Classic Italian preparation can be used across the menu
Caprese: This term means different things to many different people. But pizza people know that this magnificent combination of mozzarella, tomato and basil is special in so many ways. For me, it’s a giant 5 a.m. creation every summer Saturday morning.
This is the time I clear the 12-foot makeline and grab the six-inch ciabatta buns that have cooled. Lined up and cut with my sharp serrated knife, I open them like 40 bread butterflies. I then bring large trays of Amish grown German Pink tomatoes, fresh cut fior di latte mozzarella and bundles of fresh basil and start stuffing like a car assembly line. Once finished, I take a large box of extra virgin olive oil and let the stream blast all the way down the line right before showering them with coarse sea salt. These are my ciabatta sandwiches and they are a great bargain for my customers. In return, I will sell all 40 of them in an hour.
Caprese gets its name of salad in the style of Capri, which is located between the Gulf of Naples and North of the Tyrrhenian Sea. This salad is popular in the hot summer with the buffalo mozzarella so popular in Campania paired with fresh basil and tomato.
There are many ways a restaurateur can take advantage of this phenomenal flavor profile because it pairs perfectly with wheat in all its forms –– like on a pizza Margherita or tossed in giant bowl of pasta. In this modern age, chefs are veering off the traditional Caprese path and into exciting new variations by manipulating the style, texture and fabrication of these three ingredients.
There are a few variations on the Caprese theme. One of the most prevalent is the manipulation of the tomato, such as:
- Oven drying. Thick-fleshed tomatoes baked low and slow at 225 F for a few hours is a sure way to concentrate flavors. If you cut the tomato core out before drying, the tomato takes on a visually stunning petal when the skin is removed. Place these petals on a plate around small Ciliegine (or cherry sized) mozzarella and ribbons of fresh basil for a beautiful Caprese “flower.”
- Shocking or blanching summer cherry tomatoes is simpler than it sounds. First, cut an “X” in the bottom of each tomato. Immerse in boiling water for less than one minute and then throw into another bowl of ice water. The “X” will curl up the skin and be easy to pull off. These tomatoes are perfect for a toss in extra virgin olive oil or tomato water.
- Inside out is an awesome “outside the box” preparation for the tomato interior. I select giant, ripe Cherokee Purple, Yellow Stipey or Beefheart tomatoes that have a large seed sack inside. Cut in half and gently cut the middle out with a hooked paring knife. These can be gently macerated in extra virgin olive oil, one cut garlic clove and ripped leaves of basil for two hours. By trimming the ends flat, you can lay this up like tomato caviar on a plate of sliced mozzarella and more fresh basil for real “tomato caviar.”
Sometimes just cutting fresh mozzarella slices can be boring. Here are ways you can pounce on your competitors with a little bit of playful mozza craziness:
- Mozzarella fettuccine: We love doing this for cold passed hors d’oeuvres if you make your own fresh mozzarella. Simply heat and meld the mozzarella curd until cheese occurs and then place the still malleable mozzarella on a cold stainless steel table, cover with plastic wrap and flatten with a rolling pin. Place in an ice-cold water bowl to cool. Take out and trim. Oil and roll up and cut with a sharp knife or on a ciatarra (Italian pasta cutter). The thin pasta strips can be tossed with diced tomato and basil chiffonade.
- Diced mozzarella Caprese with avocado. This is a real stunner. By dicing mozzarella, tomatoes and avocado into half-inch cubes, you can place the pieces like a Rubik’s Cube on a plate and drizzle with basil pesto and extra virgin olive oil with sea salt.
Fried Caprese Nuggets
This recipe is from an OMG moment I had at Trattoria la Casetta in Brisighella, Italy. It is very simple but can easily be made if your pizzeria has a deep fryer.
John Gutekanst owns Avalanche Pizza in Athens, Ohio, and has a pizza blog called Pizza Goon. He is an award-winning pizzaiolo, baker, teacher, speaker and author.