Our heirloom tomato plants are about 6-feet tall and the baby tomatoes are just starting to appear. A few more weeks of this nice hot weather and we’ll have a huge harvest! As perfect as they are with just a little salt and pepper on them, adding a few ingredients can change the whole concept of a dish and add a lot of variety to your meals.
Working off the classic Caprese combination of tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, and fresh basil, I am sharing some recipes that you will enjoy. In addition to the ideas below, you can also use the same mixture on pizza, tossed with hot pasta, or add more types of vegetables for a big salad. Based on the colors of the Italian flag, these will always produce a beautiful plate, full of contrasting colors, textures, and flavors.
When you are working with so few ingredients, make sure each one is the best that you can find and afford. This is one time when using a good quality extra virgin olive oil is really worth the expense. The fruity qualities will balance the acidity of the tomatoes. If the fresh basil in the market doesn’t look good, you can also substitute fresh thyme or marjoram.
Heirloom tomatoes are among my most favorite things on this earth. Each one is unique, some are a bit smoky, others sweet, and some have almost a citrus flavor. Combining several different kinds always makes a beautiful plate and showcases the differences. I know a lot of people who have never had a yellow or green tomato and they have no idea how much pleasure they are missing! Adding yellow, orange, green, and purple tomatoes will liven up any recipe.
Mozzarella is a very versatile cheese. Probably best known as the stringy cheese on pizza, it is creamy and smooth with a very mild flavor. It goes with anything. It is sold in many forms, but the best by far is fresh, packed in water. Look at the dates on the packaging carefully to make sure you are buying the newest cheese. Another form you can find are tiny, bite-sized balls known as Bocconcini. You can cut them in half or quarters if they are too big to easily eat in one bite.
One of the appetizers that I am known for and serve often are Caprese Skewers. Use attractive toothpicks and either lay them down as I have or you can use a longer skewer and serve them stuck into a head of cabbage, large bell pepper, or other vegetable for a more dramatic presentation.
The classic presentation of Caprese Salad is slices of tomato and mozzarella separated by fresh basil leaves. This is still one of my favorites, but I like to chop the basil so no one gets a huge leaf in one bite. You can use a prepared vinaigrette or other salad dressing, but it is just as easy to drizzle the top with a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar. The vinegar adds a nice sweetness along with the acid. You can also chop all the ingredients and toss them together in a bowl.
On hot summer evenings I love serving different kinds of crostini at our dinner parties. Easy to make without heating up the kitchen too much, it is like having a picnic. Try offering two or three different kinds of crostini for fun. All the bread can be baked ahead of time and topped just before serving. My Fava Bean Spread (https://theheritagecook.com/?p=7627) is one option, or maybe a fresh pea puree. You could season some drained ricotta with salt, sautéed shallots, and fresh thyme. Or go even simpler with a schmear of softened cream cheese topped with a dab of fig balsamic jam … YUM!
Tossing the Caprese ingredients with hot pasta makes an instant sauce, bright with fresh flavors and extremely healthy for the entire family. You can have dinner on the table in under 30 minutes with very little required preparation. Chop everything ahead of time and put it in a large bowl. Then when the pasta is ready, drain it and toss with the pasta. It may become your new favorite pasta sauce!
Enjoy these wonderful flavors of Italy all year long, but especially now that tomatoes are in season and luscious. Buy a big bag of them, leave them on the counter (never refrigerate tomatoes), and you can make an entire meal of them. Healthy and delicious, they are nature’s perfect gift!
Jane’s Tips and Hints:
Roasting tomatoes really brings out their sweetness and gives them a hint of smoke. In the winter when tomatoes are not at their best, this is a great way to boost their flavor. If you want you can add olive oil to the tomatoes and onions and roast until tomatoes are soft and the onions are caramelized. Pack this into a container and store in the refrigerator. Serve over pasta for an amazing meal. People will be begging you for the recipe!
Kitchen Skill: Slicing on the bias (diagonal)
Holding a sharp serrated knife at about a 45-degree angle, cut the baguette into 1/2-inch thick slices. Cutting on the bias gives you more room to comfortably top them with the tomato mixture and makes them easier to eat.
- 1 shallot, peeled and thinly sliced
- 2 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
- Pinch of salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- About 1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
- 4 fresh, ripe tomatoes, in various colors if available
- About 1/2 lb fresh mozzarella, packed in water
- 2 small cucumbers, peeled and sliced about 1/4-inch thick
- 8 to 10 large basil leaves, cut chiffonade
- In a small jar with a tight lid, combine the shallot, lemon juice, and salt. Shake until salt is dissolved. Add some pepper, oil, and thyme. Shake again until emulsified.
