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It’s Tomato Time; Let’s Make A Caprese Salad

A plate with a Caprese salad all over it
Photo by Albert Burneko/Illustration by Chris Thompson

The air is gooey with moisture, a hot yellow even in the morning; the heat comes at you from all directions and closes around you like a giant fist. By mid-afternoon there's simply too much, too much boiling wet air to hold in more than tense, brittle suspension, waiting for a breath of cool to crack the whole thing and bring it thundering down on your head. There's no room to move in all that syrup, all that but also somehow there is not enough of it for breathing. The trees look uncomfortable; the bugs sound like a stadium crowd in hell. Tomato Time, my friends, is suddenly upon you.

Did you cheat? Did you start buying puke Canada tomatoes in June? No! You held out for the good shit, the local shit, August tomatoes. You hero. You absolute champion. Your reward is a nice big Caprese salad. Or, well, uh, I recommend that you make one for yourself, anyway. I'm not gonna give it to you.

The Caprese salad—the simple Italian salad of fresh tomato, mozzarella, and sweet basil, dressed in fruity olive oil—might be the perfect August food. It features two of mid- to late-summer's star harvestables, tomatoes and basil; it requires no cooking; and thanks to the mozzarella it's even hearty enough that it can function as any of the day's meals just fine. There are a thousand delightful uses for high summer's best tomatoes. Don't let Tomato Time escape without enjoying a tomato sandwich, and a tomato salad, and a burger with a big slice of actual by-God good tomato on it, and cherry tomatoes eaten right out of your hand, popped into your mouth like, uh cherries. But also, fit a dang Caprese salad in there. Do it for your buddy, who is me.

Here's some stuff you will need. Not a lot of stuff. Only a little bit of stuff.

You will need some tomatoes, naturally. I harbor no delusions, here: Even at the peak of Tomato Time (which hasn't yet arrived in much of North America), regular grocery shoppers might still have no particularly worthy tomato options at their local chain supermarket; for those that can find good tomatoes at the local store, you might not have any choice about which variety of good tomato to get. I live in a medium-sized town surrounded on all sides by lush green farms; in the center of town is a giant fairgrounds consisting pretty much entirely of barns and used, at least once a year, for big agricultural shows. Down the mountainside from my home, there is a giant open field that hosts literal tractor shows multiple times a year. What I am saying is that this area is silly with grown produce. But even here, when you go to shop at the big fancy supermarket in the wealthiest part of town, all of the tomatoes are from frickin' Canada and Mexico and Michigan, except for a pathetic handful that have been trucked at the very least dozens of miles from someplace in Pennsylvania. This is disgusting and disgraceful, both in the silly overstated way of all Tomato Time blogs but also in the more gravely serious sense that it is fucking disgusting and disgraceful, with the natural world poisoned and on fire and dying, to truck hard, green, flavorless tomatoes thousands of miles across a continent to sell them at a store that could stock more delicious, fragrant, ripe tomatoes than it would ever need without buying any from farther than you could get away from its front door in 15 minutes.

Shit, I lost my train of thought! What I am saying here is that whatever type of good—that is to say, local, harvested after ripening—tomatoes you can get are probably fine. If that's a couple of big hearty beefsteaks, fine, grand; if it is a tub of cherry tomatoes, we can make that work too. If it's a bag of Roma plum tomatoes, well, OK, that's not exactly ideal, the highest destiny of those is to be simmered into a heavenly sauce, but still—still! We can get the job done with those. The thing is that the tomatoes should be good, or else this is a waste of time. If your local supermarket doesn't have any local tomatoes, it's worth looking around for a farmer's market or a roadside farm stand that does; your town almost certainly has one of these, somewhere in or around it.

OK. Moving on. You will need some fresh mozzarella. This can be the huge baseball-sized sucker sold in a tub of water or wrapped tightly in plastic wrap. If you are using cherry tomatoes for your Caprese salad, maybe you will want to keep an eye out for a tub of the smaller mozzarella guys sometimes sold as baby bocconcini or ciliegine; the latter, in particular, might be pretty much exactly the size of cherry tomatoes, which makes them a very nice pairing. But do not sweat this too much. As long as you have some fresh mozzarella, you're gonna do great.

(A note on that. Yes, it's true, real-deal Authentic Mozzarella is made with buffalo's milk, and is much harder to find than the cow's milk variant here in the United States. Perhaps it is in contradictory or inconsistent or whatever that I just wrote two paragraphs stressing the importance of good local tomatoes, only to be like It's fine to just use whatever you can find when it comes to mozzarella, but: It's fine to just use whatever mozzarella you can find, so long as it is fresh mozzarella and not, like, string cheese or the dehydrated shredded stuff for topping a pizza. It's fine! It's fine.)

