Caprese Salad

Although Caprese salad is a relatively simple dish, in my life, it’s made quite an impact, twice. Growing up I ate a variety of your standard middle class food. It was always homemade and always delicious, but it was nothing too exotic or other worldly. Think tacos, sloppy Joes, pasta, hot dogs, chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese, and fried rice. When we had Mexican, Italian, or Chinese food it was the Americanized kind that consisted of ground beef hard shell tacos, spaghetti and meatballs, or lemon chicken.

It wasn’t until my late teens that I realized a whole other food universe existed. It was a Caprese salad that changed my life — that made me want to think outside the box, try new flavors, experience new tastes, and live in new cultures. It was the summer between my senior year of high school and my first year of college. I was invited to a barbecue at my friend Mariana McGuire’s house in San Francisco.

Mariana and I were the same age, but she was infinitely cooler and far more glamorous than I was at the time. We met at a rave and became so much more than just party friends. We hung out all the time, shared each others clothes, and drank Malibu rum and coke like it was going out of style. Mariana was edgier than I was because she lived in the City and she was first generation American and therefore had traveled all over Europe. She also spoke impeccable Italian and would incorporate Italianisms into her American English a la Giada De Laurentiis. Her dad was a burly Irish man and her mom a little Italian woman who spoke broken English, but was a wonderful home cook.

The McGuire’s lived in a great house in the sunset with one of those covetable backyards with a quaint rose garden, fire pit, and almost too rusty white patio furniture. It was your typical San Francisco summer barbecue, which meant it was freezing. The fog was thick and the wind strong, so we wore jackets over our carefully planned barbecue outfits and huddled outside around the fire pit.

Mariana scooped a plateful of something from a bowl and plopped it onto a plate, then passed it to me.

I took one bite of the red, white, and green mixture and exclaimed, “What is this?!”

The tomato was juicy, ripe, and slightly sweet and I wasn’t even sure what the other thing was or what provided a subtle herbaceous quality to what I was chewing. Mariana explained that it was Caprese salad, an Italian dish that her mother always made in the summer when the tomatoes and basil were in season and the buffalo mozzarella was the freshest. Mozzarella from a buffalo?! Who knew? Mariana also said that the salad was an Italian favorite because it had the colors of a traditional Italian flag.

I could not get enough of this Caprese salad thing and wondered what else there was out there, in the food world, that I had yet to discover. (Coincidentally, at this very same barbecue, I tasted my first aged Irish whiskey. Her dad kept a bottle of Bushmill’s 21-Year Old Single Malt in his office and Mariana and I sneaked in and had shots of it, but that’s an entirely different story.)

Besides introducing me to a whole new world of exotic cuisine, a Caprese salad also made me realize the true importance of seasonal eating. Since Mariana’s mom wrote down her recipe for me, I started to make the salad for my family, where it quickly became my mom’s favorite salad. Ever.

A couple years later, my mom asked me to make her the dish as part of a special birthday dinner. My mother was born on November 3rd and while Northern California is known for it’s exquisite Indian summers, this year’s bounty of tomatoes was long gone. I’ll never forgot my mom’s face as she took her first bite of the Caprese salad. It was one of disgust.

“Did you make this differently? It doesn’t taste very good. What did you do to it?” She asked.

As I dug into the salad, I knew she was right. It didn’t taste as good as I remembered it tasting during the summer. What had I done wrong? I made the salad as I always had, following Mariana’s mom’s instructions. Then it hit me: Mariana had said her mom always made the salad in summer, when the tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella were at their peak season. Wow! It was November and surely the salad wouldn’t be as good. I’ve been cooking seasonally (and making Caprese salad only in the warmer months) ever since.

There’s many variations on Caprese salad. It’s most delicious if you make it with home grown tomatoes and the best quality mozzarella you can find. Mariana’s mom’s version is more like my chopped Caprese salad, but lately I’ve been lazy and making the salad as so. The amount of tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil you’ll need depends on how many people you are serving, so I’ve left that part out. Use 1 1/2 medium tomatoes per person and go from there.

Caprese Salad

Round red tomatoes, sliced into 1/2-inch rounds
Fresh basil leaves, stems removed
Fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced into 1/4 inch rounds
Extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling
Balsamic vinegar, for drizzling
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Arrange the tomatoes in a single layer on a serving platter.
2. Top each tomato with a basil leaf, putting bigger leaves on larger tomato rounds and smaller leaves on smaller tomato rounds.
3. Place a piece of mozzarella cheese on each basil leaf.
4. Drizzle lightly with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper.
5. If you have more tomatoes, make another layer of tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella. Drizzle with more oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. Serve immediately or chill until ready to enjoy.

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