My dad was a foodie long before the word even existed. He always loved cooking new things – risotto, fresh pasta, pizza from scratch, smoked turkey on Thanksgiving. I wish I could say that I appreciated all of his gastronomical endeavors when I was a kid, but in the realm of his nightly salads, this was not the case.
My dad often made caprese salads in the summer: a bed of lettuce topped with slabs of tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper, which he would serve at the end of the meal, in true Italian fashion. I would eat the cheese and even the tomatoes, but the greens always felt like punishment, something to endure in order to be allowed a bowl of ice cream afterward.
One evening, inspiration struck, and I asked if I could eat my salad outside on the deck that overlooked the garden. My dad agreed. I sneaked around the corner and out of sight, launched the lettuce over the side of the deck, loitered around for a bit, then returned to the kitchen with an empty plate, thanking my dad overzealously for the delicious salad. It worked like a charm.
I don't know if my dad ever got wise to my lettuce-chucking ways, but he reads this blog, so now he knows the truth. (Dad, I'm sorry for all the lettuce I wasted.) Unfortunately, Jay has similar salad force-feeding tendencies. We don't have a deck, and Jay would be deeply suspicious if I ever took my salad up to the roof (especially now - he reads this blog, too). So I'm forced to chew my way through giant bowls of leafy greens almost every day. Jay would be happy eating a mammoth salad for every meal – he even ordered one for dessert once – but I'm more particular. I prefer salad only when the weather is very warm, which, luckily for me, isn't that often here in San Francisco.
During last week's heatwave, though, I couldn't get the idea for this strawberry caprese out of my head. I decided to compose it on a bed of greens, as an ode to my dad's caprese in hopes of making up for my past lettuce-wasting ways. Our co-op has been stocking the loveliest baby lettuce heads lately, which I washed and arranged on plates with sliced strawberries, torn basil leaves, small mozzarella balls called bocconcini, and toasted sliced almonds. Balsamic has a way of dulling bright colors, staining pristine mozzarella, and pooling on the plate. I took a cue from Lily and reduced it, with a bit of honey, to a thick syrup before drizzling it over the layers of loveliness along with good olive oil, flaky salt and black pepper.
I often dismissed strawberries in salad as being gimmicky, but I will never make that mistake again. Here they not only stand in for tomatoes, they might actually trump them with their sweetness and tang. Strawberries and balsamic get on famously, the vinegar adding depth to the sweet fruit, and the reduced form, kissed with honey, is even more intense. The anise flavor of the basil seems to heighten the sweetness of the berries and balsamic reduction, anchoring it in the savoy realm along with black pepper, spicy olive oil and salty cheese. Crisp, cool lettuce leaves manage to taste like a treat, and the toasted almonds add an unexpected, earthy crunch; though I bet pine nuts would make a nice stand-in. Creamy mozzarella makes a soothing contrast to the brash balsamic; though feta or goat cheese could be good, too. All in all, it is a delightful contrast of flavors and textures, one that makes you want to close your eyes and focus on nothing else but the spring garden party going on in your mouth.
The quality of each ingredient is what makes this salad sparkle, so get the best of everything you can find. This recipe serves two as a light meal, or four as an appetizer. Heck, you could even serve it for dessert, what with the berries, nuts and honey.
In any case, this is one salad that I would never throw off the deck.
One year ago:
Two years ago:
Three years ago:
Strawberry Caprese Salad
Adapted from Erin Gleeson
The balsamic reduction makes enough for 3 or 4 rounds of this salad. Store it in a jar at room temperature. The reduction will stain everything with its deep brown hue, so the instructions here are for a composed salad, with the dressing components drizzled over the top. If looks aren't an issue, feel free to make this as a tossed salad by combining all the ingredients in a large bowl, drizzling in the olive oil, balsamic reduction, salt and pepper, and tossing with your hands until everything is well-coated. As I mentioned above, I think pine nuts could stand in for the almonds, and feta or goat cheese for the mozzarella. Measurements here are loose, so add the components according to your taste and what looks good on the plates.
Makes 2 light-meal-sized salads, or 4 smaller appetizers
For the balsamic reduction:
2 tablespoons (1 1/4 ounces) honey
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
For the salads:
2 baby lettuce heads (4-5" long), or 3-4 cups gently packed baby greens
1 cup small strawberries, hulled and halved or quartered
6-8 ounces bocconcini (small mozzarella balls) in water, drained and halved
a large handful of basil leaves, torn if large
3-4 tablespoons toasted sliced almonds
1 tablespoon super good olive oil
flaky salt (such as Maldon)
freshly ground black pepper
Make the balsamic reduction:
Combine the honey and balsamic vinegar in a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium-low heat. Simmer gently, swirling occasionally, until the mixture is bubbling thickly and reduced by about a third, 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and cool completely.
Assemble the salads:
Divide the lettuces between two medium plates. Top with the strawberries, bocconcini, basil, and almonds. Drizzle each with 1 1/2 teaspoons olive oil, 1 1/2 teaspoons of the balsamic reduction, and scatter a big pinch of flaky salt over the top. Top with a bit of freshly ground black pepper. (Or, if you prefer, toss everything together in a large bowl, then divide it among plates or bowls.) Serve immediately.