Traveling to Italy resulted in one dramatic realization – the names of Italian foods and wines are geographically significant. The caprese salad, for example, (a simply delicious layering of fresh mozzarella, large tomato slices, fresh basil leaves, salt and pepper, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar) is named caprese because it’s from Capri. Like the classic Margherita Pizza, the salad’s freshness embodies the island’s warm Mediterranean climate, while its colors mimic the tri-color configuration of Italy’s flag.
The salad is usually served as an antipasto (or starter) and therefore is not really considered a salad but an appetizer in Italy, since they usually eat leafy salads after the main meat entree.
As food writer Nigel Slater explains, salad is as simple as reading from left to right. The key is collecting the best-tasting ingredients in their prime:
Shopping rather than technique is paramount. This is not the moment for parsimony – only the most expensive buffalo mozzarella will hit the spot (it should be soft, quivering inside with a texture that is almost jelly-like. It should smell of cool, fresh milk). The tomatoes are more difficult to get right, but in a summer like this there are many good ones to be had. Keep them until they are so ripe they feel heavy with juice and have a deep herbal scent. Although cool tomatoes are most refreshing, they won’t be at their best straight from the fridge. And while good olive oil is important, it is the ripeness and flavour of the tomatoes and the quality of the mozzarella that matter most. Use the largest basil leaves you can find. The larger they grow, the more peppery and aromatic they will be. They should, legend has it, be torn gently into pieces by hand, not shredded with a knife, as this will breed scorpions.
Most American versions of Italian classics result in terrible train wrecks when TV chefs are at the wheel trying to make a quick buck on an updated variation. A quick Google search turned up more than 800,000 hits for “caprese salad recipe,” Perhaps the simplicity of this culinary classic has helped preserve its roots.
Now back from the Italian coast with my souvenir balsamic vinegar from Modena – the birthplace of balsamic vinegar, with some aged varieties so expensive, tastes cost hundreds of dollars – I decided to try a little farm to table version. I currently live in Muncie, Indiana, famously known for the Middletown sociological study conducted in the 1920s and now home to about 140 meth labs and thousands of acres of soy beans and corn. My house, however, is a haven for homegrown veggies and herbs.
The mozzarella was freshly made in Cincinnati, the tomatoes from my aunt’s garden in Hahira, GA, the basil grown fresh on my back porch (where this photo was taken), the cucumbers harvested fresh from a coworkers’ garden two blocks away, and the drizzled balsamic vinegar transported all the way from Modena. Here’s a map I made using Google maps, which you should definitely check out to see behind-the-scenes details and photos: https://www.google.com/maps/d/edit?mid=zJOHE5yzytcA.kRbVXmGH1-lU&usp=sharing
And here’s the final product! It was definitely a transatlantic culinary success (although I still prefer the classic).