Tuesday, June 28, 2016

4th of July Round-Up

Fourth of July usually means barbecues, picnics, fireworks, and parades all draped in an abundance of red, white, and blue. This year's patriotic holiday will be marked by the observation of both new and old traditions. After running the Four on the Fourth race for the first time, I will take the long drive along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan to Pentwater, Michigan to spend a couple of days with my sister and her family. The weekend weather forecast looks to be as close to perfect as possible as there will be a much needed reprieve from this oppressive humidity.

To go along with the grilled hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken, and steaks or the platters of slow roasted brisket and barbecued pulled pork, here are some suggestions for appetizers, side dishes, and desserts to round out your holiday gatherings and celebrations. All of the recipes are linked to the blog, so you don't have to spend any time searching through the recipe index, unless of course you want to. They include a combination of make-ahead and make-serve dishes. With the exception of the Blueberry and Rye Slab Pie, none are what you might consider time consuming or ingredient complex. And most feature seasonal ingredients.

I hope you all have fabulous holiday weekend! Stay safe, have fun, spend more time outdoors than in the kitchen, eat well, honor old and create new traditions, and take time to remember all of those who have and continue to make this country great.

Appetizers
Cheddar Cheese Jalapeño Beer Bread - definitely a crowd pleaser!

Deviled Eggs - one of the signature appetizers making regular appearances at barbecues.

Guacamole - chunky and not too spicy. Serve with your favorite corn or tortilla chips.

Texas Caviar - this classic dip from the Lone Star state, served with tortilla chips, only requires you have enough cold beer on hand and a pitcher of margaritas ready.
Sides
Four Bean Baked Beans - easy, delicious, and bound to be a summer barbecue favorite.

Calico Coleslaw - a slight twist to the traditional coleslaw. This one is made with cabbage, a can of Mexicorn, cubes of American cheese, green onions, and olives (optional).

Lemony Potato Salad - a refreshing change to the traditional American style potato salad.

Summer Salad with Creamy Dill Dressing - a platter of some of your favorite vegetables served with an incredibly delicious dill dressing.

Desserts
Blueberry and Rye Slab Pie - this hard to resist showstopper is served with vanilla ice cream of course.

Blueberry Crisp - underneath the crispy top is a blueberry filling having just the right amount of lemon and cinnamon flavor. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream.

Fruity Pebbles Treats - even better than a Rice Krispies treat. After cutting into squares wrap in cellphone bags and tie with a ribbon.

Strawberry Ice Cream - is one you don't even need an ice cream maker for!

Monday, June 27, 2016

Lasagna Bolognese


Let me begin with a kinda, sorta forewarning about one of the most blissfully delicious, soul satisfying, decadent lasagnas on the planet, one you will fall hopelessly, deeply in love with in the first bite. This Lasagna Bolognese is an ambitious labor of love. Suffice to say this is a dish you should make only for the family and friends in your life that you really, really, really, really like. More specifically, for those in your life who, while sitting at your dinner table, unabashedly express their euphoria moments after their taste buds go into overdrive. Definitely do not make this dish for the kind, for whatever reason or reasons, have the uncanny ability to refrain from sharing or showing the joy their taste buds are experiencing, begin critiquing the dish ('did you put too much garlic in?') or who get all effusive about a lasagna they had elsewhere. Because if there was ever a Lasagna Bolognese to share with your most favorite people in the universe, one where you (or they) wouldn't care if the world or life as you know it ended tomorrow, this would be the one. 


I know what you may be thinking "we all don't experience the tastes of things the same way so maybe not everyone will be doing backflips and handstands at the table". To a certain extent I might concede to the possibility there is some truth to that belief. Except for the well documented fact there are some foods and dishes so incredible in taste and texture they transcend all of our individual unique food experiences and preferences. Generically speaking, pizza, ice cream and bread, are amongst the foods with the most universal appeal. While lasagna may be one of those dishes where our love or ambivalence for them is due in large part to the kinds of lasagna we grew up eating, this Lasagna Bolognese is a game-changer. For those brave enough to willing admit their Lasagna rating bar was set against frozen lasagna dinners or ones made with commercially sold jarred sauces, they won't be able to keep their heads from spinning after tasting this Lasagna Bolognese. 


