Caprese Days

Caprese Days
Dressed in the colors of the Italian flag, caprese exemplifies the fresh, ingredient-centric ethos of that cuisine. (Ari LeVaux)

Caprese, everyone’s favorite Italian salad, is a simple dish. Yet the mere combination of tomato, basil, and mozzarella cheese, dusted with salt and drizzled with olive oil, accomplishes so much.

Dressed in the colors of the Italian flag, caprese exemplifies the fresh, ingredient-centric ethos of that cuisine. The wafting, penetrating flavor of basil and the sweet, piercing flavor of the tomatoes combine with the rich cheese and oil, producing otherworldly satisfaction.

Like a margherita pizza without the crust and heat, caprese is the perfect way to enjoy the sunset of summer.

My tomato-hating son demands caprese on the daily when tomatoes and basil are in season. He’ll pound caprese like it’s Halloween candy. While he normally purports helplessness in the kitchen, he’ll make caprese when hosting friends and throw one together on the way out the door, like grabbing a granola bar.

As with any recipe of great cultural significance, there will be friction between purists and innovators. I generally have tremendous respect and reverence for the deep history and traditions that form the foundation of many time-honed recipes. But I’m ready to be flexible to keep up with the season and region.

With the flood of low-acid heirloom tomatoes available today, for example, we often need to add more acid, as the tomato alone doesn’t have the pH to stand up to cheese and olive oil. A few drops of balsamic do the trick. There is also white balsamic vinegar, which, for trademark reasons, is often labeled "White Italian Vinegar" or even "White Italian Condiment." Both types of vinegar are made from grapes, red and white, respectively.

 A caprese can be stacked into a tower, with the slice of cheese as the foundation topped with basil and a slice of tomato. (DUSAN ZIDAR/Shutterstock)
A caprese can be stacked into a tower, with the slice of cheese as the foundation topped with basil and a slice of tomato. (DUSAN ZIDAR/Shutterstock)

You can also make homemade reductions of red or white balsamic. Simply heat a quantity and slowly reduce it by half. It becomes thick and syrupy and sticks to the tomatoes, basil, and cheese.

Aside from the balsamics, any red or white wine vinegar could work. And lemon or lime will get it done brightly. My favorite caprese acid blend is a mix of red and white balsamic and lime juice.

Structurally speaking, a caprese can either be stacked into towers, often held together by toothpicks, or tossed in a bowl like a normal salad.

If you choose to make a tower, the slice of cheese belongs at the foundation, with the basil atop the cheese and a slice of tomato atop the basil. While many caprese makers put the basil on top because it’s more colorful, I find that those leaves will deflect the salt, oil, and vinegar from the tomato, shielding it from its much-needed dressing. So I tuck the basil under the tomato. Then sprinkle with salt, drizzle with XVOO, and chase with a few drops of acid.

If you prefer to serve caprese as a salad, I recommend cubing both the tomato and cheese. All of those cut surfaces do a great job holding the vinaigrette. Toss those together with the salt and vinaigrette, and add the basil leaves last. One thing that’s fun about the salad option is that you can toss the whole thing into a pot of hot pasta. (See recipe below.)

If we played our cards right last spring, we won’t run out of tomatoes or basil during these luxurious late summer days. Thus, it’s the mozzarella cheese, purchased in a sealed placenta-like bag of water, that becomes the limiting factor.

And if you run out of mozzarella? You have to replace it with something, presumably cheese. But maybe just don’t call it caprese. Trust me on that one. You will be called out by the self-appointed experts. You can substitute feta for a Greco–Roman salad that's most definitely not caprese. Since you went there, why not finish the job with chunks of cucumber and pressed garlic or minced onion? Swap the basil for oregano or thyme. Skip the balsamic and lean on the citrus. Make the formula work for you.

Or perhaps replace the mozzarella with a fine Spanish Manchego sheep cheese with a drizzle of red wine vinegar. Serve this Spanish not-caprese atop crusted fragments of bread and wash it down with a blended red.

And don’t forget to toast this brief, glorious window at the tail end of summer, when everything is in season and perfect, like I imagine life must be on the isle of Capri.

Caprese Salad Pasta

On top of spaghetti, or any kind of pasta, caprese will melt into a light, tangy sauce.

Serves 4 to 6

For the Salad

  • 1 pound tomato, cut into cubes
  • 1/2 pound fresh mozzarella, cut into cubes
  • 1 bunch of basil, leaves pulled off
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup XVOO
  • 1 teaspoon balsamic
  • 1 teaspoon lemon or lime juice

For the Pasta

  • 1 strip of fine bacon, cut crosswise into strips
  • 1 pound pasta noodles
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 cup grated parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 cup XVOO

Combine the salad ingredients in a medium-sized bowl. Taste. Adjust salt and acid. Set aside.

Bring 3 gallons of salted water to a boil. While the water heats, cook the bacon bits in a pan. When the water boils, add the pasta. Cook the amount of time specified on the package plus a minute (not today, al dente). Drain the noodles, and while still piping hot, stir in the garlic, cheese, bacon, and olive oil. When fully tossed, add the caprese and serve.

Ari LeVaux writes about food in Missoula, Mont.
Author’s Selected Articles
Related Topics