My Winter & Spring Insalata Caprese… variations on a theme

Winter Insalata Caprese

Variations on a Theme:   On my catering menu I have seasonal variations of the classic Insalata Caprese… one is on my Winter Menu, so naturally I call it my Winter Insalata Caprese.  Then for this upcoming season I have… yeah you guessed it… a Spring Insalata Caprese.  So original, huh?  While the names might not be so original I feel that I have put my own creative twists on this Italian classic.  But why mess with perfection?

Traditional Insalata Caprese

A Simple Answer… a traditional Insalata Caprese is only good with fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes bursting with flavor.  And you don’t find those here in Seattle unless it’s mid-to-late-summer and you either grow them yourself or buy them at your local farm stand or farmer’s market.  I’ll come back to the tomatoes later.

At Frankie’s we did a couple of variations on the Insalata Caprese over the years, including this stacked version.  But we only offered it on our summer menu for the reasons listed.

Frankie’s Insalata Caprese – served in summertime

 

Other Key Ingredients:  Two other key ingredients on an Insalata Caprese are fresh mozzarella (the young, creamy version of mozzarella), and fresh basil.   We’re fortunate to live in an age when these items are readily available.  Almost every store carries fresh mozzarella, though as you might expect, some brands are better than others.  You can also get fresh basil almost year round around here.  I like to buy the live plants (which are grown in greenhouses).  The best plants I’ve found are at Trader Joe’s.  They have them nearly year-round now.

Another version of Frankie’s Insalata Caprese

 

Let’s Talk Cheese!  There are just minor variations between my Winter and Spring version of this salad.  On my Winter version I use burrata cheese which is a fresh mozzarella with a creamy filling.  It’s delicious!  For my Spring version I switch to authentic mozzarella di bufala (buffalo milk mozzarella).

We are not talking the American bison here.  This mozzarella is made from the milk of Italian water buffalo,  traditionally manufactured in Campania.  The authentic stuff has a DOP designation which translates Protected Designation of Origin.  This ensures it is made with the right ingredients, from the designated area, using the same recipe.

You can of course switch up either of these cheeses, or use a more moderately priced fresh mozzarella made from cow’s milk.  But if you want to take it to another level, I suggest one of these.  I find the burrata at Trader Joe’s and the mozzarella di bufala at Costco.

Grilling Tomatoes

Optimizing Flavor of Off-Season Tomatoes:  Another difference with my variations is that I do not slice and layer these cheeses as you would in a traditional Insalata Caprese.  I leave the mozzarella balls whole and then top them with roasted tomatoes… actually to be more accurate I grill my tomatoes on my outdoor grill.  Why?  Because the best tomatoes this time of year are little ones… cherry tomatoes or something similar.  And the grilling, which I do with some extra virgin olive oil, really brings out the flavor!

My favorite tomatoes for grilling

My favorite tomatoes for this are from Trader Joe’s.  They are called “Heavenly Villagio Marzano Tomatoes” and are described as a Mini San Marzano Plum Tomato.  They are grown in greenhouses by Village Farms, and are really, really good, especially when roasted or grilled!

How I Grill the Tomatoes:  Easy… take some heavy duty foil, fold it two or three times to make it thicker, and fold up the edges to form a shallow vessel.  Drizzle olive oil on the foil, add the tomatoes and toss to coat with oil.  Then I grill them over medium to medium-high heat until they are softened, and some are a little blackened and start to burst.  Transfer to a covered container and refrigerate until ready to use.  If you don’t want to grill them you could accomplish the same thing in the oven using high heat (say about 425 F), or a broiler with the pan down a couple of levels from the top.

Another twist… Pesto: The next twist on my recipes is to top these salads with pesto instead of layering fresh basil leaves (there are no layers anyway).  I love the look and flavor of doing it this way.  On my Winter version I use an Arugula Pesto since arugula is a more seasonal winter ingredient, but you could use Basil Pesto if you prefer (homemade or store bought).  If making your own pesto, the Arugula Pesto recipe is very similar to my Basil Pesto recipe, and both are easy to make.  I prefer to make my own (make extra and freeze it!), because store bought brands almost always use inferior oils and cheeses.  But if you want to buy Basil Pesto I think the one from Costco is the best I have found.

Balsamic Glaze

Two More Flavor Enhancement Options:  To bring this to another level… first I like to add an artful drizzle of balsamic glaze.  You can make your own easy enough but this one I suggest buying.  One that I like is Nonna Pia’s which I got at Costco but I’m sure there are other good brands.

Secondly, top it all with a good coarse or flaky sea salt such as fleur-de-sel, maldon, or a flaky pink Himalayan salt.