(Another note! A cheeky twist that is, I think, in danger of becoming sort of rote in the world of Caprese salad-making is to swap out the mozzarella for its stracciatella- and cream-filled cousin, burrata. This is a lot of fun: You hack up the tomatoes and pile them at the bottom of a shallow bowl, and you plop the entire big ball of burrata on top of this; when it's time to eat this sucker, you cut into the burrata first and the creamy inside oozes out all over the tomatoes and, well, you can figure out the rest. But burrata is not as easy to find as fresh mozzarella, and fresh mozzarella is perfectly heavenly in its own right.)

You will need some fresh sweet basil. I do not have as much to say about that. I guess it is more traditional to keep the leaves whole, but personally I like to roll them up and slice them thin, so that every bite of Caprese salad is guaranteed to have some basil on it.

You will need some extra-virgin olive oil, the fruitier the better. You will need, or anyway I highly recommend, a modest amount of some flaky sea salt and some freshly cracked black pepper. While I am recommending things, I also recommend, if you can score it, some genuinely thick and syrupy aged balsamic vinegar, though this is impractical in many normal places, where a shopper's only options for things doing business under the name "balsamic vinegar" are bottles of tart black water. The only bottle of the good stuff I happen to have I bought hundreds of miles from where I live, and it is nearly empty. If you can't get good, syrupy stuff—the kind that will coat the back of a spoon and can be drizzled like warm honey—then don't bother; your Caprese salad doesn't need to be wet.

I think that's it? If I think of anything else, I will, uh, I guess scroll back up here and add it before sending this draft off to my editor. Let's assemble. That's really all this is, give or take some slicing.

If you have big (or medium) tomatoes of the sort that seem plausible for cutting into slices, cut them into slices. In that case, slice up the mozzarella, too; pair a slice of tomato with a slice of mozzarella. In the photo up at the top I kinda overlapped them around a serving plate. This looked nice and was kind of awkward to portion out, but I think in a fun way: I put the plate in the middle of the table, within a comfortable arm's reach of everybody, and we all just dug in together, only semi-competitively, which is a great way to share something. If you're going that route, then I recommend just kinda roughly scattering the sea salt and basil over the top and cracking some black pepper over the whole deal before drizzling on the oil (and vinegar, if you're using any).

You could also just assemble little towers, the more familiar way: A slice of tomato as the base, a hunk or slice of mozzarella on that, the pretty green basil on top, and then the drizzle of oil. A couple of years ago, in the tense, jobless summer before this website's birth, I did a big Caprese salad more-or-less this way, only the tomato slices had a smaller diameter than those of the mozzarella, so I put the mozz on the bottom, the tomato on that, then a lil' dollop of fresh ricotta on each tomato slice, and topped each one with an even smaller dollop of fresh basil pesto and some toasted pine nuts.

A Caprese salad with pesto and pine nuts
I sliced the basil with too dull a knife, so it turned all dark and unlovely. Oh well. Still tasted great!
I took this photo

I mention this only as an encouragement to try what seems good to you, unless what seems good to you is melting a slice of American cheese over the top of your Caprese salad. Well and also because I had a nice colorful photo of that Caprese salad in my phone and wanted to make use of it.

Oh ho ho, you are saying. But what if I do not have big sliceable tomatoes? What if I have in fact cherry or grape tomatoes? What then, "professor"? To this I say that you are being kind of weirdly prosecutorial about this whole thing and maybe ought to relax. I never presented myself as a professor, nor indeed as any other type of teacher. But I also say, to this, that it is cool and good to make lil' skewers of cherry tomato and mozzarella (cut into cherry tomato-sized chunks if not already in ciliegine form) and basil; you can drive a toothpick through those suckers or you can use wood or bamboo or metal skewers. Line them up on a big plate and hit them all with the salt and pepper and olive oil. I saw a Caprese salad one time that had the whole thing mounted on forks: Each fork had been stabbed all the way through a cherry tomato and a basil leaf, and then poked into a piece of mozzarella. I mention this only in case you do not have toothpicks or skewers around.

You can also interpret the salad part of this whole thing a bit more broadly, and simply toss your cherry tomatoes and mozzarella and basil with some raw green stuff—I recommend baby arugula in this case, and some shaved radicchio wouldn't do any harm—in a big bowl. Hell, chuck some raw onion and some chunks of stale bread in there and turn the whole thing into a hybrid Caprese panzanella! I don't give a frick! It's your salad, and it will taste delicious. The purpose of this blog is to bury you under workable options, so that you are cornered and have no way out of enjoying some tomatoes and basil and mozzarella now, before another precious Tomato Time escapes your grasp. With that in mind: Eat.

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