Variations on insalada caprese...


Growing up in the Midwest, it used to be that really good tomatoes were available from the garden out back only during the summer months beginning in late July.  Good as those were, there was nothing quite like devouring a freshly-picked Wisconsin tomato from Auntie Sabina's very large garden in Rhinelander, WI.  For one week in August each year, all of the aunts and uncles and cousins who could venture north would stay at her place with Uncle Al (Auntie Sabina's husband) and her two brothers, Uncles John and Benny.  All of the cousins crammed into the two upstairs guest rooms, boys in one room and girls in the other room.  It didn't seem to bother any of us much, even when it was 90 degrees outside that day.

Having lived out east now for more than two decades, natives of the Middle Atlantic states talk about "Joisey" tomatoes which, to me, taste pretty much like Wisconsin tomatoes.  But, unlike Rhinelander, WI, where there are a lot of Germans and descendents of Germans, in the Middle Atlantic states there's a boat load of Italians and descendents of Italians.  Of course, the Italians make a lot of meals with tomatoes; but, they use a variety that is unlike a Wisconsin or Joisey tomato, namely, a "roma" (or "plum") tomato.

Over the past two decades, I've become familiarized with this highly-versatile variety of tomato which Italians use in practically any recipe calling for tomatoes.  But, even better yet, roma tomatoes are now available year round in just about any grocery store!  I have also happily discovered that even a "hot house" roma can work acceptably well, that is, if you put the hothouse romas on a window sill having a southern exposure (which luckily happens to be the kitchen window at HIH II) for a minimum of a couple of days (even in the winter).

Caveat emptor: Italians in the Middle Atlantic states, at least those who have corrected me from southern New Jersey to northeastern Massachusetts, say that only freshly picked romas from outdoor vines are acceptable for cooking genuine Italian.  That's why they have a stove in the basement which is used exclusively for making "gravy" and "putting it up" (aka, canning) for the winter months.  However, we're all agreed that good roma tomatoes are absolutely crucial for a good sauce (out here they call it "gravy," if you can believe that; I always thought gravy was poured on meat!).  And, for these recipes which I call "variations on insalada caprese," for good bruschetta.

Insalada caprese is a traditional Italian salad.  It is very simple and takes only a couple of minutes to make: fresh sliced tomatoes, salt, pepper, basil, a little olive oil (extra virgin), and vinegar (I like to use apple cider vinegar for insalada caprese, but a good balsamic vinegar is equally tasty), topped with sliced fresh buffalo mozzarella cheese.  Now for the trick: take away the mozzarella and dice the remaining ingredients and, presto, you have bruschetta, that is, the fresh tomato topping that is placed on good crostini (toasted Italian bread slices or, better yet, brushed with olive oil and toasted on a panini maker).

In the picture below, I'm having bruschetta as a side to a salad of baby arugula with some freshly grated Parmesan cheese.  Notice that I keep my bruschetta separate from my crostini.  Why?  I don't like my crostini to get soggy from the bruschetta.  I like the crunch.  So, I never serve "pre-made" bruschetta.  Guests at HIH II must put their bruschetta and crostini together themselves.  If they want their crostini soggy, they just have to wait one minute or so.

Now, as good as bruschetta is, and as I've noted above, the diced tomato mixture from insalada caprese also makes the base for a variety of wonderful tomato salads, hence, "variations on insalada caprese."  Below are three such variations.

This first variation uses saga blue cheese.  Even people who don't like blue cheese like this salad.  In fact, I didn't much care for blue cheese until I tried this salad.  The blue cheese is just like butter and melts in your mouth, adding a creamy and just slightly noticeable nutty and bitter taste.


The second variation of insalada caprese uses feta (goat) cheese and fresh blueberries (which add a nice "sweet" taste to the "sharp" taste of the feta cheese).  I happened upon this idea of mixing fresh fruit with cheese watching Giada De Laurentiis on her "Giada at Home" Food Network cooking show.


The third variation uses baby mozzarella...I won't comment on the shape because I'll be receiving nasty emails, even though I didn't intend anything!  In this variation, note that I used sliced, hand-picked Joisey tomatoes not roma tomatoes and sliced rather than diced red onion.


As you might imagine, there are an infinite number of possibilities for a tomato salad...once you have made the diced bruschetta tomato base.  I have not posted a recipe for the vinaigrette to this webpage because there really is no recipe for it, as any good vinaigrette recipe should work very well.

I do have one suggestion: allow your imagination to dream up other variations of insalada caprese!

And, I also have one caveat: always use fresh basil (en chiffonade) and lots of it!  Not only does the basil add great flavor; the "widow" also has anti-oxidant properties.  It's a "two-fer."


PS: A "Joisey" tomato is not some variety that you can't find using a Google search and wonder what in the bejeezes I am talking about.  No, a "Joisey" is really a "Jersey" (as in "New Jersey") tomato.  But, that's how they pronounce the word out here!  What can I say?


PPSS: The Motley Monk read an interesting history at The Italian Notebook of insalada caprese.  To read that history, click on the following button:





Want to go back to The Motley Monk homepage?  Click on the button: