If you are a vegetarian in Italy, you end up eating a lot of insalata caprese. Elsewhere, caprese has some sort of “ooo ahh” factor. But it is really just fresh tomatoes and mozzarella.
An Italian meal is composed of a primo (first) piatto and secondo (second) plate, followed by espresso. Depending on the occasion, you may start off with antipasti (appetizers), usually just toasts with tomato and garlic (bruschetta) or liver pate (fegato). The are typically reserved for parties or occasions where there are a number of guests and you aren’t quite sure when they will all get there.
The primo is always some sort of starch: pasta, risotto, or soup (with pasta in it). Though many other countries make a whole meal of pasta, in Italy, it is just the starter, or entree, as the French would say. The secondo is usually a meat dish, but this is also when salads are served. If you are a vegetarian, this means you are pretty much resigned to insalata caprese as a secondo whenever you eat out. But even the carnivores can have salad as their second course, often in the form of arugula with carpaccio or a smoked meat like bresaola.
Basil is actually optional for a caprese. According to Wikipedia, the red, white, and green represents the Italian flag. However, I have seen and eaten a lot of capreses that were lacking in this tricolore element. If you do choose to use basil, make it chiffonade (great visual guide here) to avoid awkwardly sized bites or basil overload.
Without a doubt, the key to quality caprese is the mozzarella. Fresh, ripe tomatoes are a must but inferior mozzarella is a deal breaker. At the grocery store, make sure to find mozzarella in a tub, kept in liquid. This is how mozzarella retains that light, fluffy quality.
Putting it all together
There are two ways to serve caprese: the “fancy” layered way, which you often see in restaurants, and the quadrati (cubed) method. If you are able to find large, beautiful mounds of mozzarella cloud-ness, then go for than fancy way. It’s easier.
But if you can only find the bite-sized mozzarella balls (aptly named bocconcini – tiny morsels), you are not out of luck. Cut them into quarters along with similarly sized cherry tomatoes. This is actually the best thing to do in the winter, when it can be really difficult to find ripe tomatoes.
Please let me know if you have any questions.
Insalata Caprese Recipe
Prep time: 5 minutes
- 5-6 medium sized, ripe tomatoes (or one box of cherry tomatoes)
- one container of mozzarella balls (usually three large, or many mini)
- balsamic vinegar
- olive oil
- freshly ground pepper
- For fancy caprese, make sure your knife is very sharp. Then cut the tomatoes into long thin rounds.
- Drain the mozzarella and cut it into quarter inch thick slices.
- Layer in a straight line on a long plate, or around the edges of a circular plate.
- Drizzle a dash of balsamic vinegar quickly across the salad.
- Dust the salad with a generous dose of salt and pepper and a generous drizzle of olive oil.
- For caprese quadrata, cut the cherry tomatoes into halves (or quarters if your knife allows) and the mozzarella balls into quarters. Put everything in a mixing bowl.
- Toss the caprese with two teaspoons olive oil and a half teaspoon balsmic vinegar.
- Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper and toss the salad again.