You are probably wondering, “Who needs a recipe for caprese salad?” After all, it’s fresh tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and fresh basil with a splash of extra virgin olive oil, and a little salt. But if you check out the internet, you’ll see that nearly every celebrity chef, along with all of the food websites have posted a recipe. Some call for roasted tomatoes, some call for lots of additional ingredients, some leave out one or another of the key ingredients, some with bizarre (IMHO) substitutions. Then there are the purists who insist that anything other than chunked tomatoes (I think slices are easier), “torn” pieces of homemade mozzarella (slices match the tomatoes), and torn – not cut – basil results in an inferior dish. (I readily admit that my taste buds have never been discriminating enough to taste the difference between torn or chopped greens of any sort. Also, there’s something to be said for whole leaves of fresh basil).
There are some requirements that I do agree with: The tomatoes should be as fresh as possible; just picked from the garden may be the best and those from the farmers’ market are certainly acceptable. Supermarket tomatoes are a distant third. The mozzarella should be as fresh as possible. If it is refrigerated, it will shrink and firm up a bit, but is certainly ok, especially if it comes in liquid. Mozzarella that comes in plastic-wrapped slabs from the grocery store is in the same category as supermarket tomatoes. As to the basil, the fresher the better, and for this dish I prefer ordinary sweet basil to any of the other varieties. The olive oil should be the very best you have. As to the salt, you can use it straight out of the shaker, but kosher salt or a good finishing salt make it better. Freshly ground black pepper is ok, too.
That’s it. An unspoken truth is that NOW is probably the only season to make caprese salad, while the tomatoes and basil are fresh from the garden. As to the mozzarella, I got a nice round lump at the Cheesemongers of Santa Fe. The label said that it was from Rhode Island, but it was fresh enough to satisfy my unsophisticated palate. With all of that, I feel obliged to offer a recipe for a wonderful dish that needs no recipe.
- 1 or 2 large, ripe tomatoes
- ½ to 1 pound fresh mozzarella
- fresh basil leaves
- extra virgin olive oil (the best you have)
- freshly ground black pepper (optional)
- Slice the tomatoes and the mozzarella.
- Arrange the tomato slices, mozzarella slices and basil leaves in layers on salad plates. Sprinkle generously with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and optional ground pepper. Serve immediately.
Tomatoes and basil. An abundance of both this time of year, so it is time to make that simple classic, sliced tomatoes, fresh mozzarella slices, basil leaves torn to release their fragrant oils, and a drizzle of the best extra virgin olive oil – nothing more. Even though the salad is apparently popular in homes all over Italy, it has been claimed that the combination was first served on Capri, and hence the name, Insalata Caprese or the shorthand Caprese. I suspect that that account is apocryphal, but what is not apocryphal is the wonderful combination. Over the years, there has been a lot of messing around with the recipe – adding balsamic vinegar, using vinaigrette, etc., etc.
So why am I messing around even more? Because pesto and burrata are so delicious.
I found some beautiful tomatoes at the farmers market. They are dark purple and pear shaped. They are called Japanese black trifele tomatoes and just beg to be eaten. I have also been taken by burrata lately. It raises the game from fresh mozzarella, with creamy ricotta wrapped in a morsel of freshly-pulled mozzarella. Unfortunately, I was unable to find the hen’s egg size gems that I have seen before, and the only burrata I could find locally was at least ostrich-egg sized. So I had to modify my plans, but I think it turned out ok.
Japanese black trifele tomatoes
Tomatoes ready to be hollowed out
Insalata Caprese (Not Quite)
Insalata Caprese (Not Quite)
- 2 Japanese black trifele tomatoes
- pesto (see previous post)
- basil leaves
- extra virgin olive oil
- Slice tomatoes lengthwise and remove seeds and the flesh with a grapefruit spoon
- Place a tablespoon or so of fresh pesto in each tomato half
- Place a ball of burrata in each tomato half. If you cannot find small cheeses, cut a larger cheese in quarters.
