One of the greatest joys of summer would have to be the bounteous swag of tomatoes ripe for the picking. The painterly appeal of these plump beauties is backed up with an earthy juiciness so gorgeous that very little is required in the way of adornment. Simple, in this case, is most definitely best.
And if anyone knows how to do simplicity, it's the Italians. Take, for example, the classic insalata Caprese. Literally translated, its name means "salad in the style of Capri", and although it's unknown whether the salad actually originated on the island, it's said to have become popular after being served there to King Farouk in the 1950s. Legend has it that the Egyptian king requested something light to eat upon his return from the beach, and it was the insalata Caprese that was served - albeit as a warm sandwich. Today the Caprese is most often served as an antipasto, rather than as a contorno, or side dish.
The list of ingredients in the Caprese salad in its purest form is elegantly scant, the method equally so. Tomatoes, mozzarella, basil (and, in some older recipes, oregano), olive oil, salt, pepper. Slice, arrange, drizzle, season, serve. Note the inclusion of the word "purest" here. To qualify as a true insalata Caprese, this is the limit of the ingredients. While some recipes exhort you to use olives, or roast capsicum, or you may be tempted to add a little vinegar to the dressing, these additions take the salad out of the realm of the classic. Possibly delicious, yes. But classic? Definitely not.
When a dish is as simple as this one, it's more important than ever to use the absolute best of ingredients. Perfectly ripe tomatoes are non-negotiable. The days of floury, anemic, juice-free tomatoes that seemed to be the only option unless you grew your own have thankfully passed. Growers, producers and retailers have wised up and we're seeing all manner of varieties - from lumpy bumpy heirlooms to the small-scaled Mexican midgets and tiny Toms (which pack a flavour punch that belies their petite proportions), and a plethora of size, shape and colour in between. Use whatever takes your fancy, but bring them to room temperature for optimum flavour.
Buffalo mozzarella is traditional for a Caprese, as opposed to the cow's milk fior di latte. Many delicatessens import Italian buffalo mozzarella, but if you're concerned about air miles, the Australian-produced Shaw River buffalo mozzarella gives the Italian versions a run for their money. Again, bring the mozzarella to room temperature before serving.
To complete the tri-colour: fragrant basil leaves - whole or torn, it's up to you. Beyond that, a drizzle of the finest extra-virgin olive oil you can lay your hands on, a scatter of sea salt and a grinding or three of black pepper and you have the perfect summer dish.
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