Nowhere is the utter genius of Italy’s love of fresh simplicity better showcased than in a single bite of Caprese Salad–At once creamy and chewy cheese-y; sweet, sunshine laden tomatoe-y; blissed with aromatic and earthy snippets of fresh basil; slow kissed with drizzles of the smokey tang of balsamic vinegar and the fruity floral lushness of the best olive oil you can get your hands on–only then to be finessed with sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper!
Genius! Pure palate-pleasing Italian genius, my loves!
I had my first taste of what should absolutely be the “official salad of summer”–in Italy or anywhere else–during a TDY (temporary duty) assignment in Germany. (Yup! Germany!) I was the operator/grocer in a group of architects and engineers traveling throughout the country to plan renovation projects for military commissaries. A couple of weeks in I found myself in a food bliss coma unrepentedly ravishing about a million buttery golden, crunchy and earth savory wonders that are pork and veal schnitzels and/or demanding that they pull the car over every “klick” (kilometer) or so to raid yet another Imbisstand (concessions stand) to devour Drei im Weggla — three grill roasted Nürnberger-style Bratwürsts (or Rostbratwürsts), slapped with a slutty little swath of creamy, yellow Düsseldorf-style mustard, encased in the crispy crickle-crusted chew of a freshly baked German hard roll and then washed into the embrace of the clamoring abyss of my middle regions with at least “von” (but almost always two) ice cold, joyous draught(s) of froth-mustache-inducing German lager bier! (Gott im Himmel–God in Heaven…)
But, sadly, I have digressed…(I can so easily go off on a tangent in my love of food!)
As I told all of you earlier, my colleagues and I were in Europe to engage in planning for the construction of a new American military commissary and to address the renovation requirements of several others. As we traveled throughout Germany I spent my time as a passenger with my nose pressed to the glass of the car window drinking in the exquisite beauty that is the Rhine River and the ancient castles, communities and people that line her shores. But it wasn’t until we arrived at the Wiesbaden Commissary that I was finally introduced to one of several little Italian pasta shops operated in several military commissaries throughout Europe by Larry E. Pisoni, the contractor and (very) Italian proprietor extraordinaire of “Gourmet Italia.” (If you don’t believe me, you have only to ask him, my darlings!)
The Wiesbaden Commissary’s pasta shop was tucked into a corner of the sales floor with a tiny little counter serviced by two cooks churning out a small but thoroughly amazing menu of fresh, authentic Italian food for commissary patrons. Intrigued by the stories told of the wondrous and authentic Italian food served by “Gourmet Italia’s” pasta shops and starving, as usual, I got in line and, for whatever reason, I decided to try the Caprese Salad. I had never heard of “fresh” mozzarella but loved tomatoes and basil and olive oil and balsamic vinegar and “regular” mozzarella–so, why not that Caprese-thing?!
One unbelievably delicious anbite later, my darlings, and I was completely and utterly hooked!
I would profess to be ashamed that I went back twice more that afternoon for another portion of my new found food bliss but that would be a lie–of epic proportions–not to mention that those that love and know me would surely call me out on a such a crystal clear piece of pure fiction! Fortunately for me then–and now for you, the cooks had sufficient English as well as the inclination to respond to my questions so that I was able to learn how insanely simple my new food love was to prepare! (Although I must tell you that once I returned to the States, routinely finding fresh mozzarella in a stateside grocery store was an ongoing issue for me until a few years ago!)
Always redefining my favorite foods to serve at a Moonstruck Cottage gathering of friends and/or family I have never seen this salad attractively prepared in anything but appetizer portions. I have seen it stirred all together in bits or layered in huge chunks that never enticed and always, always proved to be an inelegant disservice to not only the amazing flavor of my beloved Caprese Salad but also to the inherent style that defines absolutely anything Italian!
I did try, a couple of times, to assemble them ahead of time and then refrigerate but found that all those individual salad plates not only took up valuable pre-event real estate in my refrigerator but I also I had to wrap and then unwrap and then add finishing touches–one by one before serving. An inelegant series of efforts that not only disrupted any elegance in service that took me away from my guests at the beginning of the meal but also effectively removed one of my favorite salads from rotation for any future Moonstruck Bay get-togethers.
However, a recent last minute decision to host some friends at Evensong, our forever home in Petersburg, Virginia; had me doing a quick (frantic) inventory of the refrigerator to pull together a menu with onhand ingredients. Literally forced to figure out a way (in a matter of minutes) to serve up a simple, elegant buffet-styled version of my beloved Caprese Salad, I put together a presentation that I found to not only showcase the inherently Italian sensuality, style and summer flavors of the salad but also delivered a real show-stopper visual delight to my guests that evening.
