refining the caprese salad

It's no secret that I love to cook. Not only it is often good for the budget, it also feels tremendously therapeutic. One of my favorite combos is to making a caprese salad and then eat it on my fire escape while I people watch. Hands down a magnificent evening for one. I say "for one"... because fundamentally my fire escape cannot accommodate more than just me given how many plants I have.

I used to get this amazing caprese salad from a place in the North End. Only one guy could make it so well... and it was just filled with mozzarella, tomatoes, balsamic ... and prosciutto. Seriously heavenly. I don't get it anymore because of a few reasons of which one is that I moved to the other side of the neighborhood so it's too far of a walk. But mostly if we are being honest, it's because the price went up from "$5 for a pretty girl" to anywhere between $8 and $12.

Since then I've really been on the quest to figure out the magic of that salad - and I think I finally have. To be transparent, I really think its just a matter of quality ingredients and mixing (not drizzling) with olive oil. If the mozzarella is $3 and from the supermarket.... that just won't work either.

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to get paid for my love of cooking ... and show off my caprese skills. I catered my first party in the South End. Despite my anxiety over green beans, it was a strong success and ended in a round of applause. Seriously, I've never been so concerned about whether to slice or dice tomatoes... and how to trim green beans. The menu was:

  • steak cooked according to America's Test Kitchen directions
  • potato salad (from the host)
  • caprese salad
  • green beans with slivered almonds and crispy shallots
Here's how it goes.

Caprese Salad
Since there really is no specific directions for this, it is probably best to just give some hints for success. Once you have all your ingredients prepped and ready, it's a case of assembly.

  • mozzarella should be fresh. I will buy cheap mozzarella too - but not for a caprese salad. The less moisture there is in the ball, the less you will like it in the salad. This is why the "low fat" mozzarella from the refrigerator section at the store will be disappointing. Full fat or bust, folks.
  • Just dice it. Yes, even slices of mozzarella and tomato are pretty but I don't think it's worth it. Just dice everything. Plus, this way you can really mix everything well with olive oil.
  • prosciutto should be thinly sliced and imported. Domestic prosciutto is cheaper and fine... but if you are trying to knock someone's socks off, get the imported one and get it thin.
  • when assembling, mix the tomato and mozzarella first and then season with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Don't be afraid to use your hands. I really think it's the best way to actually get some emulsification from the olive oil... and that's the magic. Then add in the capers. Then top with the torn prosciutto and thin shreds of basil.
  • proportions are kind of critical but not precise. I can understand this is frustrating but nobody is mad when there is extra prosciutto, capers, or basil. They will be disappointed if there isn't enough mozzarella.

Shopping List (for 15 people)
3 balls of mozzarella
11 bright red tomatoes
handful of basil
1/3 cup of capers
olive oil
salt and pepper
1/4 lb of prosciutto

Green Beans with slivered almonds and crispy shallots
I had sent over a handful of "green" suggestions to the host and she chose this one. I was initially thinking this would be super easy - and while it was - I spent more time on it because I wanted to be sure the green beans had that crunch and crisp they are known for. Green beans will rarely be a "wow" part of the plate but these did their job with few leftovers. Calling it a win.

Step 1 - Bring a pot of water to a boil and salt it. Fill a good size bowl with cold water and lots of ice cubes and keep a strainer handy. Trim the beans to your taste. For me, this was just cutting off any brown spots and the ends.
Step 2 - Add the green beans to the boiling water and cook until they just start to get tender but remain quite crunchy. Since I left my beans whole, I went with 4-5 minutes.
Step 3 - Drain the beans and immediately plunge them into the ice water. Let them sit for a minute to cool thoroughly, then pull them to a separate plate.
Step 4 - Put the oil and butter in a large skillet over medium heat. When the butter melts, add the shallots and cook, stirring once or twice, until they're golden brown and crisp, 5 to 10 minutes. Transfer the shallots to a plate lined with paper towels.
Step 5 - Add the green beans to the skillet, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the beans are crisp and tender. Again, I went with 3-5 minutes here.
Step 6 - To serve the beans, just sprinkle the shallots and almonds on top. While the original recipe called for these to be served hot/warm, we did room temperature to keep things easy. Totally fine.
Hint - You can do steps 1-3 the night before to keep party day easy. I did steps 4-5 about 3 hours before eating and step 6 right before serving. Sounds more complicated than it is!

Shopping List (for 4-5 people)1 1/2 pounds green beans
olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
2 medium shallots, thinly sliced
salt and pepper
1/4 cup sliced almonds

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