This Lasagna Bolognese is made with a veal and pork ragu simmered to perfection, a white bechamel sauce ever so lightly seasoned with salt and a hint of grated nutmeg, freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and sheets of fresh lasagna noodles (no you don't have to make your own pasta if you don't want to as you can find some really high quality fresh pasta in the refrigerated section of many grocery stores). To make the process of making this Lasagna Bolognese seem less labor intensive you can make the Bolognese Ragu a day ahead (cover and chill in the refrigerator). Rather than trying to the 'hostess with mostest" after an exhaustive day of cooking, make and assemble the entire Lasagna Bolognese the day before (cover and chill in the refrigerator). Not only will enjoy your dinner gathering as much as everyone else, you also give the flavors of the ragu some time to further develop. In other words, if you pace yourself the feelings of love will overshadow the labor.


Finely diced carrots, celery and onion (along with thinly sliced garlic) starts out as an Italian Buttato and transforms into a Soffritto when sautéed in extra-virgin olive oil. This cousin to France's mirepoix become the flavor base for the ragu. Key to the soffrito is three-fold: finely diced uniform pieces of vegetables; using a large heavy bottomed pan; and, sautéeing just until they have softened and translucent but not browned.


The second layer of richness comes from the ground pork, ground veal, and pancetta. Before adding the meats to the pan, temporarily transfer the Soffritto to a bowl, to enable them to brown.


After the meats are browned and the Soffritto returned to the pan, add the tomato paste, milk, wine, and thyme bundle are stirred in and brought just to a boil, the heat is reduced to a simmer. The ragu should be allowed to simmer for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, however, the longer you simmer the deeper its' flavor. If your mixture seems to become 'too' thick, add in a little water (I added about a cup of water after about an hour). Season with salt and pepper, remove the thyme bundle, and allow to cool before assembling the lasagna.


The more classic Northern Italian lasagnas are made with a bechamel (besciamella in Italian) sauce, versus ricotta cheese found in other versions of the recipe. Considered to be one of the simplest of the Italian sauces and one of the five 'mother' sauces in French cooking, the bechamel sauce adds flavor and creaminess to this Lasagna Bolognese along with helping to keep the pasta from drying out. The key to making this sauce is making sure the butter/flour roux is a light golden brown before slowly adding in the milk. Patience is key here. In about 15-20 minutes you will have created a smooth, creamy, thickened (but spreadable) bechamel sauce.

Call me a cheese snob (I have been called worse), but nothing compares to the nutty, complex flavor of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Nothing. So don't even think of using any else.

Now here's the point in the recipe where I made a substitution. I (gasp) used 'fresh' but not 'homemade' pasta sheets. While the 'fresh' pasta found in the refrigerated section (not to be confused with those in the box 'no boil' pasta sheets), they are next best thing to homemade pasta. You can certainly make your pasta for this Lasagna Bolognese, but you can't those slippery curly edged lasagna noodles cooked in boiling water. Really you can't. 


To assemble this epic pasta dish, begin with a layer of the ragu, a sprinkling of the grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, a layer of pasta, a layer of bechemal, a layer of ragu, a sprinkling of the grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese....until all of the sauce and pasta are used up but ensuring the top layer is the pasta with the bechamel sauce over it. Before putting the Lasagna Bolognese in a preheated 375 degree (F) oven, generously finish with more grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Note: In a 9"x12" pan you will have 4 to 5 layers of pasta if using the fresh, refrigerated pasta sheets, but more layers if you use your own homemade pasta.  The Lasagna is baked for 30 to 45 minutes (longer if you had made it the night before) until the edges are browned and is cooked through. Allow it to set at least 15-20 minutes before cutting and serving. Then brace yourself for the most delicious meal of your life.


So how much do I love this Lasagna Bolognese? Almost as much as I love chocolate; puppies; the sound of a giggling baby; the deep rich colors of a beautiful sunset; the sound of the ocean; a bouquet of deep blue hydrangeas; the feel and smell of clean, hung out to dry in the fresh air sheets; a long, windows open drive out in the country; two-armed hugs; bringing a smile to the face of everyone sitting at my dining room table (handstands or backflips optional).......Your search for the most perfect, best, most mouthwatering lasagna is over. Buon appetito!