Putting It All Together:  Okay, let’s put this all together now.  One important thing… when removing your fresh mozz or burrata from its brine, gently dry it with paper towels before using.

Slicing baguette

I like to use a narrow rectangular tray, platter, or cutting board for presenting this.  I place three or four balls of the mozzarella in a row… top with the roasted tomatoes… drizzle with pesto… and maybe with the balsamic glaze if you desire.

Wait… We’re Missing the Crostini!  Okay, last thing… serve this with toasted crostini.  I use baguettes because I like the size.  I slice the loaf at an angle, place the slices on a metal tray, and brush them lightly with extra virgin olive oil.  Then I toast them over medium heat on my barbecue

Grilled tomatoes and crostini

grill, flipping with tongs when ready, until toasty on both sides.  I do this ahead of time, when I grill my tomatoes, and then re-warm briefly in an oven before serving.  Place in a bread basket next to the Insalata Caprese.

All in all this may seem like a lot of steps but it’s really very easy and most of it can be done in advance.  Then it only takes a few minutes to assemble and serve.  Trust me, your guests will be impressed!

Time to eat.  Mangia, mangia!  Buon appetito!

Here is my Winter & Spring Insalata Caprese recipe as well as the recipe for Arugula Pesto.  You can find the recipe for my Basil Pesto on my most recent post (just keep scrolling down).

Below are the recipes for the Winter-Spring Insalata Caprese and Arugula Pesto.

If you’d prefer the Caprese recipe in PDF click here… Winter & Spring Insalata Caprese

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you’d prefer the Arugula Pesto recipe in PDF click here… Fresh Arugula Pesto Recipe

 

Advertisements

Making Amazing Pizza at Home

Today I am publishing the first in a series of pizza making posts.  Let me start by saying… I LOVE pizza!  This surprises me since I owned a pizzeria for 24 years and ate pizza several times a week.  I have probably eaten thousands of pies.  Yet I never grew tired of it.   It is one of the perfect foods.

And here is an interesting fact for you, when we closed Frankie’s (due to redevelopment), my pizza consumption dropped by about three-quarters, and my cholesterol went up.  Go figure.  Go eat pizza!

Until now I had  avoided posting pizza recipes because it really needs to be taught properly.  But for me now the time is right.

Pizza Classes offered: 

A side note here.  For those of you who are hands-on learners, I offer pizza classes in your homes.  So if you live in or near the Redmond, Washington area (near Seattle), gather some friends or family and schedule me to come and teach you in person.  It makes for a great party!  Information can be found on my website at… http://www.frankiesitaliancooking.com.

If you saw my last blog post you know that I just completed an outdoor kitchen with a new wood-burning pizza oven.  With this to cook in I am having more fun that ever.  But just so you’ll know, there are multiple ways to make (and bake) a great pizza, so let’s get started.

In this series of posts we will take an in-depth look at…

  • The history of pizza
  • Various styles of pizza
  • How to make pizza dough and sauce (including some variations on the dough)
  • Different methods of baking pizza
  • Pizza ingredients… which will include my favorite products for making quality pizza, especially cheeses and tomato products (because I believe these make or break a pizza).

 A Brief History of Pizza:

First let’s start with a little history of pizza, which can be controversial.  The history of pizza begins in antiquity, when various ancient cultures produced basic flatbreads with toppings.  It’s been discovered that on the isle of Sardinia they were making it with leavened dough over 7,000 years ago.  The ancient Greeks made a flat bread called Plakous, which was flavored with toppings like herbs, onion, and garlic.

The forerunner of modern pizza was probably the focaccia, a flat bread known to the Romans as panis focacius to which toppings were then added.  Focaccia is still hugely popular in parts of Italy.  Most historians credit the Neapolitans though, the people of Napoli, as being the creators of modern day pizza, when tomato was added to the focaccia in the late 18th century.

There is a well known story about how the Pizza Margherita came to be.  According to tradition, in 1889, Queen Margherita of Savoy, and her husband, King Umberto I, were on a royal tour of Italy.  This was only 29 years after the unification of the country.  Throughout these travels, the queen often observed peasants eating large, flat bread with colorful toppings.  Being curious she ordered her guards to bring her one of these so called ‘pizza breads’.  Apparently she fell in love with it, causing some consternation in her Court (it was unseemly for a queen to dine on peasant food!). But the queen’s love was not to be diminished.

Apparently word reached Naples, where they were to visit.  To honor their visit, Chef Raffaele Esposito and his wife, owners of Pizzeria Brandi, created  a pizza resembling the colors of the Italian flag, red (tomato), white (mozzarella) and green (basil).  They named it for the Queen “Pizza Margherita”.  Some also say that he was the first to add cheese to pizza.

