I loved the summer when I was a child; waking up to the promise of another perfect sunny day, running through open fields, chasing butterflies, lying on my back imagining pictures in the clouds, playing outside all day and evening until I was called home for dinner. My parents were from Indiana and grew up eating foods fresh from the fields. When the summer produce showed up in the grocery store, our dinners often included fresh corn and sliced tomatoes, the very essence of summer.
I can’t wait for the heat of summer when fresh tomatoes hit the farmers’ markets. The baskets are over-flowing with gorgeous fruits and vegetables, and the array of tomatoes is almost overwhelming. Everywhere you look there are red, purple, yellow, green, and orange tomatoes. If you have only eaten red tomatoes, expand your horizons and try other colors. They vary in acidity and flavor and make a stunning salad.
If you can find and afford them, buy heirloom varieties, preferably at a farmer’s market. The regular tomatoes we see in stores are fairly flavorless. They have been bred to withstand the rigors of transportation, which unfortunately has stripped them of flavor. They are picked green and shipped hundreds of miles, turning red along the way. Heirlooms are delicate, ripened on the vine, and sold to local stores. If you remember the tomatoes of your youth as being lush and full of flavor, eat an heirloom and you will discover that joy all over again.
If you are making this when tomatoes are not at their peak, you can intensify their flavor by roasting them in the oven. Slice them, place on a baking sheet, drizzle with a little olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake until they are softened and lightly colored. Their flavor will deepen and become richer. It makes a world of difference for ordinary tomatoes.
When I got a little older and discovered Italian food, the idea of layering sliced tomatoes with fresh basil and mozzarella cheese sounded like a perfect marriage. All the flavors of a pizza without the crust. In Italian this combination is called Caprese (cah-pray-zay) and can be utilized in a salad, pasta dish, or a pizza topping. I like to add thinly sliced cucumbers for the textural interest and crunch. You can leave them out if you prefer the more traditional salad.
The type of mozzarella you want for this salad is fresh, usually a single large ball of cheese, and sold in plastic containers filled with water. Do not use the pre-sliced version; it does not have the same look, flavor or texture. If you want you can easily make your own mozzarella. It is a fun family activity that children would love to help with.
If you have a party coming up and want a fun and different style of appetizer, consider creating Caprese skewers. Buy cherry tomatoes, mini balls of mozzarella called Bocconcini and whole basil leaves. Thread them on short skewers in the order of the Italian flag, red, white and green. If you cannot find bocconcini, you can cut a larger ball into small bite-sized pieces. And if you want you can also add a piece of prosciutto for a salty bite of meat.
If you are in the market for a new knife, I suggest you look at a serrated knife specifically designed for tomatoes, not surprisingly called a Tomato Knife. They slice a tomato like a hot knife going through butter and almost never need sharpening. Very versatile, you can use them for a whole slew of tasks. While a little pricey, they will last for years. I’ve had mine for at least 20 years and they are still going strong! Consider any good kitchen tool as an investment. Buy the best you can afford, maintain them, and buy one at a time. Before you know it you will have a kitchen that is the envy of all your foodie friends.
Did you know there are over 150 different varieties of basil? Part of the mint family of plants, the variety we see most often is Sweet Basil, but if you want a real Italian experience, use Genovese Basil. It has hints of clove, which complement the traditional flavors of Italy. The other basil that is often seen at farmers’ markets in California is Thai Basil. Beware that it has a very strong licorice flavor, which can be distracting if you were expecting the commonly known basil nuances. Some of the purple/red varieties are used in landscaping and can double as an addition to your cooking adventures.
While the weather is warm (or hot depending on where you live) and the days are long, take advantage of the beautiful fresh produce at your local farmer’s market. I know once you taste this salad you will want to serve it all summer long!
Happy Festive Friday – have a wonderful weekend!!
Jane’s Tips and Hints:
Save a few of the basil stems to use as decoration on the platter. It will make the plate more attractive and perfume the air, whetting your guest’s appetites before they take the first bite.
Kitchen Skill: How to Cut Chiffonade of Basil
Chiffonade (shif-oh-nod) is a fancy French term for cutting foods into ribbons. While you most often see this technique used with basil, it is applicable to any food. After rinsing and patting the basil leaves dry, stack them one on top of another. Using a very sharp knife, cut thin strips perpendicular to the stem. If the leaves are large you may want to cut the strips in half. Lift and drop the ribbons to fluff them up before using as a garnish.
- 1 shallot, peeled and thinly sliced
- 2 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice or balsamic vinegar
- 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 1/4-inch thick, optional
- 8 to 10 large basil leaves, cut chiffonade (see Kitchen Skill above)
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Minced fresh chives, optional
- Make the Dressing: In a small jar with a tight lid, combine the shallot, lemon juice, and salt. Shake until salt is dissolved. Add pepper, oil, and thyme. Shake again until emulsified. Set aside while you assemble the salad.
- Prepare the Ingredients: Using a very sharp serrated knife, slice tomatoes 1/4-inch thick. Remove cheese from water, pat dry, and slice as thinly as you can. The sharper your knife, the easier it is to slice. If it breaks, don’t worry about it. Cut your basil leaves into thin ribbons. (If the leaves are small or if you want a more dramatic presentation, leave the basil whole.)
- Assemble the Salad: 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. Sprinkle chives over top if using. Pass remaining dressing at the table.
- Yield: about 4 servings.
- Alternate Dressing: If you prefer, you can simply drizzle a good quality extra virgin olive oil over the salad, add a splash of balsamic vinegar and some salt and pepper.