This is a decidedly Italian salad. Caprese means ‘from Capri’ or Campania which is a region in Italy – sort of the lower shin-bone of the boot. Aside from the fact it is an ancient traditional recipe, it is also a combination of the most stereotypically Italians ingredient on the planet, the colors of which make up the Italian flag: Basil – the most Italian herb, mozzarella – need I say more, and the most iconic Italian ingredient of all – the tomato. This salad follows the tried and true culinary formula of less is more – however the most important part of that formula is quality. There is no-where for an under-ripe tomato or pre-grated mozzarella to hide. Unless pulled off with the best, this recipe isn’t worth it, so I will go over the ingredients and explain why.
So I lied – the cheese I use is called Bocconcini [bohk-kohn-CHEE-nee]. It is a form of fresh mozzarella and is extremely soft. The flavour is mild and clean and the texture is similar to a marshmallow but a little firmer. I have to get this at the Italian grocery as a treat. Next is basil – and I must admit that I am a basil snob, likely because I eat a lot of it. This year I planted 4 basil plants which I ate from every other day. Using dry basil on this salad (or anything for that matter) is like adding a dash of sand. Its gritty and tasteless so unless you have fresh basil, don’t bother! The onion flavour must be mild, which is why I would suggest using shallots as they have a much milder flavour and are easy to dice into tiny pieces. If you must use onion, make certain it’s a red onion and sliced extremely small (as pictured). Olive oil & Balsamic Vinegar – these are like the Nonna & Nonno (Italian Grandpa & Grandma) of Italian food – they are better with age, they are to be respected and only deserve the best. Last is the tomatoes, and for good reason. Tomatoes make this salad, and if you decide to chop up a burger tomato that has pink flesh and no juice, then get out of my kitchen. Stick to vine-ripened and when you have the chance use halved cherries.
The photos should do the construction justice, but I will explain the dressing. The same formula works for every frickn’ salad dressing in history – 3 to 1. Three bases to 1 acid. Bases are anything from yogurt, mayo, oils, or sour cream. Acids are vinegars, citrus’, and mustards. Here the formula is simple – 3 parts extra virgin olive oil, 1 part balsamic vinegar, dried oregano (dry oregano is cool, dry basil still isn’t) and salt & pepper. I skip the garlic on this one as it is too harsh of a flavour and it isn’t in the traditional version. Combine in a jar, shake it up and pour. Gently toss the salad and enjoy every bite with a little of everything on the fork – so friggn’ worth it.
If you have the ingredients on hand, you can be eating this dish in 5 minutes. This is also a good date salad as its nice and lite and will go great with a lighter red wine or white if you prefer, and I do prefer. This can also be a great group dish as well, using the larger sized bocconcini sliced and layed between slices of tomato, just google caprese and you’ll see what I mean. For clarification, I am not altogether against freeze-dried basil in soups or some sauces, but it is not a stand-alone, nor can it ever replace fresh basil. I will also say that before I had access to bocconcini I did make this with regular soft (though not fresh) mozza, and it sort of works but it really doesn’t compare.
Try this out, try it a few times and tweak to your liking. I think you’ll find the texture and the way the flavours come together really make a difference. Let me know how it goes!