We’re almost to summer, which is all about fresh, light meals, preferably eaten alfresco. It’s also the time to revel in fruits and vegetables in season, when they are at their peak. That’s why it’s absolutely appropriate to take a classic dish made with tomatoes and swap in some juicy strawberries. Tomatoes will have their time. Now it’s time for strawberries.
It’s not that crazy of a switch, since tomatoes are a fruit, right? Sure, we usually eat them as a vegetable, but there is plenty of sweet, tart and juicy fruitiness in there. Strawberries are also sweet, tart and juicy, and play well with milky fresh mozzarella. The familiar herbal flavor of sweet basil brings out the savory qualities of the fruit, letting you know that this isn’t dessert.
The simplest lemon vinaigrette accents the sweetness of the berries, and lemon acts to keep them from discoloring. A fruity, flavorful extra-virgin olive oil conspires with the fresh basil to remind you that this is, in fact, a caprese salad. A sprinkling of black pepper kicks your taste buds into high gear. I love black pepper with fruit. If you like it here, try it over summer melons, too.
Strawberries are one of the few fruits that are indigenous to North America. Native Americans were enjoying the wild strawberry long before Europeans arrived, cooking with them, drying them, and eating them fresh off the vine. The colonists adopted the new fruit enthusiastically, as it was larger than the tiny wild berries back home. The current strawberry is a combination of the two, domesticated and bred to be bigger, redder and easier to grow. The name “straw” berry is actually a version of straye berry, a reference to the sprawling habit of the plants.
Varieties of strawberries all come with a planting date and a harvest date, spring through fall. June strawberry varieties are thought to be the sweetest. Of course, locally grown berries will be the best of all.
You can even customize this salad for vegans, too. Local favorite Punk Rawk makes a fermented nut milk “cheeze” that can be cubed instead of using mozzarella, or you can try Miyoko’s Vegan Mozz.
So while we wait for the fresh, locally grown tomatoes to make traditional caprese the “right” way, I’m going to be out on the deck with a plate full of my Strawberry Caprese. It goes great with rosé.
Robin Asbell is a cooking instructor and author of “Big Vegan,” “The Whole Grain Promise” and “Great Bowls of Food.” Find her at robinasbell.com.