Recipe
Lasagna Bolognese (several adaptations to Mario Batali's Lasagna Bolognese recipe shared on The Food Network and in his cookbook Molto Italiano: 327 Simple Italian Recipes to Cook at Home)

Ingredients
Bologonese Ragu (make about 6 cups)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium onions, finely chopped
4 ribs of celery, finely chopped
2 medium carrots, finely chopped
5-6 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
1 to 1 1/4 pounds ground veal
1 to 1 1/4 pounds ground pork
4 ounces pancetta (either run through a meat grinder or finely diced)
9 ounces tomato taste
1 1/4 cups whole milk
1 1/4 cups dry white wine
1 bundle of fresh thyme leaves (about 4-5 stems)
2 teaspoons kosher salt (or more to taste)
1 teaspoon black pepper
Water, if needed, during the cooking process

Bechamel Sauce
5 Tablespoons unsalted butter
4 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 cups whole milk
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

Lasagna Assembly
2 (12-14 ounce) packages of fresh lasagna noodles
8-10 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated

Directions
Bologonese Ragu
1. In the bottom of a large heavy bottomed pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat until hot. Add the onions, celery, carrots, and garlic and cook until the vegetables are translucent but not browned (about 5-7 minutes). Transfer to a bowl and set aside.
2. Increase the heat to high and ddd the pork, veal and pancetta to the pan (stirring frequently). Cook until the meats have browned.
3. Return vegetables to the pan and add the tomato paste, milk, wine, and thyme bundle. Bring just a boil, the reduce heat to low and simmer for 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Note: May need to add some water midway through to keep the sauce's consistency.
4. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat and allow to cool before assembling the lasagna.

Bechamel Sauce
1. Melt the butter in a heavy bottomed, medium sized saucepan over medium heat.
2. Add the flour into the butter and whisk into the butter until smooth. Continue to cook the mixture (whisking constantly) until the butter/flour roux turns a light golden brown (about 5-6 minutes).
3. Begin by adding about 1/4 cup of the milk whisking constantly into the butter/flour roux is again smooth. Then add the remaining milk in three to four (or even five) equal portions, whisking until the sauce begins to thicken after each addition. 
4. Add the grated nutmeg, salt and pepper and allow the bechamel sauce to simmer (on low heat) for about 8-10 minutes. Taste and adjust for season. 
5. Allow to cool slightly before assembling the lasagna.
Note: If you add the milk too quickly your bechamel may not properly thicken.

Lasagna Assembly
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees (F).
2. In a deep dish 9"x12" pan, begin with a layer of the ragu, a sprinkling of the grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, a layer of pasta, a layer of bechamel, a layer of ragu, a sprinkling of the grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese....until all of the sauce and pasta are used up but ensuring the top layer is the pasta with the bechamel sauce over it.
3. Finish with a generous sprinkling of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
4. Bake 30-45 minutes or until the edges have browned and the lasagna is cooked through. Note: Cooking time will be longer if the lasagna was prepared and refrigerated the day before cooking.
5. Allow to rest 15-20 minutes before serving.

Notes: Assembling the entire dish the day before serving is a life-saver. Individual servings reheat beautifully in the oven or microwave for several days after it is has been baked (if it lasts that long).


Two early morning summer views of Lake Marmo at Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Cowboy Cookies Revisited


Growing up in the pre-zillion number of television channels and growing number of media broadcasting options era, I used to love watching westerns and western genre television shows. Of course, this would have been back in the black and white versus technicolor days aka the dark ages. From Big Valley to Bonanza to The Virginian to Rawhide, along with a smattering of others (and oh let's not forget Little House on the Prairie), I was completely mesmerized by the good versus evil western frontier stories. Today, my affinity for westerns is no longer satisfied watching only reruns from the 50s, 60s and 70s. In recent years, shows like Deadwood and Hell on Wheels, where the lines between good and evil have been blurred, have become some of my favorite guilty television watching pleasures. And whenever a new 'western' or period movie opens, I wouldn't exactly say I am the first in line to see it, but am definitely in the audience in the opening weekend. No longer are the story and characters the only focus of my attention. Now I am equally attentive to the cinematography, period clothing, and especially the set decoration. Although I am not big on watching the same movie again and again, films like "The Hateful Eight" and "The Revenant" are amongst the exceptions. In revisiting both old and new television shows and movies, my takeaways from them continue to evolve. Affirming my belief that 'old' eyes can continue to see and experience things differently. As Marcel Proust once wrote "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes".


