch of salt
- A pinch of black pepper (this is how it was served to me in Positano)
- A drizzle of extra virgin olive oil
- Slice the mozzarella and tomato. Arrange the tomato, mozzarella and basil leaves in alternating slices on a plate. Season generously with salt and pour a generous amount of fruity olive oil over the top.
Some people add a bit of balsamic vinegar – please don’t. It will overpower all of the flavors in this dish.
This is an extremely easy dish to make, obviously, but it can be difficult to find the right ingredients. Unless you use top quality ingredients, you will end up with a dish that is almost entirely uninteresting, which is why I never order this in a restaurant (outside of Italy, at least). You need the best quality olive oil. You also need ripe, deep red, tasty tomatoes, which is another challenge. In the US, you’ll need to either grow them yourself or buy them from a farmer’s market. I have found that heirloom tomatoes work really well.
And, finally, last but definitely not least, you need top quality fresh mozzarella. This is perhaps the biggest challenge of all. Even in Italy, it can be difficult to find top quality mozzarella outside of its production zone, which extends from Campania up through the southern part of Lazio. We had some friends that live in Latina, not far from Rome but within the production zone, and they would serve the most wonderful mozzarella I had ever tasted, better than anything I could find in Rome, just a few kilometers away.
Outside Italy, of course, things get even more challenging. In the US, the most common type of “mozzarella”–although I hesitate to even call it by that name, is the kind that is packed in plastic wrap. It has nothing to do with real mozzarella. You can use it for certain cooking tasks, but it is too tasteless and rubbery to eat raw. You can buy imported mozzarella but somehow more often than not, the texture is not quite right. Rather than being rubbery, the texture is too soft. Good quality mozzarella has a texture that is hard to describe, neither hard nor soft, almost ‘spongy’, and oozing with milk. Probably the best bet for those in the US are some of the new artisanal cheesemakers here, who make a decent imitation.
Mozzarella comes in two basic types: the ‘real’ mozzarella is made from the milk of water buffalo, and is called mozzarella di bufala and cow’s milk mozzarella, called fior di latte. If you can find the real kind, by all means use it for this dish.