Every time I order a Caprese salad in a restaurant I worry after I’ve gone and done it. I worry what form the salad will take, and if it deviates at all from the classic, I know I’ll be disappointed. So many chefs want to add flair to the dish to personalize it, to make it impressive. What many chefs don’t realize is the Caprese salad has flair all its own.
First, it’s important to know that the salad comes from the Island of Capri. Think warm, summer breezes perfumed with salt water. That in and of itself should help you. It’s from the beach! When you’re at the beach you don’t want to get fancy. You want to play in the water and eat when you’re hungry. There’s nothing else to it.
Next, it’s good to know that the Caprese salad — meaning a “salad coming from Capri” — is an Italian food. Situated off the Amalfi Coast near Naples, Capri is part of Italy. It has been part of Italy since Imperial Rome, which means that it’s proud of its heritage. The Caprese is composed of only three colors: green, white, and red, il Tricolore, the colors of Italy’s flag. To add anything other than these three colors to a plate of Caprese salad would in essence be messing with the flag — and that’s never a good idea in any country.
Finally, Caprese is a salad you never alter, ingredient-wise. It’s a bit like Americans and cherry pie. Just keep it simple and everyone will be happy. Don’t use balsamic vinegar, don’t drizzle with basil pesto, and it doesn’t need lettuce. Don’t ever sprinkle dried basil on slices of deli mozzarella and call it a Caprese because it’s not. If you like, you can name that whatever “salad” you would like, but it’s not a Caprese.
Here are the steps to make your own perfect Caprese salad at home.
Perfect Caprese Salad Recipe
• One large ripe heirloom tomato per person, or four smaller campari tomatoes, washed, dried, and sliced into 1/4 inch rounds
Note: the Caprese is a summer salad. Its delights are best savored when tomatoes can be picked warm off the vine or purchased at your local farmers’ market. It doesn’t have a shelf life, more of an “enjoy by” date.
• Fresh mozzarella – either cow’s milk in brine (fior di latte) or buffalo milk mozzarella (mozzarella di bufala), sliced into 1/4 inch pieces.
Note: in a pinch, shrink-wrapped soft mozzarella will suffice, but the better bet is to buy the plastic, water-filled container of cheese balls at least 2 inches in diameter.
• Fresh Italian basil leaves, washed and dried, about 3 leaves per person, depending on leaf size, thinly sliced
Note: purists insist the basil should be torn or left whole. I prefer a thinly sliced chiffonade of the leaves so that the herb’s peppery bite doesn’t overwhelm any one forkful but is a consistent part of the whole.
• Premium quality extra-virgin olive oil
Note: this is the time to break out the good stuff. Look for slim bottles marked “First press”. Go to an olive oil shop and taste the differences. Some are fruity, others peppery. Select an oil you love with a memorable perfume and mouthfeel. This is as much “flair” as you will get.
• Good quality sea salt and cracked black pepper to taste
Arrange tomatoes on plate, overlapping slightly. Layer mozzarella slices on top of tomatoes. Drizzle with olive oil (this means keep it light, don’t drown the tomatoes in oil). Salt and pepper to taste. Scatter basil over tomatoes.
Let the salad rest for ten minutes before enjoying. This allows the tomato’s juices to release and blend with the oil, creating a self vinaigrette.
And then, Mangia!