Can't go wrong with Caprese

Caprese salad might just be the perfect food. Ripe juicy tomatoes, fresh creamy mozzarella, a few leaves of bracing basil — what’s not to like? It’s unprocessed, it’s delicious, and it’s relatively healthy. A little s&p, maybe a drizzle of olive oil… boom. Perfection on a plate.

an impromptu Caprese sandwich

I grew to love Caprese salads — or insalata Caprese — in Italy, as you do, and in Germany of all unexpected places. During our visits these past few years, my standard lunch order abroad has been a Caprese sandwich — said salad on a thick wedge of crusty toothsome bread. It’s easy to find, readily available on nearly every menu and at every bake shop counter.

If you want to look like a rock star in the kitchen, put together a Caprese salad or sandwich and see what kind of compliments you receive. The only way you can really mess up this dish is by using sub-par ingredients. Like most Italian food, it relies on quality tomatoes and cheese, dressed just barely or not at all to let the true flavors shine through. When you start with high quality building blocks like this, you don’t have to hide them under a sauce or mask them with a dressing.

Caprese salad is pretty enough to serve at a fancy dinner party, or simple enough to toss together for a quick lunch (as I did yesterday). A few tips – get the best tomatoes you can find, and don’t refrigerate them; this makes the texture mealy and blunts the flavor. If you can pick them straight out of your garden and serve them still warm from the sun, all the better. I’ve had great luck with farmers’ market products this summer as well.

On to the cheese. Who doesn’t like mozzarella cheese? Again, go for the best quality you can find and afford, although I often just buy a ball of the stuff at Marsh or Kroger in the deli section when it’s on sale. (The smoked mozzarella is a nice alternative on occasion.)

I’ve had a bumper crop of basil in my patio planter this year, but if you must buy it at the store, look for fresh snappy leaves with no bruises. Store the herb upright in a tall glass in the fridge with just enough water in it to barely submerge the stems.

When it’s time to put it all together, slice the cheese and the tomatoes into widths of equal size. Layer the slices on a plate or platter, alternating for color contrast. Scatter a few whole basil leaves over on top, or tear them into small pieces with your fingers. If you want to be really fancy, you can chiffonade your basil. Don’t freak out and panic when I say “chiffonade;” it just means you roll up the leaves into a little cigar shape and slice them into cute thin ribbons.

Whoomp, there it is. If you like, you can drizzle the salad with a little good quality olive oil. I sometimes like to add a tiny bit of balsamic vinegar for flavor, but that’s just me. You can also cube the cheese and tomato, put it in a bowl, mix in the basil and olive oil, then spoon the mixture over grilled chicken or pasta. Add some kalamata olives, or perhaps a few garlic croutons. Or, throw in slices of avocado. Heck – go crazy.

It goes without saying that Caprese’s best served in summer, when produce is at its peak ripeness, but it makes a great starter or fresh side dish any time of the year. Mangia.

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