- Top with a few fresh basil leaves and a drizzle of your best extra virgin olive oil
It is basil season. We have harvested the plants in our back yard, and many stalls at the farmers market have big, beautiful bunches of basil picked just that morning. That means it is time for pesto.
Pesto is really one of those things that you can make without a recipe and adjust it to your personal preferences
Pesto is also something that you can keep for a while. For years we made fresh pesto and ate it all, believing that if you didn’t do that it would immediately turn an unappetizing brown. We didn’t even think about freezing it. The truth is, you can do both.
If you want to keep it for a day or two, put it in a container with an air-tight lid, cover it completely with olive oil, seal the lid, and pop it in the refrigerator. If you are going to freeze it, divide it into amounts that fit into the cups of a muffin pan, freeze pan overnight, pop out the pesto “muffins”, and double bag them in zippered freezer bags so you can use the amount you need without having to thaw the whole batch.
- large bunch of freshly-cut basil, enough that the leaves will fit into the beaker of a food processor
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil, more if needed to make a sauce-like mixture
- 3 cloves garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped
- 2 ounces Parmesan, grated
- ½ cup pine nuts
- salt and pepper
- Wash the fresh basil, cut or pull off the leaves, and dry them in a clean kitchen towel.
- Transfer the leaves to the beaker of a food processor fitted with the metal chopping blade.
- Add the olive oil and process until the basil has been chopped very finely.
- Add the garlic and Parmesan. Continue to process for 30 seconds or until thoroughly combined.
- Add the pine nuts and pulse until the nuts are well-chopped but not puréed. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Adjust consistency with additional olive oil, if needed.
- Serve over cooked pasta with additional grated Parmesan and dry-roasted pine nuts. If desired, store for a day or two in an air-tight container topped with olive oil and refrigerated or freeze and double bag individual portions for later use.
Fresh basil from the garden
Pesto stored under olive oil in an air-tight container, refrigerated
Fettuccine topped with Parmesan and toasted pine nuts
PS: Here’s a little lagniappe from our garden:
Desert four o’clock
I’m still learning to use my new Lytro light field camera. It has several features that make it absolutely unique. Most importantly you can focus any part of the image while it is still in the viewfinder, and unbelievably you can focus again once you upload the image to your computer (As long as you have the provided software installed). You can make images of something very close to the lens and something in the background. Then you decide which you want to emphasize or bring everything into focus. The camera is especially useful for ultra-close-ups.
I decided to play around with the camera for images of a dish to go with the shrimp, mushroom and artichoke mac and cheese from my most recent post. Actually, I had some fresh asparagus in the fridge and some puff pastry I needed to use up. I added a little pesto from the freezer, and I wound up with something easy and a little different. The way I did things, I was only able to make three servings, but very easily – and undoubtedly better – you can make six servings by just cutting more of the stem off of the asparagus spears. The crowns are the better parts anyway.
When basil is in season and plentiful. you can make fresh pesto, but we often make extra and store it in the freezer for later use. It is also readily available in jars or frozen so that you don’t need to take the somewhat laborious extra step of making fresh pesto.
A Lytro view of asparagus heads
Three or four asparagus stems make a bundle
Asparagus, pesto, and pine nuts ready to be sealed up
Puff pastry bundles sealed and ready for the oven
Baked asparagus pesto puff pastry bundles
An accompaniment to shrimp, artichoke and mushroom mac and cheese
Asparagus and Pesto Bundles in Puff Pastry
- 1 sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed according to directions
- 9-12 fresh asparagus spears, trimmed of the woody ends
- 1 cup fresh, frozen, or bottled pesto
- ¼ cup pine nuts, lightly browned in a dry skillet
- 1 whole egg beaten with 2 tablespoons water
- On a lightly floured surface, carefully unfold the thawed puff pastry and roll with a lightly floured rolling pin until it is about 1/16 inch thick
- Divide the rolled dough into three strips along the fold lines.
- Place 3 or 4 asparagus spears in the center of each strip ( If you wish, you can divide the dough into 6 strips and use only enough of the asparagus crowns to fit the strip.)
- Spread a generous tablespoon of pesto over each of the asparagus bundles.
