Truly excellent tomatoes are a rare thing, indeed. Your average grocery store tomato is a sad ghost of a proud garden tomato. I have had several tomato encounters that have stopped me in my place, elicited a moan of joy and understanding, and bonded me to the pursuit of great tomatoes. That’s not to say that I am a connoisseur. My status is more like the great Supreme Court quote about racy pictures, “I know it when I see it.”¹ Or, rather, I know it when I taste it. But, truly excellent tomato needs nothing, save perhaps a sprinkle of salt. But, insalata caprese is a good and simple further adornment of fine tomatoes. Simple but high quality additions of mozzarella, garden fresh basil, olive oil, and a fine balsamic vinegar don’t so much elevate the tomato as they are fitting orchestra mates. In sum, they create a bite to be appreciated. They create a bite to be experienced more than a bite of mere sustenance.
So this is really nothing more than insalata caprese. It is an antipasti more than a salad, actually. I found a container of mixed grape and cherry tomatoes at Whole Foods and couldn’t walk past them because, frankly, they were pretty and I wanted to play with them, and photograph them, and make a dish around them. An old college friend from SMU, Heather Conklin, sent me a note saying, “I bought those too!” So I know that if I’m crazy I’m in excellent company. I still have a few drops of an incredible Balsamic vinegar of which I used about 12 drops for the entire dish. With a great vinegar, that is enough. But this was a gift from the maker, and you need not purchase anything this grand. However, I would encourage you to treat yourself to something more special than the Balsamics that are on the shelf at the grocery store. This is just one of those things. If you want to know what excellent balsamic is, you do not need to pay a fortune…but you must seek it out from a fine foods store and taste for yourself.²
But, I have made one addition here with which you might not be familiar. I added sliced Coppa. Coppa, also called Capocolla, is a cured meat that comes from the neck or collar of the pig. It is a cured whole piece of meat that is thinly sliced. It is a fine salumi. This is opposed to salami which is a chopped meats mixed with fats and cured. So, as I stated in my Fig, Salami & Stilton post, all salami is salumi but not all salumi is salami. Got it? But this was a great discovery for me, because as I ate a slice of this delicious meat, I instantly remembered having eaten it in Italy some 20 years ago on a little post-college jaunt. I had it then and loved it, but had no idea what it was nor what its name was. I never came across the same thing again but clearly it had made an impression on me. In an instant, last week, it all came back to me. I also found this Coppa at Whole Foods. It is an Applegate Organic and Natural Meats product. I wish I understood all of this better. But I really do not like Prosciutto all that much. But, I love Coppa.
I also found the cheese at Whole Foods and it was Crave Brothers “pearl size” Mozzarella. I bought it because it was cute and matched the tomatoes. Fortunately, it was also very good. So much for sounding knowledgeable.
I make dishes like this on “pick and choose” nights which I guess is my Texas version of an antipasti course. We have a plate of sliced fruit and warm bread with good butter and honey. It makes for an easy and delightful dinner on these nights that are still quite hot.
12 ounces mixed grape and cherry tomatoes
8 ounces “pearl” balls of mozzarella cheese
3 ounces Coppa, thinly sliced
fresh basil leaves
1 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon fine Balsamic vinegar
a pinch of kosher or chunky sea salt
Rinse the tomatoes and slice any large ones. Place the tomatoes, cheese, and sliced Coppa on a platter surrounded by basil leaves. Place torn basil leaves on top of the other ingredients. You can vary the amounts of each component of this dish according to your taste. It is entirely up to you. Drizzle with olive oil and a few drops of fine balsamic vinegar. Season with sea salt or Kosher salt.
¹ Justice Potter Stewart concurring in Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964) stated about obscenity with regard to a French film called Les Emants or The Lovers, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But, I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.” I’m not here trying to bore you with the law, but this is just one of those cases that every person who has ever stepped foot into a law school knows…kind of like the hairy hand case and the case of the good ships Peerless. But “I know it when I see it” has become short hand for knowing something that is somewhat indescribable.
² The lovely vinegar I used here is called Traditional Aceto Balsamico of Monticello. It is organic and thick and lovely. But I also like Aceto Balsamico of Modena which you can get at Sur La Table. And, if you live in Dallas, Artizone will deliver a number of fine vinegars and olive oils from Flavors from Afar.