In honor of the Olympics opening ceremony, a friend of the Junta proposed an innovative party idea: a potluck dinner party for which each guest brings an international dish of some sort. I was super-excited for the party, of course, but I was also tired and jet-lagged and generally unprepared to make anything particularly elaborate. It’s also summer, and tomatoes and basil are beautifully in season. And so, the obvious solution: caprese.
For those of you who have never ever been to an Italian restaurant, where caprese (and often mediocre caprese, at that) seems to be a required menu item, a brief definition: caprese — or insalata caprese, to be completely accurate — is an Italian salad made of tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil, typically topped with olive oil, salt, and pepper. It is delicious, and it is super-easy, and I can’t believe that we haven’t written about it yet on FJ, though I suppose all the tomato scares have probably lowered its position as an Italian restaurant staple as of late. Kevin has, I should point out, written about caprese, in a way, in the context of the show Cookin’ With Coolio. The episode in question, in which Coolio demonstrates how to make caprese salad, is even more amazing than words can possibly relate (also, I feel uncomfortable just thinking about repeating the things Coolio says here), and it’s only 5 minutes, so I’ll just repeat Kevin’s advice that you watch it immediately. With the larger point being: if Coolio can make caprese, and spout countless profanities and statements about yo’ mama while he’s at it, then so can you (hopefully minus the profanities).
Typically, caprese is arranged as slices of red tomato layered with slices of mozzarella and basil leaves, and looks very ordered and perfect (see photo). You eat it with a fork and knife, and everything is very civilized.
But while I would never turn down caprese in any form, that is not my vision of caprese. For me, it is a fun dish, and one that shouldn’t be bound by strictures of form or color. That is not to say that I am throwing presentation out the window; I simply think it looks more enticing (and tastes better, too) with a mixture of colors, shapes, and sizes for the cheese and tomatoes. Some of the mozzarella here is sliced, some diced; the whole tomatoes are both sliced in rounds and in half-moons; cherry tomatoes are added for a whole different sizing component, sliced in half to be easier to eat and more attractive. Also, the purple basil smelled much more fragrant than the regular green basil when I was doing my shopping, so I went for that as well. Finally, in a last twist, I like to add garlic and balsamic vinegar, both of which punch the dish up — kick it up a notch, if you will. Or as Coolio would say, Shaka Zulu!
You can easily develop your own favorite form of caprese. It is a forgiving dish, so long as you salt and pepper carefully (remember, you can always add, but you can never take away). Here, though, is my basic recipe, for a version that was packed in a tupperware and fed approximately 20 people in very small portions. For normal-sized portions, I’d say it would feed 6-8.
However you do it, it should look vibrant and colorful, and call out to be eaten. It should not look like you sat there, meticulously placing the components together. As Coolio says, the traditional colors — red, white, and green — look great together, and, as he points out, they are the colors of the Mexican flag. (I think we can all see the problem with this statement without me having to point it out.) What he would make of this one — red, yellow, white, orange, purple — I only wish I knew.
– 6 ripe tomatoes, 3 red and 3 yellow, if possible, some sliced in rounds, others in half-moons
– one pint cherry tomatoes, again, a mix of colors if possible (red, yellow, orange, green), cut in half
– 3/4 lb. fresh mozzarella, some sliced in rounds, some diced
– 1 bunch fresh basil, green or purple; you won’t use all of the bunch, but pluck as much as you want
– 4 cloves garlic, sliced thin
– 5 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
– 2 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
– salt and freshly pepper to taste
I’m not going to write out the steps in the usual way here, because they really depend on how you are going to present it. If you are packing the caprese up for a picnic like I did, I arranged one layer of the slices and half-moons of tomato, next a sprinkling of the garlic, then mozzarella in varying forms, next the basil, and next the cherry tomatoes; repeated til container was full, then poured the olive oil and vinegar (mixed) over the whole thing and added a good sprinkling of salt and pepper over. If you are going to present it on either a large serving platter or on individual plates, I wouldn’t repeat the layering, but just put down one base layer of the bigger slices and half-moons of tomato, the garlic, the mozzarella, the basil, and then drop cherry tomatoes all over the plate, again pouring the dressing over liberally and adding a good sprinkle of salt and pepper.