With our quantity-and-transportability-over-quality national food priorities, we often miss the point of delicious regional food traditions (including our own). Take Caprese salad. This combination of mozzarella, tomatoes and basil (and, depending on the interpretation, balsamic vinegar) is inspired simplicity. So perfect together! So summer! But the allure and simplicity can be its downfall. It's so good that we want to have it all the time, even when ingredients aren't in season. And it's so simple that lackluster ingredients can easily take it down. Ever had a toothpick skewered with cubes of lousy cheese and squeaky-hard off-season tomatoes? You know what I'm talking about.
But this dish here — this is what Caprese salad wants to be. Perfect tomatoes (cherry tomatoes are just showing up in the farmer's markets here), fragrant basil, and delicate, fresh mozzarella rubbed with a few simple seasonings. The whole thing is given a douse of good oil, and scooped up with crusty bread. Served along with a green salad, it's a perfect meal for those summer nights where it's too hot to eat a proper dinner. With its fennel seeds and lemon zest, this version's definitely a bit of a tweak, perhaps not in keeping with the Italian original. But its essential spirit — quality in-season ingredients, simply enjoyed on a summer evening — is right in line.
adapted from Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi, with thanks to Lottie + Doof for flagging
serves 4-6 as an appetizer, 2-3 as a dinner along with a salad and a good amount of bread
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds, toasted and lightly crushed (if you don't have a mortar and pestle or spice grinder, you can just bash them with the side of a knife or chop them up a bit)
grated zest of1/2 lemon
handful basil leaves, shredded
1 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tablespoon good-quality olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1/2 pound buffalo mozzarella
1 ripe tomatoes, cut into wedges (or a few handfuls of sliced cherry tomatoes)
coarse salt and black pepper for finishing
Make the marinade by combining the fennel seeds, zest, basil, oregano, garlic and olive oil in a medium bowl. Break the mozzarella into large chunks with your hands and add it the bowl with the marinade. Smear the mozzarella with the marinade until well coated. Set aside to marinate for 30 minutes in the fridge.
Serve by arranging mozzarella on a large serving platter, along with marinade. Scatter tomatoes across the platter. Drizzle additional olive oil over the top, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Serve with crusty bread.