Ahhh summer is in full force! I just returned from almost 3 weeks in different parts of Italy where they were having a record hot summer! Just what someone from Tucson, Arizona needs on vacation! But other than that, it was a great trip (I will be posting some photos on Instagram) and I once again took some culinary training while in Tuscany. One thing that was on almost every menu in Italy in the summer was Caprese Salad! It’s one of my all-time favorite salads, so I ordered it in several different places; Rome, Tuscany and Calabria. It ranged from super simple to slightly more elaborate. Each one was different. But the 4 basic ingredients were always there; tomatoes, fresh mozzerella, olive oil and basil (although most of the salads I tried were very stingy with the basil).
Caprese salad is the perfect summertime dish because it is so easy. Slicing is the hardest part! It can be prepared in 20 minutes or less and is light and refreshing but also can be filling if done right.
A bit of history… Caprese Salad, or Insalata Caprese as you will see it on an Italian menu, has a storied past. I’ve done some research and there is much speculation as to it’s true origins. According to legend it was Tiberius who first came up with the recipe sometime around the end of I century A.D.. Some say it was Constantino Moffa, a native of Capri, who first took the recipe off the island when he worked as a Maitre d’ in a Swiss hotel. Others say Caprese salad dates back to post-World War I Italy. A patriotic mason wanted to make a dish that was a true tribute to Italy and that visually incorporated the distinctive red, white and green tricolore ingredients that match the Italian flag. What IS known is the first printed mention of the Caprese salad was on a menu at the Hotel Quisisana (year unknown). The Quisisana is a historic 5 star hotel in the center of Capri. It still exists today.
There was an initial positive response and Caprese salad was enjoyed by many but failed to really catch fire. King Farouk of Egypt, after having been abdicated and exiled had arrived in Capri in the 1950s. It is said that he asked his chef for a light afternoon snack and was served a Caprese sandwich. At that point, the rest is (unknown) history! Tourists began to flock to the region and Caprese salad soon became known as a staple of Capri food and culture.
Here, I am presenting my special versions of this famous salad. If you know me, you know that I don’t do anything super simple when I’m cooking for my loved ones! I always try to find ways to make it special, so these salads reflect that. Feel free to keep it simpler with just the 4 main ingredients. This is totally customizable!
Let’s talk about ingredients…
Make sure you use the freshest, most beautiful tomatoes you can find. Not overripe, but still full of vibrant color! Traditionally, red tomatoes are used, but sometimes I add some yellow or orange tomatoes for interest and fun! If you don’t have amazing tomatoes, all is not lost. You can unlock a lot of flavor from tomatoes by slicing them thick and roasting them for a short time with thyme, garlic and a touch of sugar.
A milky, fresh mozzarella is what holds the salad together. Settling for bland mozzarella can compromise the entire dish, so it’s important to use quality cheese. Fresh mozzarella that is packed in water is best. Dry your slices well so that too much liquid doesn’t ruin the salad.
Basil and Oregano
If the mozzarella holds the Caprese salad together, then the basil makes it stand out from the crowd. Fresh, beautiful, just picked (or bought) is essential.
Fresh or dried oregano is somewhat optional, but used often. It balances well with fresh basil and fills in some spicy notes.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
This is the time to bring out the quality, expensive cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil. It’s not the time for cheap olive oil… just sayin’.
Once you’ve crafted your perfect Caprese salad, you can add a few spices, to taste. Salt, pepper. and dried oregano add texture and intrigue.
I know it’s not authentic, but I often add some (or all) of the following to make a more filling salad:
- Olives, just because I love them!
- Artichoke hearts
- Greens/Lettuces – I often build my Caprese salad on a bed of romaine or mixed salad greens or even arugula.
- Pine nuts (or other nuts or seeds I have around)
- Balsamic vinegar – plain or reduced to a syrup
In the top 2 photos, I added artichoke hearts, pepitas (pumpkin seeds) and olives served over romaine lettuce. The next photo shows a salad with heirloom tomatoes, pine nuts, and an intense balsamic vinegar syrup. Both were great. Summer is the season for caprese salad, so prep one up and drink a toast to me for reminding you how good it is!
If you make this salad, please let me know how it goes and what you changed in the comments! I really would love hearing from you! I’m feeling like I’m all alone out here!
- 3 medium tomatoes best you can find
- 8 ounces mozzerella large ball for slicing
- 12-14 leaves basil fresh
- 2-3 tablespoons olive oil extra-virgin
- salt and pepper to taste
- 2 teaspoons oregano fresh or dried
- 4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar from Italy
- 16-20 black olives
- 4 artichoke hearts fresh cooked, or jarred in water
- 2 ounces pine nuts or pepitas
- 3 cups romaine lettuce (or other salad greens) sliced or torn
Basic Caprese Salad
- On a platter, alternate slices of tomato and mozzarella in an overlapping pattern.
- Garnish generously with basil leaves by tucking a leaf underneath each of the tomatoes and then tearing up a few leaves into small pieces and toss over the top.
- Drizzle the olive oil over all, and sprinkle with the salt and pepper and oregano.
- Before arranging the tomatoes and mozzarella, lay a bed of fresh, crisp greens on your platter.
- Before adding the olive oil and spices, place the artichoke hearts around the platter or in the center if you've made a circle.
- Toss olives and nuts or seeds over the top.
- Drizzle with balsamic vinegar. If making a syrup, add vinegar to a small pot or skillet and heat over medium low until it reduces and thickens. Watch it carefully! It can go from liquid to burnt quickly if you are not watching (not that I would know anything about that!). Add more olive oil, if needed.
- Plan to be complimented!