Hello and welcome to the first installment of a food-related monthly column called “Toothsome,” where we chat about cooking, recipes, techniques and, well … kitchen-y things.
We are cruising through August and it seems impossible that fall is right around the corner! I hope everyone is safe and well. My lot are, fortunately, and I am so grateful.
Earlier this month, our little town got effectively clobbered by Tropical Storm Isaias. Trees down everywhere, roads blocked, detours forcing us to take four extra left turns only to find yet another tree barricading that route, no power, and for many neighbors, no water, for days. It was a doozie on its own, but it hit during a challenging pandemic, as well as my very own “endemic” of an extremely slow kitchen renovation. As I write this, our kitchen consists of a floor, a hanging light bulb and a door propped across a sawhorse for a prep surface — that’s all. I’ve been plugging in a hot plate as needed.
So, by the time the storm had cleared and the drone of distant chainsaws began filling the summer air in our neighborhood, I was feeling a bit deflated, a lot overwhelmed and very anxiously wondering along with everyone else, “What next for crying out loud!?!”
Now, when such a trifecta of nervous energy plagues me, and in an attempt to answer that inexorable, ever-looming question of, “What’s for dinner?” asked by no fewer than three family members daily, I typically take refuge in my kitchen. But what used to be a functioning workhorse of a room in our house has lately been reduced to a darkened and silent cave-like configuration — a makeshift camp, all made even more grim by the power outage.
Cooking is my zone, my lane. It’s what I’d always rather be doing. But, alas, what could possibly be accomplished in this, my favorite room on the planet, now with no electricity? Well, it turns out, quite a bit!
A search and rescue mission inside our hotter-by-the-minute fridge (temporarily relocated to the even hotter garage) to save anything at all, yielded four russet potatoes, a still-cool tub of sour cream, a room-temp stick of butter, and the hidden gem in the wayback of the crisper: half a ball of buffalo mozzarella. I had stopped at Carmody’s farm stand the day before the storm for a few super-ripe tomatoes and, moreover, the basil growing all around our back garden felt like a veritable “score!”
We fired up the gas grill to “bake” the potatoes, no foil required — just slapped them onto the grate — which took about an hour. They were tasty for sure, and their fluffy buttery-ness was certainly appreciated by all four of us, but the real magic was the Caprese salad that manifested in mere seconds while the grill worked away on the spuds.
I grew up in the South, and until moving up to New England with my own family nearly 20 years ago, I had never even heard of this dish from the heavens. Imagine! Since that time, however, it has been a summer-into-early-autumn staple in our house. A culinary stalwart of the warm months. And how could it not be?
No cooking required! Which brings me neatly to my point and inspiration for this article: power-outage-proof!
Added to its visual beauty that so endearingly celebrates the colors of the Italian flag, this is a poem of a salad, and is so completely “riffable,” the versions (or verses) seem endless. A couple weeks back, we had the good fortune and privilege of dinner at Millwright’s Restaurant in Simsbury, to celebrate our daughter’s high school graduation (which after four cancellations finally took place. Sort of.) The version of Caprese that chef-owner Tyler Anderson (who happened to be in the kitchen this particular night) rolled out, knocked the entire family’s socks off in a single bite. Pressed melon (Does anyone reading know how to make this mind-blowing deliciousness at home? Please share?!!) was added between layers of sliced red and yellow heirloom tomatoes and torn basil. While there was no mozzarella tossed in, there was a dreamy, almost hypnotic, tzatziki sauce drizzled over top. We were, in a word, besotted.
Recently, I “Caprese-ified” figs, to the delight and utter astonishment of a very skeptical 20-year-old son. A layer of quartered up figs, a layer of tomatoes, a sprinkle of salt and basil, a glug of olive oil. Repeat. Several times. I’ve now moved to native nectarines — same drill.
All this leaves me asking, “What can’t be made into Caprese?” OK, a lot of things, but still.
Caprese = Love, and all you need are four ingredients (plus salt), tossed together in your ratio of preference. I like a lot of basil and a little mozzarella, a lot of tomatoes and/or figs, and/or nectarines, and an unbashful glug of olive oil. Plenty of kosher salt. I don’t mean to over-sell this song of a savory-sweet summer salad, but how could anyone blame me? It is perfection on a plate, and by virtue of its simplicity, fail-safe and goof-proof.
I would be delighted to hear about your favorite additions to, and versions of, this beloved classic to share with our readers. Send your comments to Fernieb.firstname.lastname@example.org. In the meantime, I’m off to buy a cantaloupe because: pressed melon!
Keep well, and keep cooking.