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Monday, August 10, 2009

Summer On A Plate


You know the song...
"You say tomato, and I say tomah-to".
Well, any way you want to say it -- I loooooove tomatoes.

My inner tomato glutton is completely satisfied with the move here to California, where the season stretches out for a satisfyingly long stretch. With most of August and September still ahead, I have a smile on my face of Cheshire cat proportions, just contemplating all the lovely tomatoes that are in my future.

With the focus of a true tomato junkie -- I headed for the farmers market first thing this past Saturday morning. A bright, sunny day (what?! August? In San Francisco? Impossible, yet true...) and the market was buzzing. With laser-like precision, I homed in on a makeshift corner of the market created by a stand with two sections -- one devoted almost entirely to tomatoes. Jackpot! A beautiful medley of Green Zebras, Brandywines, yellow tomatoes, Early Girls and who knows what else was mine! I also picked up a little basket of gorgeous tiny, Sungold cherry tomatoes the most gorgeous color of orange and the very essence of sunshine.

Next stop -- Lucca Ravioli in the Mission for some fresh mozzarella, good bread and... (you know it)...a couple slices of Serrano.

Could we call this my version of a Caprese Salad? I suppose. The Caprese, in my opinion, should be scrupulously avoided in most restaurants. I've seen too many sad, unappetizing plates tasteless cheese and under ripe plum tomatoes in recent years, to ever consider ordering it anywhere. But here's where your own gathering of perfect ingredients makes all the difference. (Kind of how I feel about Chicken Caesar salads too, but that's another story.)
But, then too, there are all sorts of funny "rules" in Italian cooking..."never add cheese to seafood", etc...so I'm sure I'm breaking some kind of rule with my choices here, and some elderly nonna from Capri would fall over in a faint if she saw that I add balsamic vinegar.
So be it.

There really isn't much else to say. The most perfect, basic ingredients yield something sublime to be enjoyed on a warm summer afternoon.
Buon appetito.

My "Caprese-style" Salad
serves 2 (umm, or one, serious tomato lover)

5 to 6 heirloom-type tomatoes (the more varied the colors, the prettier the salad), plus a handful of cherry tomatoes
1 large ball of fresh mozzarella, or buratta
handful of fresh basil leaves, torn into small pieces
handful of fresh chives, chopped
your very best extra-virgin olive oil
your very best balsamic vinegar
sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
Several thin slices of Serrano ham
a crusty Italian loaf of bread to soak up the juices

1. Slice up your tomatoes however you like -- even the little cherry tomatoes should be split in half. The juice from the tomatoes mixes beautifully with the olive oil and vinegar to create a heavenly sauce at the bottom of the plate, just meant to be mopped up with bread.

2. Slice the cheese in thin disks.

3. Layer alternating slices of tomato and cheese, and scatter the small cherry tomatoes all around the plate.

4. Scatter the basil leaves and chopped chives all over the tomatoes and cheese.

5. Sprinkle with crunchy/coarse sea salt and freshly ground pepper.

6. Drizzle with olive oil and balsamic.

7. Drape the slices of Serrano however you like - I like to put them around the edges of the platter.

Dig in and taste the sunshine.
And don't forget to use your bread to mop up the delicious juices at the end.