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?
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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
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