Recently I came across another recipe for Cowboy Cookies, one made with toasted pecans, oatmeal, chocolate, cinnamon, and, yes, even coconut. It made me wonder if they would be as good as, or even better than, the Cowboy Cookies posted to the blog almost three years ago. Which, based on the relative short life of this blog, is a lifetime ago. I could speculate, even make an educated guess about them, based on what I think I know about cookies and cookie batter. Or I could make them. There was only one way to know for certain.


Unfortunately this incredibly delicious Cowboy Cookie doesn't have a rich, verifiable history to go along with it. How it got its' name is anyone's guess although two theories have been floating out there. Because of course everything we read on the internet is true (ha!) so keep this disclaimer in mind. The first is the cookies were hardy enough to survive the journey out west and second it was developed by some inventive Texas cowboys. Both sound plausible. If you happen to be from Texas, you might be tempted to be believe the later. This adapted version of the cookie can actually be attributed to a recipe Laura Bush shared during the Bush-Gore presidential campaign way back in 2000. Men ran for the presidency, their wives competed with cookie recipes. For the record, Laura Bush's cookie reigned over Tipper Gore's gingersnap recipe.


With most every cookie recipe I come across, something compels me to make a few minor adjustments. I didn't need more than four dozen cookies to make a decision as to whether I would like or even love them, so I made some changes to the ingredient amounts. In keeping with my belief (or to be honest, the rule) nuts should always be roasted/toasted before they are added to a dough, I made that little tweak. In the past year, I made the shift from chocolate chips to chopped chocolate when making cookies. From a visual and taste standpoint, this simple shift makes a significant difference. At the moment the Dark Belgium Chocolate Bars sold at Trader Joe's are my favorite.


These cookies come together in the same way a chocolate chip cookie does. Butter is creamed before the sugars are added, followed by the eggs and vanilla, then the dry ingredients, and finishing with all of the 'good stuff'. A standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment makes your cookie making life easier, but certainly a hand mixer would work. The dry ingredients do not need to be sifted. Whisking them together in a large bowl (with a balloon whisk if you have one, not to fret if you don't) is good enough.


Two of the best reasons to chill a cookie dough before baking them is your cookies are less likely to spread as the fat in the dough takes longer to melt and the sugar in the dough gradually absorbs the liquid. As a result your finished cookies will be both 'thicker' and 'moister'. Or have a more 'bakery' finish look to them. The dough can be chilled for as little as 30 minutes, but I prefer chilling them overnight. An ice cream scoop makes the cookie assembly and baking process easier as well the size and shape of the cookies more uniform. So rather than chill the bowl of cookie dough, I chill a tightly wrapped tray of the formed balls of dough.

The dough balls remained chilled in the refrigerator while each batch of cookies are baked. This way they all enter the oven the same way.

On a parchment paper lined baking sheet, the Cowboy Cookies are baked in a preheated 350 degree (F) oven for 14-15 minutes. When done, they will be beautiful brown color on the top and bottom but may look a little 'unfinished' in the center. Leaving the cookies on the hot sheet pan for 2-3 minutes after you remove them from oven helps to 'finish' the cookie. Transferring them to a cooling rack helps them come to room temperature. If you are not eating them right away (but of course you have to eat at least warm cookie), they store well in a covered container or sealed cellophane bag. You could even freeze them. A good idea especially if you want to use them to make ice cream sandwiches!