The resulting presentation, Moonstruck Bay’s Buffet-Styled Caprese Salad, is now a frequently requested dish for any gathering in our home or Moonstruck Cottage or even, since it travels beautifully, as my contribution to a friend or family member’s event!
From Italy (via Germany) and from my Moonstruck Cottage on the Chesapeake Bay to you and yours–Moonstruck Bay’s Buffet-styled Caprese Salad! Elegant Entertaining at its simplest!
Buon Appetito, my darlings! Enjoy!
Serves 8 to 10 guests
1-16 oz. package of sliced fresh mozzarella, cut into even quarters (pointed triangles with curvy bottoms) with ends discarded.
10-12 medium sized “cocktail”/Campari tomatoes (about the size of plums), sliced “pole to pole’ In 1/8 to 1/4” slices with ends discarded (you want to see the pretty heart interior of the tomatoes–seeds and all).
1-8 oz. package of spring mix baby greens (red and green lettuce ruffles with arugula, etc.) No radichio leaves in the salad’s presentation, please! (You won’t need all of this but you want a package large enough to pick through for the prettiest bits and pieces!)
8 to 10 large fresh basil leaves, torn in half and then julienned with a knife or kitchen shears–reserving a tiny sprig of leaves from the top of the bunch saved for garnish
5 or 6 grape or cherry tomatoes cut pole-to-pole in half for garnish (again, you want that pretty heart of the tomato visible)
1/4 cup of the best EVOO (Extra Virgin Olive Oil) you can get your hands on (“California–Olive Ranch” brand is a great supermarket brand and one I use unabashedly in my cooking with consistently superb results!)
1/4 cup of the best balsamic vinegar you can get your hands on (“of Modeno” anything is good!)
Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper (Telicherry black peppercorns, loves–if you can find them!) to taste.
A large oval ceramic or glass platter–no metal, it will add an unpleasant metallic undertone in reaction with those glorious tomatoes and no wood either, it will soak up all those delicious juices!
Mise en place/Prep: (Photos follow) Doing your Mise en place–preparation of ingredients–prior to assembly for this salad is critical. So, take the time to do it all and then assemble!
Rinse and dry lettuce leaves; remove sliced fresh mozzarella log from package–pat dry and then pull the log in half and slice each half into quarters with flat side down (discarding any top end bits that are too small for the arrangement); rinse and dry Campari/cocktail tomatoes, slice into 1/4″ slices pole-to-pole (discarding the two end slices of each tomato); rinse and dry basil leaves, then tear each in half lengthwise and then julienne using a knife or snip using kitchen shears and set aside a small sprig of leaves for final garnish; rinse and dry cherry/grape tomatoes and slice into halves pole-to-pole; pour EVOO and balsamic vinegar into a small container–shake vigorously just before drizzling.
One 16 oz. package of sliced, fresh mozzarella—pulled in half and then each half set on it’s flat end and cut into quarters (little curved bottom creamy, cheesy triangle points) and then layered just inside the lettuce leaf layer with points up.
- 10 to 12 Campari-or other sweet summer-style tomatoes (about the size of small plums), sliced pole to pole about 1/4″ thick—with both side ends tossed (only whole pretty slices representing the heart of the tomato with seeds and all, please!)
- Mixed summer, baby greens—red and green lettuces arranged just so—by color, character and size to balance visually around the outside of the platter first and then a generous couple of handfuls layered in the center as a bed for the Caprese elements. Ensure that the outside ring of lettuce leaves peeps out just beyond the end of the platter to ensure that pretty fresh lettuce ruffle frame to the arrangement.
- Continue to alternate layers of first fresh mozzarella–side by side/point to point and then the tomato heart slices until the lettuces are entirely covered. The last ring of mozzarella points are okay to overlap depending on what’s left of the cheese quarters and your inclination. Pool the cherry tomato halves in the very center and top with the tiny fresh basil sprig.
You will need to stop at this point if you are serving your Caprese Salad later on. Wrap the arranged platter with plastic wrap and refrigerate up to several hours before continuing–Please don’t refrigerate overnight! Refrigerating tomatoes for an extended period detracts from their “vine ripened” texture, color and flavors and so, I must vehemently oppose any overnight refrigeration, my darlings!
Package up the fresh basil bits and refrigerate until you are ready to finish and serve.
Ready to serve now?
Sprinkle the julienned fresh basil leaves across the platter, dust with kosher salt and fresh cracked black pepper to taste, shake EVOO and balsamic vinegar dressing vigorously and then drizzle over finished platter.
Caprese Salad actually tastes better a little closer to room temperature so you can place it on your buffet and forget about it as you finish up your dinner service! Ensure that you put out the remaining dressing and additional salt and pepper for your guests to season to their individual taste!
Simple, Elegant Entertaining from Moonstruck Cottage on the Chesapeake Bay!
Buon Appetito, my loves!