The woods are full of recipes for Caprese Salad, and here’s my take on the matter. Although the basic structure of the salad is a simple one, the dish cannot be successfully made or even contemplated until the best tomatoes are in full season. In California, that generally means you have to wait until at least June when the first of the heirloom tomatoes hits the local farmers’ markets. Those red, flavorless cotton balls that supermarkets call tomatoes not only won’t do for a Caprese Salad; they won’t do for anything.
The basic Caprese consists of overlapping tomato slices, with thin pieces of a good fresh mozzarella di bufala and whole leaves of fresh basil in between each of the tomato slices. Drizzle generously a good extra-virgin oil over the slices of things thus arranged, sprinkle a bit of salt over all … and that’s it.
Here’s what I do for what I think is a more interesting and decidedly richer version: I start by making a vinaigrette out of a good extra-virgin olive oil, just barely tinted with a bit of red wine and balsamic vinegars. Add to the dressing some minced shallot and some salt. Then, cover the bottom of a plate with a a layer of small greens … micro-greens are great for this. Dress the greens very lightly with olive oil and a hint of salt. Around the edges of the greens, arrange tomato slices concentrically overlapping. Instead of interleaving the tomato slices with mozzarella, take a couple of fresh balls of burrata cheese, cut them into quarters and place them on top of the greens in the center of the circle of tomato slices. Then take some fresh basil leaves, roll them up, and thinly slice them, chiffonade style. Sprinkle the basil generously over both tomatoes and burrata and spoon the vinaigrette over all. That’s it.
Burrata, of course, is largely mozzarella, but the difference is that the interior of the burrata is a soft, slightly runny blend of cream and cheese … absolutely and wonderfully decadent.
A final word on tomatoes. Most people know that you never refrigerate them … that’s instant death. However, you can put never-refrigerated tomatoes in the fridge for, say, a half-hour just to cool them down prior to making the salad. Once the summer heirlooms are gone, the chances of making a decent Caprese drop to near zero. If you’re dying for an off-season reminder, you can use those rather good Mexican heirloom grape tomatoes that Trader Joe’s carries. Just halve them and arrange them around the greens … all else stays the same. It will get you through the winter.