So what was the verdict? Were the Cowboy Cookies Revisited as good as or better than the other Cowboy Cookie recipe? I would definitely tip my hat to this "Revisited" version as I loved the flavor and texture combination of the toasted pecans, oatmeal, chopped dark chocolate, coconut, and cinnamon. Even if your friends and family are not big fans of coconut, they might end up being fans of this crispy on the outside chewy on the inside Cowboy Cookie as the coconut doesn't overpower but rather balances the cookie's sweetness. Seriously this is one great cookie. So great, in fact, it is almost impossible to eat just one in a single sitting. This isn't just conjecture or an opinion on my part. It is a proven theory.

Sometimes you need to revisit something in order to fully appreciate it. If you haven't ever had a Cowboy Cookie or had made ones different than the recipe posted here, I would strongly encourage you to give these a try. Think of them as a heartier, more satisfying version of a chocolate chip cookie. However, if I channeled my inner Victoria Barkley I would definitely not 'beat around the bush suggesting' you make them.

Recipe
Cowboy Cookies Revisited (adapted version of Laura Bush's Cowboy Cookie recipe shared in the New York Times)
Makes approximately 4 dozen cookies

Ingredients
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
2 large eggs, room temperature
2 teaspoon vanilla
11 ounces dark chocolate chopped (or 2 cups semisweet chocolate chips)
2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1 1/3 cups unsweetened flake coconut
1 1/3 cups pecans, roasted and chopped (To roast the pecans, bake for 8-9 minutes in a preheated 350 degree oven. Allow to cool before adding to the batter.)

Directions
1. In a medium sized bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, kosher salt and cinnamon. Set aside.
2. In a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream the butter until light and fluffy (approximately 2-3 minutes).
3. Add granulated and brown sugar and beat to combine thoroughly.
4. Beat in eggs one at a time. Then beat in vanilla.
5. On low speed mix in the dry ingredients until fully blended.
6. Using a spatula or wooden spoon stir in the chopped chocolate, chopped pecans, coconut and oatmeal.
7. Using a large ice cream scoop, form balls of dough and set on a baking tray. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
8. Preheat oven to 350 degrees (F). Line baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.
9. Bake cookies for 14-15 minutes until edges are lightly browned. Rotate baking sheets halfway through the baking process.
10. Remove cookies from oven and allow to sit on cookie sheet for 2-3 minutes before transferring them to a cooling rack. 
11. Cook to room temperature and store in a covered container.

Notes: I think chopped milk chocolate would also work well in these cookies. And lucky for all of us, Trader Joe's sells a large bar of Belgium Milk Chocolate, perfect for chopping and using in cookies. If you like your cookies on the crispy side, store them in the refrigerator.


White Rhododendron blooms and blossoms. 


Monday, June 20, 2016

Florentine-Style Peas


"Eat your peas!" For those of you whose aversion to peas was due in large part to being forced to eat those canned, soft, mushy peas, the ones eerily reminiscent of the jarred peas some of us were fed in our pea opinion-formative years, I can completely empathize. This emphatic plea heard at dinner tables around the country was usually accompanied by the words 'they are good for you'. Although no one happened to mention they were packed with Vitamin K, protein, full of fiber, had anti-inflammatory properties, and good for your heart. Many of us still shuddered at thought of having to eat 'those' peas. In spite of all of the health benefits of peas, more than likely my young, unworldly mind wouldn't have bought in to their whole health benefits thing anyway. Mostly because I couldn't get past how the canned version of peas tasted. Now, had I grown up in Italy my opinion and lust for peas would more than likely have been a completely different story.


There are eye-rolling peas (the canned version) and then there are eye-popping peas (Florentine-Style Peas). One look at a platter of these Florentine-Style Peas and your perception of peas begins to do a complete 180 degree flip. While you may feel compelled to passionately implore everyone sitting at your dinner table to 'eat these peas', just sit back and watch their faces when they taste them. It will be almost as good as seeing faces taking in the fireworks on the 4th of July. Better yet will be clearing the table of dishes free of even a single pea.


A side dish worthy of being placed in the center of the table, the combination of freshly shelled peas, the extra-virgin olive oil, pancetta, garlic, the sugar (the secret ingredient) and the delicious broth is what makes these peas extraordinarily delicious. In a single bite you will become deeply enamored with this savory dish. 

