Market to Table

LAST OF THE SUMMER SALADS

Insalata Caprese

As we head into autumn while hoping for another glorious Indian summer-like fall, it’s one last chance to taste the rich, ripeness of fresh local tomatoes in three quite different salads—Caprese, village and kitchen salads.

I’ve been enjoying tomato salads all summer and been too lazy to write about them, but an article in The Guardian, which is normally too left wing for me to even contemplate reading, asks: ‘Is Caprese a classic that’s impossible to get wrong, or a recipe for disaster at the hands of creative cooks?’ It then goes on  to list a whole bunch of things people put in the simple salad from the island of Capri, such as quinoa, strawberries or even, heaven’s above, kale.

Nigel Slater, my favourite food writer, who toils for The Observer when he’s not writing his entertaining series of heavy volumes The Kitchen Diaries, says it best: ‘Almost nothing is required of the cook – this salad stands or falls on the quality of the provisions.’

Michelin starred chef and restaurateur Angela Hartnett writes: ‘While Caprese appears on menus everywhere, very few places make it well. If you’ve only got cheap, rubbery mozzarella and watery, chilled tomatoes, you should probably make something else instead.’ Hartnett should know. She has Italian grandparents.

New York chef J. Kenji López-Alt is the chief culinary consultant at Serious Eats and author of the James Beard Award–nominated book The Food Lab, in which he unravels the science of home cooking. He says: ‘It’s so damn near-perfect already, where is there to go with it? A good Caprese salad is a culinary endpoint. Like a Neapolitan pizza or a good old American hamburger, it’s a dish that’s so well conceived, so balanced, so downright delicious in its most common incarnation, that to improve upon it by changing its basic form or structure is simply impossible.’

At my favourite shopping spot, Toronto’s historic St. Lawrence Market, I shop early before the tourists arrive. At Urban Fresh Produce, where Anthony and Luis rule over bounteous displays of organic veggies, I pick out vine ripened field tomatoes, bright red and bursting with flavour. At Chris Cheesemongers, where friendly Geoff and Alex are always ready with knowledgeable advice, I buy perfect ripe bocconcini, egg-sized mozzarella, semi-soft, white and rindless unripened mild cheeses which originated in Naples. Bocconcini means small mouthfuls and sliced thickly they are better than a big mozzarella, although the latter can be torn into chunks effectively. In my own garden I harvest fresh basil leaves. How difficult can this be?

But Hartnett is determined to make it more complicated. Writing in her book Cucina: ‘…the quality of the tomatoes in the UK is often pretty poor, so we roast the tomatoes in order to concentrate the flavour.’ Adding a very generous amount of sugar, plus some thyme and garlic, she slow-roasts them for two hours, until they’re sweet enough to eat like candy. I might try this in winter when all we can get is tasteless imported tomatoes, but for now it seems a step too far.

Slater wraps it up for me: ‘While good olive oil is important, it is the ripeness and flavour of the tomatoes and the quality of the mozzarella that matter most. Use the largest basil leaves you can find. The larger they grow, the more peppery and aromatic they will be. They should, legend has it, be torn gently into pieces by hand, not shredded with a knife, as this will breed scorpions.’

Resist the temptation to add tomatoes of other colours: the simple green, white and red reflects the colours of il Tricolore, the Italian flag.

INSALATA CAPRESE

Shopping list

  • 4—6 large ripe red tomatoes, thinly sliced
  • 4—6 bocconcini mozzarella cheese balls, thickly sliced or torn
  • Large handful of fresh basil leaves, about 24, torn
  • EVOO (extra virgin olive oil)
  • Balsamic vinegar (optional)
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preparation

  1. Make sure the tomatoes are well ripened. If necessary store them overnight in a brown paper bag, which will force them. Never refrigerate tomatoes! Thinly slice them and put them in a colander and sprinkle generously with salt. The salt will pull out some of the moisture and intensify the flavour. Allow them to drain for 30 mins. Then arrange on individual plates.
  2. Thickly slice the bocconcini balls, or tear if using larger mozzarella. Add on top of the sliced tomatoes.
  3. Wash and rinse the basil, removing any protruding stalks. Tear roughly and dump a good portion on each plate. Then simply add a generous pour of EVOO. If you like, decorate with some dots of thick balsamic vinegar around the plate. Serves 4 to 6.

* * *

Horiatiki on The Danforth

Along Toronto’s Danforth Avenue, where a murderer stalked a few Sundays ago, but where peace has now returned, we often go for a fix of Greek food at any of a number of favourite restaurants. A Greek salad is an obvious choice as a starter, but I prefer the so-called village salad, which omits the less authentic lettuce filler, but otherwise is essentially the same. The proper village salad contains tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, peppers, olives, olive oil, Feta cheese and oregano.

