July 27, 2011

2 Summer Salads: The Caprese and The California

The California Salad

When I was in elementary school through high school, I would grow vegetables in our backyard. I had a small row of herbs - basil, mint, parsley, thyme, sage - some lettuces, Colorado strawberries, sugar snap peas, and lots and lots of tomatoes. I didn't know a whole lot about gardening (well, I still don't really), but my primary tactic was to plant as many tomatoes as I could. With what room was left, I would fill the garden patch to the brim with tomatoes. Then I started in on small patches of dirt around the house and then filled up every pot I could find. By the end of a few days work I probably planted 20 or 30 little seedlings. One year, I took a patch of land I knew my mom was saving to plant flowers in and filled it with tomatoes. Tomatoes instead of fresh-cut flowers. Not an easy trade, but a trade I'm willing to make.

A Caprese Salad of yellow tomatoes and mozzarella.
I loved all the varieties the tomato seedlings came in. I would go to Wilson's Farm in Lexington, MA with my mom to pick up the seedlings. I started by picking up some Super Sweet 100s, a small cherry tomato, and Roma tomatoes, which in my mind were the true tomatoes of Italy and the only ones acceptable for use in Italian cooking (not true). But what really excited me was the world of heirloom tomatoes. For a 7th grader with an unnatural obsession with food, picking out heirloom tomato seedlings was like to going to the candy store. Bright photos above each of the seedlings revealed which zany, colorful, tasty tomato was waiting to grow. And they had such fabulous names, like American Green Zebra, Jet Star, and Sunflower Burst.

There were just so many to choose from, how could I resist?

So when mid-August would roll around, which is when the tomato crop really gets going in Massachusetts, I would have tomatoes ripening in every color imaginable (yeah, the rainbow effect gets me every time). But this meant I had to use a lot of tomatoes, which I did. I made lots of things from them, from tomato sauce and salsa to grilled tomatoes and, my favorite, Caprese Salad. I think once I ate caprese salad four or five times a week for the whole summer. Its one of those perfect, unchanging combinations that never fails. Warm, ripe tomatoes and creamy, milky mozzarella. Besides those, the rest is up to you. Some might say basil is a must (at least to technically be "Caprese"), and basil is great on this salad, but I don't use it every time. What I do use almost every time is good olive oil, salt and pepper. Sometimes a dash of balsamic or lemon or a bit of chili flake. You can get fancy and add grilled peaches or serve it over toast. But the simpler the better, I think.

So the first salad for this post is a Caprese Salad, tomato and mozzarella topped with olive oil, balsamic and salt and pepper. It's called "Caprese" because it supposedly comes from the island of Capri off the Amalfi coast in Italy. For the version I made,  I used yellow tomatoes. There's no recipe because it's just too simple. Take some tomatoes, cut them any way you'd like. Take some fresh mozzarella, do the same. Top with olive oil, salt, pepper, and whatever else you'd like. Eat and enjoy.

The second salad also uses tomatoes, but not as prominently as the first. I'm calling it a California Salad. Why? Because that's what this type of salad is usually called. Why is that? I have no idea. Probably because it uses avocados, which happen to be this salad's secret ingredient. So the salad is pretty simple. Again, no explicit recipe because it's not really needed. Take a salad bowl and add a healthy serving of greens, say 1-2 cups per person. I used arugula. Add some sliced red onion, diced tomato, drained chickpeas (just from a can is fine) and avocado cut into small cubes. Then add a couple spoonfuls of oil, a good squeeze of lemon and a splash of red wine vinegar, as well as salt and pepper (amounts depend on how much salad you're making). Mix well. The trick of this salad is to mix it enough so that the avocado starts to become part of the dressing, adding some fat and making it a little creamy. From there you can add whatever - grilled chicken or shrimp, seared tofu, sunflower seeds, flank steak, other vegetables, you name it. On a hot summer night, served with a thick slice of bread and maybe a cold beer, this salad might be all you need.