Insalata Caprese (GF)

When one thinks of Italian food, one generally envisions heaping plates of pasta: mounds of meaty spaghetti carbonara, platters of ravioli stuffed with creamy ricotta, dishes of linguine alla vongole studded with clams. This is certainly what I envisioned myself consuming before heading off to Rome for a month last June. I soon learned, however, that after hours of trekking about in the Roman heat, one does not exactly crave a steaming plate of oil-infused carbohydrates. The true star of Italian summer cuisine, I discovered, is the ever humble insalate caprese. The caprese salad is as delicious as it is simple. The most basic and most classic caprese consists of just three ingredients: tomato, mozzarella, and olive oil. It is flavorful, filling, and refreshing on even the steamiest of days. While I always enjoyed sitting down to enjoy a large caprese salad at a restaurant, (despite the Italian tradition of antipasto, primo, second, and sometimes dolce) my favorite thing to do was to recreate it in our little rented apartment. My sister and I would amble down to the local market to select our ingredients. We would point at the tomatoes we wanted, giving quantities in broken Italian to the smiling men running the produce stands. On good days we would be bestowed with a sprig of fresh basil and a few extra smiles - the delightful Italian way of thanking you for being a young girl in a summer dress. We quickly made friends with the cheese seller, and visited him regularly for a ball of his finest mozzarella di buffala. We would happily lug our bags home and prepare our favorite dish - generously drizzling the thick layers of red and white with olio. 

As caprese is such a simple dish without any elaborate sauces or seasonings, it is important to have very good ingredients. After picking up some beautiful heirloom tomatoes at our own farmer's market this morning, I was inspired to make some miniature versions of the salad to accompany our dinner. This time I got a little more creative. First, I left some olive oil to sit with some oregano (harvested from our garden) for a few hours to infuse it with a bit of flavor. After stacking my tomato and mozzarella layers, I brushed the final slice of mozzarella with homemade pesto, topped it with a couple of oregano leaves, and piped out a few droplets of beet purée onto the plate. While it certainly would have tasted even better beneath the cedars of Rome, it was delicious nonetheless.


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