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Published August 13, 2013, 10:00 PM

The Lost Italian: Fresh garden tomatoes are star of two salads

Two of our favorite ways to showcase fresh garden tomatoes are with our recipes for the classic Caprese Salad and a spinoff we like to call Insalata Italiana.

Two of our favorite ways to showcase fresh garden tomatoes are with our recipes for the classic Caprese Salad and a spinoff we like to call Insalata Italiana.

Caprese Salad, or Insalata Caprese, literally translates to salad made in the style of Capri. While it’s unclear if the salad actually originated in Capri, it most likely is native to the Campania region, which is famous for its mozzarella di bufala, fresh basil and luscious, red tomatoes.

These are the three main ingredients in a traditional Caprese salad, accented only by a sprinkling of salt and a generous drizzling of the very best extra-virgin olive oil you can find (right now there is a terrific variety of affordably priced, good quality olive oils from Italy and Greece at TJ Maxx in Fargo).

In Italy, Caprese salad is usually prepared only in the summer months when the tomatoes are freshly ripe. The tomato is a favorite vegetable in Italy, where it is known as the pomodoro, or “golden apple.” Unlike green salads, which are traditionally served as a contorno (side dish) or after the main course, a Caprese salad is typically offered before the meal as an antipasto.

This is a composed salad, meaning “not tossed,” made by layering slices of ripe tomato, fresh mozzarella, and fresh basil.

Up until about 10 years ago, fresh mozzarella was a very difficult product to find regularly in Fargo-Moorhead, but it is now routinely available in the gourmet cheese sections of our local grocery stores, often in more than one presentation.

Traditionally, a Caprese salad is made with Mozzarella di Bufala, which is made from the milk of Italian water buffalo. This can be very difficult to find locally and is ultra-expensive. Luckily, fresh mozzarella made from cow’s milk, fior di latte, is widely available in the U.S. at a much lower price than its high-end counterpart.

Fresh mozzarella is quite different from the processed mozzarella with which many of us grew up, and for some it may be an acquired taste. Mozzarella is smooth, soft and mildly-flavored, with a gentle milkiness in both flavor and texture. Eaten alone, it can seem a little bland, but in between layers of fresh tomatoes and basil this cheese really comes to life. It also has great melting properties, so we use it for baked pasta dishes, too.

We prefer to use fresh mozzarella that is packaged in a plastic tub with water, as it tends to be fresher and truer in texture and flavor to the Italian varieties. However, this isn’t always available locally, so feel free to use the balls and logs of fresh mozzarella that come wrapped in plastic. You may even find it available in pre-sliced packages, or in little balls called bocconcini.

A great variation of the Caprese Salad is our recipe for Insalata Italiana, so named because the colors in the salad are the green, red and white of the Italian flag.

Instead of cutting the tomato and fresh mozzarella into slices, we cut them into cubes, along with fresh avocado. Then, just before serving, we gently toss the ingredients with our easy Red Wine Vinaigrette (featured in our June 5 column and available at http://thelostitalian.areavoices.com), sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Enjoy either of these simple, summer salads while dining al fresco, with a loaf of good, crusty, artisan bread and a chilled bottle of Pinot Grigio.

Home with the Lost Italian is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owns Sarello’s restaurant in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their 8-year-old son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at dine@sarellos.com. All previous recipes can be found at http://thelostitalian.areavoices.com

Caprese Salad

Ingredients

Fresh mozzarella, cut into ¼-inch slices

Red or yellow tomatoes, cut ¼-inch thick

Kalamata olives

Fresh basil leaves, one per slice of mozzarella

Extra virgin olive oil

Sea or kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Directions

Layer the tomatoes, mozzarella and basil around a serving plate until you have reached the amount you desire. Sprinkle Kalamata olives around the layers. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and season to taste. Serve immediately.

Tony’s Tips

Feel free to be creative by using arugula instead of basil or a balsamic reduction or basil pesto instead of, or in addition to, the extra virgin olive oil.

For an easy appetizer, make a Caprese Crostini: place a layer of cheese, tomato and basil atop a crostini, drizzle with extra virgin olive oil, balsamic reduction or basil pesto, and serve.

The cheese and tomatoes can be sliced a few hours in advance of serving, but wait to dress with olive oil and seasoning until just before serving.

Tony’s Insalata Italiana

Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients

2 ripe avocados, large dice

6 to 8 medium sized vine-ripened tomatoes, quartered or cubed

1 ball fresh mozzarella, large cubes (you may also use bocconcini, the little mozzarella balls)

3 to 4 ounces red wine vinaigrette

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

Put all ingredients in a medium-sized mixing bowl, toss together and serve immediately.

Tony’s Tip

To keep the avocados fresh and the salad crisp, this salad is best if prepared just before serving.

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