These Florentine-Style Peas would be a perfect side to a pasta dish, to a roast chicken, or to a grilled steak. In the spirit of 'less is more', don't serve these beautiful, flavorful peas if you are planning a meal with a hodge-podge of other sides. Because if there was ever a side dish worthy of taking center stage, it would be these Florentine-Style Peas. More than likely the words 'eat your peas' will never again need to be spoken at your dinner table.

Notes: The original recipe called for the use of freshly chopped flat leaf parsley. In spite of multiple visits to the grocery store, the parsley never made it into my cart. Thus it didn't make into these Florentine-Style Peas. Maybe the parsley further elevates the flavorfulness of this dish. I couldn't say. What I could say is that without the parsley it was insanely delicious. Dishes made with fresh seasonal ingredients always seem to taste better than ones with their frozen equivalents. While these Florentine-Style Peas can be made with high quality frozen peas, I would strongly encourage you to use freshly shelled peas the first time you make them. Sugar is the secret ingredient in these peas. I used caster sugar as it melts more quickly than granulated sugar. If you can't find caster sugar, used superfine sugar. And lastly, no matter what anyone tells you, there is no substitute for pancetta.

Recipe
Florentine-Style Peas (an ever so slight adaptation to Emiko Davies' Piselli all Fiorentina, Florentine-Style Peas as shared in her cookbook Florentine: The True Cuisine of Florence)

Ingredients
1/4 cup (4 Tablespoons) extra-virgin olive oil, divided
3 1/2 ounces thick slices of pancetta, cut into thin strips
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
3 1/3 cups (1 lb 2 oz) fresh, shelled peas (or good quality frozen peas)
1-2 teaspoons caster, superfine, or granulated sugar (Note: I used 2 teaspoons caster sugar)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 Tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley (optional)

Directions
1. In a large saucepan, gently heat 2 Tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil.
2. Add pancetta and garlic an cook over a low-heat for about 1-2 minutes.
3. Add peas, parsley (if using), and enough cold water to just reach the level of the peas (Note: Add water 1/2 cup at a time, making sure you don't add too much).
4. Season with a pinch of kosher salt and bring to a simmer. Cook until peas are tender (but not mushy) and garlic is cooked (approximately 8-10 minutes).
5. Add sugar, stirring until dissolved. Remove from heat.
6. Transfer peas and the majority of the broth to a large, deep platter. Drizzle peas with remaining extra-virgin olive oil and freshly ground black pepper.
7. Serve warm or at room temperature. Note: Peas are equally delicious reheated the next day.


Sakonnet Vineyards, Little Compton, Rhode Island



Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Caprese Salad


Summer's astronomical start doesn't officially arrive for another week, however, meteorologically it has already steamrolled in. If this midwestern 'heatmageddon' continues at its' current pace, it is going to be a very long, hot summer. Let the whining begin! Admittedly I am what you might call a heat wimptress. The little beads of sweat covering my nighttime face as I lay in bed in a room without a cross breeze in our un-air-conditioned house remains one of my still retrievable childhood memories. Somehow I managed to survive living in house where the fan was faced to the outside (supposedly to draw the heat out). Although the remains of my aversion to hot, humid weather is now reflected in my adult beet, or rather tomato red face. The visible battle scar from my days growing up in a 'hot' house.  

Summer's seasonal fruits, vegetables, and herbs are amongst my absolute favorites. One of the upsides of having to endure brutally hot and humid days is having access to the some of most incredibly flavorful bounty Mother Nature has to offer. High up on my list of summer food favorites are tomatoes.


If there was ever a dish requiring absolutely no culinary prowess, it would be a Caprese Salad. Essentially a four ingredient dish, if you don't count kosher salt and freshly ground pepper that is. However, if there was ever a salad requiring the best, freshest, ripest ingredients available, it would be, yes you guessed it, a Caprese Salad. SeriousEats wrote a great article on "How Not to F*ck Up a Caprese Salad". In case you don't want to or have the time to read the whole article, let me share with you the down and dirty short version of this great, wickedly entertaining, yet informative article. "Get the best damn tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil you can find, put 'em on a plate, sprinkle them with salt and pepper, drizzle them with the best damn olive oil and stop right there. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200, and step away from the balsamic vinegar." Yes, you read that correctly. No balsamic vinegar. Because this may cause your head to spin just a bit, I will let that thought sink in and come back to it later.