- Slice tomatoes about 1/4-inch thick. Remove cheese from water, pat dry, and slice as thinly as you can. If it breaks that’s fine.
- On a serving platter, starting at the outside, layer tomato, cheese, and cucumber slices in overlapping circles. Sprinkle with basil, salt, and pepper. Shake dressing well and drizzle lightly over salad. Pass remaining dressing at the table.
- Yield: about 4 servings
- 2 medium red tomatoes, cut into wedges
- 2 medium yellow tomatoes, cut into wedges
- 3/4 cup diced fresh mozzarella cheese
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
- 2 tbsp chopped fresh basil
- 1/4 tsp salt
- Freshly ground pepper, to taste
- Gently toss tomatoes, mozzarella, parsley, basil, and salt together in a large bowl. Season with pepper.
- Yield: 4 servings, about 1-1/4 cups each
- 1 freshly baked baguette
- Olive oil
- Coarse salt
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 yellow onion, finely diced
- 1 clove garlic, halved lengthwise, sprouted center removed, and finely minced
- 10 plum or Roma tomatoes, sliced lengthwise in thirds, or chopped
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 cup Kalamata olives, diced, optional
- 4 oz Parmesan cheese, grated, plus more for sprinkling on top
- 3 tbsp chiffonade of fresh basil leaves
- Preheat oven to 375°F.
- Slice bread on an angle into 1/4 to 1/2-inch thick slices, brush lightly with olive oil, sprinkle one side with salt, and bake until lightly toasted, turning over halfway through. This should only take about 5 minutes per side, but it will depend on your oven.
- Heat oil in large ovenproof skillet. Add onions and sauté until translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Add garlic and tomatoes and place in preheated oven. Roast for about 20 minutes or until softened. Remove from oven, and add salt & pepper to taste. Reduce oven to 350°F.
- Return skillet to stove burner and continue to cook over low heat until most of the liquid has evaporated. NOTE: Keep a hot pad on the handle of the skillet so you don’t burn yourself! Pour into a bowl and cool slightly. Add olives (if using), 4 oz Parmesan cheese and basil strips to cooled tomatoes. Mix well to blend. Set aside.
- Using a slotted spoon, top each slice of bread with about 2 tsp of tomato mixture. Sprinkle with a little more Parmesan if desired. Bake at 350°F until bubbly and hot. Serve immediately.
- Yield: 8 appetizer servings
- 1/4 cupolive oil
- 2 to 4 tspfresh lemon juice, white balsamic vinegar or champagne vinegar
- 1/2 small garlic clove, minced or pressed through a garlic press
- 2 small shallots, minced finely
- 1 small sweet Italian pepper, minced
- 1 small scallion, light and med green parts minced finely
- Table salt and ground black pepper
- 1-1/2 lbripe tomatoes, cored, seeded, and cut into 1/2-inch dice
- 12 ozfresh mozzarella cheese, cut into 1/2-inch cubes (see note above)
- 1/4 cup crumbled Ricotta Salata or other piquant cheese
- 1/4 to 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 lbpenne pastaor other pasta of your choice
- 1/4 cupchopped fresh basil
- Freshly squeezed lemon juice, as desired
- 1 tspsugar if needed to balance acid of tomatoes
- Whisk oil, 2 tsp lemon juice or vinegar, garlic, shallot, 1/2 tsp salt, and 1/4 tsp pepper together in large bowl. Add tomatoes and gently toss to combine; set aside. Do not marinate tomatoes for longer than 45 minutes.
- While tomatoes are marinating, place mozzarella on plate and freeze until slightly firm, about 10 minutes. This will help avoid the cheese melting into unappetizing stringy globs. (Don’t freeze if you are using fresh mozzarella - stored in water - add to tomatoes during marinating.)
- Bring 4 quarts water to rolling boil in stockpot. Add 1 tbsp salt and pasta, stir to separate, and cook until al dente. Drain well. Place in large bowl.
- Add mozzarella and tomato mixture to pasta and gently toss to combine. Let stand 5 minutes. Stir in basil; adjust seasonings with salt, pepper, and additional lemon juice or sugar, if desired, and serve immediately.
- Yield: 4 to 6 servings