For years, like many members ofÂ the last few factory-farmed, shrink-wrapped, additived-and-preservatived generations, I thought I detested fresh tomatoes. Mealy and bland, almost always refrigerated, only acceptable in thoroughly stewed or sauced form. My mom used to nostalgically describe picking tomatoes as a child, out of my grandma’s garden in upstate New York, and eating them like apples. I could hardly imagine anything more revolting at the time.
Now, of course, we’ve all become much more sophisticated, in our current local, sustainable, seasonal collective consciousness. We know that what we really loathed were the out-of season supermarket imposters, mass-produced and shipped thousands of miles to your January attempt at aÂ salad (probably involving iceberg lettuce, which, I notice, is making an odd sort of comeback; perhaps it’s ironic, the produce equivalent of a hipster’s PBR). A truly fresh tomato, procured in its natural habitat and life cycle, that is a completely different experience.
I can think of no better expression of Tomato, its essence, the thing-in-itself, than the caprese salad. The first time I tried one, well into my twenties, was a revelation. Not as singularly defining as Julia Child’s sole meuniere moment, but akin to it, one of a series of palate-paradigm shifting moments. My first taste of pesto was another, as was cilantro.
But that first caprese, simple and brilliant – never had I experienced such perfect tomatoes, at their pinnacle in ripe flavor, firm but not tough, supple, not the slightest suggestion of mealiness. And the pairings, oh the harmonious flavor pairings, the basil and fresh mozzarella, with extra-virgin olive oil (used as it is meant to be used, not as an all-purpose cooking fat) and just the most delicate drizzles of balsamic vinegar (another revelation all on its own).Â In short, it rocked my world.
This is so simple it hardly warrants a Formal Recipe; heck, I’m not sure it warrants an entire blog post, but I thought they came out so nicely I figured, why not share? Tomatoes are finally starting to ripen, at least around here; it’s been a late season, according to more adept gardeners than I. So I offer up not anything groundbreaking, but just an alternate way to present it as we all savor these tomato days, fleeting as they are and are meant to be.
A pint or so of cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
A cup or so of basil, chiffonaded
16 ounces or so of fresh mozzarella, sliced and then cut into wedges
1/2 cup or so prepared pesto (optional; also fine with olive oil alone)
Salt and pepper
If you’re using the pesto, add a few tablespoons of olive oil to make it more pourable. Aside from that, my only advice is to layer in the order of tomatoes – mozzarella – basil and then drizzle a bit of pesto, if using. If not, this is where a touch of olive oil comes in for each layer. Repeat until glasses are full. Top with the prettiest tendrils of your chiffonade.
You might note the absence of balsamic in this; I do love it, but decided to keep the visual Viva Italia color scheme intact. Feel free to choose your own adventure here.
— posted by Anne
P.S. I now completely understand the urge to eat a perfect, fresh tomato like an apple. My grandfather’s predilection for slicingÂ red onions and eating them in thick, buttered slabs, that’s a different matter.