- Sprinkle the toasted pine nuts on top of the pesto.
- Paint the edges of the dough strips with some of the egg and water mixture. Fold the dough over the asparagus and pesto. With your fingers, seal the edges of the envelope. Then finish sealing, using the tines of a dinner fork and gentle pressure.
- Arrange the bundles on a baking sheet lined with parchment. Paint the tops of the bundles with egg and water mixture, trying not to let the mixture run down onto the parchment where it is likely to burn and may stick the baked bundles to the parchment
- Bake in the middle of an oven preheated to 400°F for 15 minutes or until the bundles are golden brown.
- Serve while still warm. A little Hollandaise couldn’t hurt if you like.
Bayou Teche is one of the most important waterways in Louisiana. It is an ancient riverbed of the Mississippi River before it changed its flow several thousand years ago. Bayou Teche runs over a hundred miles before it empties into the Atchafalaya River, another former route of the Mississippi. The bayou served as the watery route of entry for the Acadians from Canada during their forced migration into Louisiana. The bayou flows through the heart of Cajun country, including some of its most famous towns and cities. Breaux Bridge is well-known for its zydeco, dance halls, and crawfish. St. Martinville is quaint and home to great Cajun food. New Iberia is close by Avery Island, the home of the famous Tabasco Sauce. So, with a name like “Crabmeat Teche,” this dish must be pure Cajun.
The original recipe comes from the classic, “River Road Recipes” first published by the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Junior League in 1959 and self-described as “The Textbook of Louisiana Cuisine”. Many of the recipes reflect the times, calling for canned mushroom soup, flavored gelatin, and lots of convenience foods. At the same time the book is a trove of honest-to-goodness Louisiana recipes, and for that reason you can usually find a copy of the cookbook in most Louisiana homes you visit.
The recipe for Crabmeat Teche was contributed by Mrs. Roy Dabadie. I guess she lived in Baton Rouge at the time, but with a name like that, I shouldn’t be surprised if she originally hailed from someplace along the Bayou Teche. The recipe used some of the convenience foods of the time, so I have made some small revisions. Nonetheless crabmeat Teche is still a 1950s casserole, but it tastes a lot better than tuna noodle bake.
Baked crabmeat Teche casserole
You’ll need a fresh vegetable to complement the casserole. I made a simple salad to go with it: sliced seasonal tomatoes, sprinkled with chopped fresh basil, coarsely-grated mozzarella cheese and your favorite vinaigrette. It seemed to be an ideal foil for the rich casserole.
- 1 large bell pepper, chopped
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 3 ribs celery, chopped
- 8 ounces crimini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 4 tablespoons bacon drippings
- 4 slices very dry toast (dry enough to crumble easily)
- 3 cups fish stock or chicken stock, divided
- 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
- ½ teaspoon celery salt
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano, pulverized between your hands
- Louisiana hot sauce, to taste
- ¾ cup chopped fresh parsley
- 1 pound can crabmeat, picked over for shells
- ¾ cup cracker crumbs
- 3 tablespoons butter
- In a medium skillet over medium-high heat, sauté pepper, onions, celery, mushrooms, and garlic in bacon drippings until tender, about 10 minutes.
- In a small bowl, crumble the dry toast in 1½ cups of fish stock. When the stock is completely absorbed and the toast crumbs have softened, add them to the skillet along with Worcestershire sauce, salt, pepper, celery salt, and oregano. Continue to simmer, stirring frequently until well combined. Adjust flavoring with hot sauce to taste.
- Add the parsley and remaining 1½ cups of fish stock, stirring until well combined.
- Add crabmeat, and mix thoroughly. Then pour the mixture into a well-buttered casserole.
- Sprinkle the top with cracker crumbs, dot with butter, and sprinkle with paprika.
- Bake for 20-30 minutes at 350° in the middle of a pre-heated oven. IF casserole is made ahead and refrigerated, increase baking time to 45-60 minutes.
Serving of crabmeate Teche with caprese salad
Serves 4 to 8, depending upon serving size