Depending on where you live, it may be one of those salads you can, or rather should be, making for only a couple months of the year. The Caprese Salads made in the summer or early fall tastes very different than the ones made in the winter or spring months. Unless, of course, you have a fondness for those mealy, tasteless, genetically engineered things sold in grocery stores or appearing on restaurant menus (falsely) labeled as tomatoes in the middle of the winter or in early spring. 

Whether you say to-may-to or to-ma-to, nothing comes close to the juicy, delicious, bursting with flavor taste of a freshly picked (from the farm or garden if you are lucky) ripe tomato. Or better yet, an heirloom tomato. Enduring the heat of the summer months just happens to be one the prices we need to pay in order to have access to ripe off the vine tomatoes. 

The tomatoes available at the Farmer's Market last weekend were absolutely, 'be still my heart' beautiful. For the Caprese Salad I planned to make for a dinner with friends, the combination of heirloom and some 'variety unknown' tomatoes would make it one of those best of both tomato worlds salads.


One of the larger Italian stores near my home sells some of the best homemade, fresh mozzarella. And at prices far less than some of the other grocery stores, especially the ones specializing in fresh, organic foods! If possible, look for the fresh mozzarella floating in its' brine solution versus the prepackaged wrapped 'fresh' mozzarella for a Caprese Salad to die for. The taste difference between the two types of fresh mozzarella is akin to the difference between a 30 degree and 90 degree day.


After the tomatoes and mozzarella, you need only two other 'freshest and bestest' you can find ingredients: basil and extra-virgin olive oil. Depending on how often you use basil, grow as much of it as you possibly can! One can never have too much basil growing in one's garden. 


To tear or to cut? That is the basil question. Some will say there is more flavor when you tear the basil (due to the release of its oil). Others will say a steel knife will cause some oxidation to the basil, thus affecting the coloring. But the cut-tear approach may be more about preference than exact science (especially if you use a plastic knife to cut the basil). So just do what feels right for you.


The Caprese Salad calls for thicker slices (about one-half inch) of tomatoes as well as the mozzarella. My mozzarella slices are generally cut a tad thinner than the tomato slices.


How many times have you ordered a Caprese Salad in a restaurant having at least, if not more, than a drizzle of balsamic vinegar on it? Hint: They probably are not making it with the best and/or freshest tomatoes and mozzarella available. Well, contrary to a widely held mis-conception in the United States. a genuine Italian Caprese Salad is not served with any vinegar. It is simply dressed with a high quality extra-virgin olive oil and the juices from the tomatoes. Anything more will mask the flavor of the tomatoes and mozzarella. If, for any reason you or your friends/family happen to like balsamic vinegar with your Caprese Salad, well, serve it on the side. But don't tell anyone I told you that. I do not want the Caprese Salad purists to come looking for me.


After mint mojitos and some appetizers, this Caprese Salad was the prelude to a meal of Lasagna Bolognese and Florentine Style Peas (both upcoming blog posts). And in keeping with an Italian themed meal, it ended with Honey and Pistachio Panna Cotta. If there was ever a dinner menu to both tantalize and satisfy one's visual and taste senses, this would be it. Whether or not I serve this meal again over the course next several months, I will definitely be making this Caprese Salad as often as possible. And always with the Balsamic vinegar, the one my sister brought me back from Italy, on the side.

Recipe
Caprese Salad
Serves 4 to 5

Ingredients
4-5 large ripe heirloom or vine ripened tomatoes, cut into half inch slices
3 six ounce balls of fresh mozzarella, cut into slightly less than half inch slices
10-12 basil leaves
Extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Optional to serve on the side: A good quality balsamic vinegar

Directions
1. Alternately layer tomatoes and mozzarella on large serving platter.
2. Sprinkle with kosher salt and pepper.
3. Generously drizzle extra-virgin olive oil over tomatoes and mozzarella.
4. Top with torn and/or cut slices of fresh basil.
5. Serve immediately.

Over the river and through the woods. Wilbour Woods, Little Compton, RI. Calm, cascading, and rippling water images.