There’s a good reason why the caprese salad is beloved throughout the world. Served in the height of the tomato season, its flavors are focused and bright. It’s said the salad was named for the Isle of Capri and created for the famous Italian poet Flippo Tommaso Marinetti, who disdained pasta, loved tomatoes and sought the island’s rough natural beauty. Through the 20th century as Capri drew tourists to those sunny coasts, its rustic cuisine traveled back out into the world and the caprese salad became an international hit.
While there is really no reason to tamper with this salad’s perfection, a few simple tweaks kick things up a notch. If you roast the cherry tomatoes first so that they split, they become sticky and their sugars caramelize. Roasted bell peppers add another level of sweetness and a bit of smoke. Then roast a few strips of lemon peel in the same pan with these ingredients for a tangy citrusy crunch. Good mozzarella is a necessity, especially if it’s freshly made.
Now that we’re in the peak of caprese season, the peppers and tomatoes at our farmers market are garden-fresh and top-notch. I like using the tangy yellow and red cherry tomatoes that snap with intense flavors; they should be plump and bright. Look for firm, shiny red, yellow and orange bell peppers that are not wrinkled or soft. Green peppers are just not sweet enough for this dish. Be sure to use plenty of fresh basil; its light licorice note grounds this elegant plate.
Choose a good quality extra-virgin olive oil, one that has a peppery kick. A touch of acid, either balsamic vinegar or lemon juice, helps to balance the sweet vegetables; you won’t need much. It’s easy to find fresh mozzarella at our local grocers, co-ops and specialty shops. For a final finish, sprinkle the dish with a little coarse sea salt.
Caprese salad is best enjoyed as soon as it’s made. Serve it on grilled slices of Italian bread, on toasted flat bread or polenta. Pile it on top of grilled chicken, pork chops or Italian sausage, or toss it with pasta for a picnic salad.
Add black or green olives, caper berries, and prosciutto, perhaps some grilled shrimp, then relax outside with a loaf of crusty bread and watch the sun set into a bank of puffy clouds. Taste summer at its best.
Beth Dooley is the author of “In Winter’s Kitchen.” Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.