In some restaurants, the ingredients are laid out simply like the Caprese, and in others they are chopped and tossed together. It all tastes the same, so the presentation is a matter of personal choice. For now I’ll stick with the simple.

HORIATIKI, GREEK VILLAGE SALAD

Shopping list

  • 4—6 large, ripe tomatoes, rinsed and cut into wedges
  • 1 English cucumber, washed and thickly sliced
  • 1 green bell pepper, washed and chopped
  • 1 medium sweet red or Videlia onion, thinly sliced
  • 4 TBSP Greek EVOO
  • 4—6 small slabs of authentic sheep and goat’s milk feta cheese
  • 12 Kalamata black olives
  • sea salt and ground black pepper to taste
  • 2 tsp fresh or dried Greek oregano

Preparation

  1. Wash and chop the tomatoes and put in a colander. Sprinkle with salt and allow to drain for 30 mins. This will intensify the flavour. Wash the cucumber, leave the skin on, or peel off stripes of skin and chop into bite size pieces. Put in a bowl. Wash and clean out the pepper. Chop into chunks. Peel the onion and chop into chunks. Add both to the bowl. Drizzle on the EVOO and toss well.  Shake excess salt off the drained tomatoes and plate. Add spoonfuls of the cucumber, pepper, onion mixture.
  2. Cut the square slabs of feta into triangles and lay two on each plate atop the salads.
  3. Drizzle on more olive oil if needed. Sprinkle on some dried or fresh chopped oregano.
  4. Garnish with a handful of black olives (pit them first if you wish to save on dental bills!) Serves 4 to 6.

* * *

Finally, I’ve been asked what I put in my own kitchen salad. The short answer is: ‘Whatever I have in the kitchen.’ But some readers find that a less than helpful answer, so to conclude this trio of summer salads, I’ll simply list the ingredients in my last effort. Add or subtract as your kitchen and personal preferences allow.

NIGEL’S KITCHEN SALAD

Shopping list

  • Romaine lettuce, washed and chopped
  • Boston lettuce, washed and torn
  • Fresh mint leaves (from the garden), washed and torn
  • English cucumber, peeled, halved and seeds scooped out, then chopped
  • Grape tomatoes, halved
  • Chives, chopped
  • Avocado pear, peeled and sliced

Left overs

  • Caramelised onions
  • Beets, cooked, cooled and chopped
  • Bacon, broiled until crisp, cooled and crumbled

Dressing

  • 1/3rd cup red wine or balsamic vinegar
  • 2/3rd cup EVOO
  • 1 TBSP Dijon mustard
  • Sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

Preparation and cooking

  1. Prep all the cooked ingredients and leave time for them to cool. This can easily be done the day before, or you can use left overs from other meals. Be sure to wrap well in the fridge.
  2. Boil the raw beets for a good hour. Remove them from the pot with a slotted spoon and as soon as they are cool enough to handle without burning yourself, top and tail and quarter them. Slip the skins off. You will find they come off quite easily. Set aside to cool.
  3. Preheat the oven to 205°C/400°F and prepare a baking tray by lining it with aluminum foil. Lay the bacon rashers evenly on the trays, but not touching, and slot into the oven. Add about ¼ cup of cold water to the tray, just enough to cover the bottom of the pan. As the water steams off, it stops the fat splattering and keeps the oven clean. Bake for 15 to 20 mins, until browned and crisp. Set aside and when cool, crumble.
  4. Preheat the oven to 220°C/425°F. Peel the onions and cut into wedges. Toss in a bowl with 1 ½ tsp EVOO, a pinch of salt and a grind of black pepper and spread out on a baking sheet. Roast in the oven for 20 to 25 mins until soft and golden and crispy in parts. Set aside to cool and then pull apart into bite size chunks.
  5. Wash and chop or tear up the fresh ingredients, except for the avocado. Put them in a bowl.
  6. Make the vinaigrette dressing by whisking all the ingredients together to make a homogenized mix. Pour it over the ingredients in the bowl and leave for half an hour, covered, in the fridge for the flavours to permeate.
  7. Last, cut the avocado in half, thunk the knife into the pit and give it a half twist to loosen it. Discard. Cut the halves in half again and you will find the quarters very easy to peel. Discard any soft or brown bits. Slice into more pieces or serve as is, depending on the size of the pear.
  8. Assemble on individual serving plates. Using kitchen tongs, lift a good helping of the fresh marinated ingredients onto a salad plate. Top with sliced beets, avocado slices and caramelised onion chunks. Garnish with a good grind of black pepper and bacon bits. Serves 4 to 6.

Featured image: Greek village salad photographed in Nigel’s garden. Hand painted plate bought in Oxford.

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