Building blocks: A 'high-rise' approach to a summertime favorite
As I often like to say, we eat with our eyes first. Food that looks beautiful without being too fussy starts your mouth watering in anticipation. And, by contrast, if good ingredients have been well prepared only to be presented in a way that looks unexciting, you may get less pleasure from the whole experience.
That explains why I've been taking a different approach to a summertime seasonal classic: the tomato, mozzarella and basil salad, also known in Italy as the Caprese, after the island of Capri, or the Tricolore, because its red, white and green colors mimic those of the Italian flag. Most often, the salad's three main ingredients are simply arranged overlapping each other on a plate or platter, with a vinaigrette dressing drizzled over them. That's certainly how you'll probably see it on most antipasto displays in Italian restaurants or when you order an individual one off the menu.
Even though sun-ripened tomatoes are wonderfully flavorful in August, and go so well with the rich-tasting fresh mozzarella you can find so easily in well-stocked supermarkets today, such a presentation doesn't do much anymore to get people excited about this wonderful seasonal specialty. And that's a shame. So I'd like to share the simple solution my chefs and I like to use in our restaurants: We go vertical instead of horizontal.
In other words, we've taken to stacking the ingredients, alternating slices of tomato with equally sized slices of the cheese and individual basil leaves. The result instantly catches the eye, making people see this now familiar combination in a fresh new light.
Though that may sound like architectural or engineering skills are called for in creating such a presentation, it's surprisingly easy. Just make sure when you're shopping that you buy ripe yet firm tomatoes that are approximately the same diameter as the balls of fresh mozzarella you'll be using. (Head for the market's cheese department first so you'll have the package of mozzarella in your cart to serve as a guide.)
With a similar sensibility, I've simplified the dressing for the salad as well. Instead of making a vinaigrette, I first sprinkle each slice of tomato individually with a little salt and pepper, to make sure that every bite taken is properly seasoned. Then I drizzle each stack with good-quality balsamic vinegar that I've first reduced to a syrupy consistency to concentrate its sweet-tart flavor; I also add a drizzle of good, fruity-tasting extra-virgin olive oil.
The result is an appetizer that will make everyone at your table feel as if they're seeing and tasting this combination for the first time. What a perfect way to showcase some of summer's finest produce.
STACKED TOMATO-AND-MOZZARELLA SALAD WITH FRESH BASIL, BALSAMIC REDUCTION AND EXTRA-VIRGIN OLIVE OIL
1 cup (250 mL) good-quality balsamic vinegar