This “cheesy” part of the legend is disputed however.  Descriptions of such a pizza recipe can be traced back to at least 1866 in Francesco DeBouchard’s book “Customs and Traditions of Naples”.  There he describes the most popular pizza toppings of the time which included one with cheese and basil, often topped with slices of mozzarella.

Whatever the real origins of this pizza recipe are, one thing we know for certain is that Raffaele Esposito’s version for Queen Margherita was the one that made it popular. Since then it has grown into one of the most recognizable symbols of Italian food culture in the world.  And in my humble opinion, whoever thought of the idea of adding cheese, is due great honor for one of the most brilliant ideas in culinary history.

Going backward and then forward,  we know the word pizza was first documented in AD 997 in Gaeta and successively in different parts of Central and Southern Italy. Pizza was mainly eaten in the country of Italy and by emigrants from there. This changed after World War II, when Allied troops stationed in Italy came to enjoy pizza along with other Italian foods.

It is my belief that pizza has not only a glorious past, but a glorious future, and will remain a popular food for as long as mankind dwells upon the earth.  And I hope there will be pizza in heaven!  I have a feeling there will be.

Easy Ways to Make Really Good Pizza:

Very soon I will be posting more information, including my pizza dough recipe.  Meanwhile there are a couple of easy ways that you can make a very good pizza without making your own dough.

  1. One is to buy pizza or bread dough from a grocery store. We recently wanted to make foccacia and did not have time to make the dough so we purchased bread dough from Trader Joe’s and it was excellent.
  2. Second is to buy pizza dough from a good local pizzeria that makes their dough from scratch. Most will sell it to you.  The advantage of dough from a pizzeria is that it is usually made from flour specially formulated for pizza, providing optimum elasticity and pliability, which makes it easier to stretch and it does not tear as easily.

But the key to either of these is how you bake them.  I strongly recommend a pizza stone (or pizza steel… see more below).

About Pizza Stones:  Unless you use a pizza stone, you will not be able to get the quality results you find in a great pizzeria.  A pizza stone, if heated properly, will seal the bottom of the pizza crust quickly, providing superior rise, texture and crispness.

Pizza stones have become very affordable and can be purchased at any good kitchen store or online.  Sometimes you can find them packaged with a wooden pizza peel (which is the only type of pizza peel you need).

Pizza stones are also great for baking rustic breads as well.  And one other good use… if you ever do take-out pizza, and want it to be as fresh and hot as it is at the pizzeria, ask them to “half-bake” your pizza and leave it uncut.  Bring it home and finish it on your stone.  Your family will fall down and worship you!

Pizza Steels:  An even better, though more expensive option, is a Pizza Steel.  They are just what their name implies, a heavy plate make of steel.  They’ll run you about $70 to $100 (I bought mine on Amazon).  These are relatively new and less well known but will give you an even better crust than a stone, especially if you want to make multiple pizzas in a session, as they retain and reflect heat better.

How to use Pizza Stones (or Steels):  The key to using your pizza stone (or steel) is to get it really hot!  I recommend a minimum of 45 minutes at 500º F (or even 525 if your oven will go that high).  One note though—if you plan to put a lot of toppings on your pizza, reduce the temperature to about 485 F, or the bottom of the pizza will get overcooked by the time the toppings and cheese are properly cooked.

Making Homemade Pizza Sauce:

I feel like I need to include at least one recipe in this post so I am going to include my recipe for pizza sauce.  My dough recipe will be in my next post.

Use this recipe as a guide and adjust things like garlic, salt and herbs to your liking.  I don’t even use a recipe anymore because I’ve been making it for so long.

Tomato Notes:  You can really make pizza sauce from almost any kind of tomatoes.  Crushed Tomatoes work well, or Tomato Sauce (especially if you add a little Tomato Paste to either), but my tomato product of choice for pizza sauce is Tomato Puree.  I like it for it’s consistency.

Using my power burner

The only problem is some stores do not carry many (if any) brands or sizes of tomato puree.  You also may not be able to find the size can listed in the recipe.  If not, just adjust the recipe accordingly.

 

 

 

My Favorite Brands:  Look for these brands which I think are the best…

  • Cento (from Italy)… a little more expensive but worth it
  • Muir Glen Organic
  • San Marzano brand (these are not true San Marzano tomatoes from Italy… they are grown in California)
  • If you cannot find any of these, Hunt’s will work fine

Have fun making pizza!  I’ll do another post soon.

The Pizza sauce recipe is below or you may download as a Pizza Sauce Recipe PDF