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Tuesday’s Project: Caprese: The Dynamic Duo of Tomato and Mozzarella

It’s the final day of July, which means the latter half of summer unofficially is about to begin. Peaches, corn, cherries, and those other signs of early summer will soon bow down to the summer produce king: tomatoes. For the past 8 or 9 months, much of the country has either preached the Alice Waters gospel and avoided tomatoes altogether or been like me and grin and bear it through the occasional hothouse Roma or Campari tomato to add color (not taste in the case of these tomatoes…) to salads or garnish a sandwich. The current box Campari tomatoes I’m looking at here in the kitchen comes from Mexico (only 1,00o miles away!), yet somehow was delivered through a distributor based in Ontario, Canada.

Let’s just say now that it is hours from being August, it’s time for real tomatoes that express sensational citrus meets earthy notes, bursting with the juice that covers your plate when you try to cut through an heirloom slice in a caprese. Soon I can look the other way at the tomato box from Mexico and shift full time to our tomato garden that is showing excellent promise after the usual weeks of July California sunshine.

Caprese at Trattoria Popolare in Oslo, Norway

A few trickles of cherry tomatoes arrived right after I returned from Scandinavia recently and since Trev’s Bistro is about to hit the road again for a few weeks, it’s time to use as many of the first of the crop tomatoes. There still aren’t nearly enough to make a gazpacho. We’re still in salad and hamburger garnish territory. And in the case of last night’s appetizers, that wonderful Italian summer staple: caprese.

Caprese is as basic as it gets: fresh tomatoes, mozzarella, fresh basil for garnish, olive oil drizzled on top, and perhaps a spritz of sea salt on top. O.K., a dash of pepper can help too. Sure, you can have your interesting variations on the caprese, perhaps liquid mozzarella and spherified tomatoes à la José Andrès, or you can turn a panini or an omelette into a caprese. Even recently, David Tanis, former chef at Chez Panisse and now a writer with The New York Times wrote about evolving caprese into an antipasto spread.

Ultimately, it’s the quality of the ingredients that determine how special your caprese would be. You can get caprese with industrial grade olive oil, rubber mozzarella from a Ohio warehouse, hothouse tomatoes from Guatemala, and dried basil at The Olive Garden.

Then there are several different steps that can be taken to achieve the blissful summer heights that a caprese can easily reach. Fresh tomatoes, perhaps Early Girl or Cherry (Sweet 100 or Sungold) or Brandywine or Yellow Pear, are pivotal. The darlings of chefs are the heirloom tomatoes, for both their sweetness and spectacular colors.

Mozzarella ranges dramatically as well, from the ethereal creamy Burrata to more structured smoked mozzarella you’re more used to the almost watery Fior de latté from cow’s milk. At home, the mozzarella di bufala from water buffalo’s milk is preferred, slightly tangy compared to burrata, and much less creamy, easier for cutting with tomatoes. Of course you could just look at the menu for Nancy Silverton’s brilliant mozzarella bar at Los Angeles’ Osteria Mozza for a whole, definitive guide to mozzarella and its best pairings (it’s hard to ever pass up the burrata with bacon, caramelized onions, and bitterness from marinated escarole, pure genius).

Of course McEvoy Olive Oil’s nuttiness or a pristine E.V.O.O. from Italy or Sicily will transform the caprese even further, along with the fresh basil. Sea salt works wonders when topping the creamier mozzarellas, such as Burrata.

Of course caprese is just one way to enjoy this summer’s King produce. Go crazy with gazpacho and B.L.T.’s, or be innovative like a “B.L.T.” recently enjoyed at San Francisco’s Park Tavern where the “B” is smoked raw tuna, evoking bacon without the crunch or grease. It didn’t hurt to have superb butter lettuce as the “L” and, oh yes, sensational heirloom tomatoes as the “T.”

Then there are always Bloody Marys…

Happy Tomato Season!

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