Saturday, May 21, 2011

0 Recipe #266: Insalata Caprese con Finocchio e Olive (Caprisian Salad with Fennel & Olives)

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Insalata caprese, as you might be able to tell from its namesake, is originally from the island of Capri, located in the Campania region of Italy. Traditional-style insalata caprese consists merely of tomato and fresh mozzarella slices, (usually stacked in an alternating fashion), which have been seasoned with a little salt and pepper and garnished with lots of fresh basil leaves.

As many of you are no doubt already aware, the American version of this dish often calls for balsamic vinaigrette. For some unknown reason, many chefs are prone to using way too much balsamic vinegar in their preparations of this dish and the effect is bitey and completely overpowering. (Who knows, maybe it's because they aren't tasting their own food before it leaves their kitchen. ;) ) So, if you're going to do the balsamic thing, take it easy. You can always add more later, but adding to much is going to make it flat-out inedible. ;)

Of course, the purist form of the dish in its original unadorned incarnation provides a much more delicate flavor than the American version, allowing the basic ingredients themselves to shine through. The salt and pepper really help to bring out the flavor of the other ingredients, and frankly, there are times when simple is the way to go. However, if you've had enough of the original Italian version &/or the mouth-puckeringly tart American version (LOL), and are looking for a dish with a bit more excitement as well as flavor complexity and depth, then try this version instead. :-D

I believe that if an acidic component is going to be added to this dish, it should be much milder, i.e., serving as an accent versus a gigantic mallet that beats a person over the head. ;) This is why, in my own version of insalata caprese, which is completely different from either the American or the traditional Italian versions, I've used a combination of freshly squeezed lemon juice and apple cider vinegar, which, unlike balsamic vinegar or distilled white or red (wine) vinegar, is a bit more subtle.

My own twist on insalata caprese is anything but traditional, and turns this dish on its head in a new and unexpected way. Nonetheless, all of the flavors meld together flawlessly. You'd have thought they were always supposed to be combined in such a fashion. :-D

This dish contains some of my favorite ingredients. The fennel and cucumbers, in particular, are cool and crisp and complement the other ingredients marvelously, giving the salad a wonderfully refreshing taste. The multiply layers of flavor work together seamlessly and add enough interest and complexity without overdoing it. Plus, all of its bright and cheery colors are pleasing to the eye; and more importantly, its taste is pleasing to the stomach. ;) It's definitely an enhancement of the original template.

Also, aside from being an original creation, I think it's also a unique one, as I've not seen anyone else create a dish like this before. :) I love it dabbling and diving into the unknown, creating one-of-a-kind dishes that've never been done before. It's really satisfying to find out you're the first one to think of something truly original. :) And with each original dish I create comes a newly acquired piece of knowledge. Regardless of one's level of expertise or experience, I believe that a chef should always be creating, exploring, and learning new things. It's sort of like being a "culinary pioneer." :-D It's rather fun and exciting stuff!

Serve this dish as a first course (like the Italians do, i.e., as an antipasto), a side dish, or even as a main course. If you do decide to serve it as an entrée, just add some crusty/rustic Italian sourdough bread et le voilà, you've got a complete meal. :)

And the best thing about this dish? It's tremendously quick and easy to make, because there's no cooking required! It's just basically chopping up vegetables & letting it marinate. Nothing to it! :-D

This salad is especially cool and refreshing on a hot and humid day, especially when you're feeling bludgeoned by the heat, and just want to make a quick, no-brainer dinner. :) And with the rather toasty temperatures we've been having lately here in DC, it's the perfect thing to serve. As one of my friends aptly put it, there's "no need for an oven on a hot night." Good point. And tonight's hot weather certainly called for something light and revitalizing. :)


Insalata Caprese con Finocchio e Olive (Caprisian Salad with Fennel & Olives)

Salad Ingredients:
1 c. fennel (bulb only), diced crosswise into 1" long pieces (about 1/2 fennel bulb)
2 c. ripe grape tomatoes, halved (1 dry pint)
1/2 c. cucumber, unpeeled, scored with a fork lengthwise, sliced crosswise into 1/4" thick rounds, and then quartered (about 1/4 large cucumber)
1/2 c. red onion, halved & thinly sliced into crescent slivers (about 1/2 small red onion)
1 c. fresh, whole "ciliegine" (i.e., "cherry-sized") mozarella balls, drained (8 oz. container packed in water)
1/2 c. Kalamata olives, pitted and halved lengthwise
1 Tbsp. capers, soaked in 1/4 c. water for 10 minutes and then drained
1/2 c. fresh basil leaves, julienned & densely packed

Ciliegine mozarella balls can be found
in most general supermarkets. (Ciliegine
means "little cherries" in Italian.)
Vinaigrette Ingredients:
3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
4 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar
1/8 tsp. Dijon mustard
1/2 Tbsp. fresh garlic, peeled & finely minced
1/4 tsp. dried oregano leaves
1/4 tsp. dried thyme leaves
1/4 tsp. dried marjoram leaves
1/4 tsp. coarsely ground black pepper

Directions: Pour all vinaigrette ingredients in a blender (or a food processor fitted with a metal blade) and pulse until emulsified. Pour into a glass dressing bottle (or creut) with a tightly sealed lid and shake vigorously to combine. Place diced fennel into a large bowl, pour dressing on top, and toss together. Then cover bowl and place into the refrigerator, allowing the fennel to marinate for at least a half hour. When ready, remove bowl from the refrigerator. Add remaining salad ingredients, except for the basil, which will become soggy and limp if added too soon. Toss, cover, and then return to refrigerator once more. Refrigerate for at least an hour in order for the flavors to meld. Add basil just before serving and toss together. Serve and enjoy!

Yield: Makes about 2 qts. (If served with a chunk or two of Italian sourdough bread, that works out to be approximately 6-8 servings as an appetizer or side dish, or about 4-6 servings as a main course.)

Chef's Notes: It's really crucial to marinate the fennel separately, as this helps it to lose its strong licorice overtones, and instead transform into a much more complementary flavor with respect to the other salad ingredients. If you marinate everything together, the dressing will be spread too thin and the fennel won't be able to adequately soak up the dressing. So, this is why the fennel should be marinated by itself first. :)

Also, it's really important to choose high quality olive oil for this recipe. Since you won't be cooking with it, the flavor of the olive oil will be a lot more noticeable. :) So don't skimp; this is not the time to cut corners. The olive oil you chose should have a pronounced flavor. This is why extra virgin olive oil is the perfect choice. For this particular dish, I used high-quality Spanish olive oil, which is now being imported to other countries like Italy, which is typically known for its olive oil. (In fact, Spain now produces over 50% of the world's olive oil.) So, in other words, you know it's got to be the good stuff. :) If any of you are curious to check out the exact type of olive oil I used, it's the picudo variety of Aceiterapia's olive oil. This type of olive oil has a marked olive flavor. It's slightly spicy and nutty-tasting with a little bit of bite. These flavors are balanced out by its smooth and buttery finish, and so, it goes well with pastas, seafood (especially mild, white fleshed fish), and salads like insalata caprese. :-D

This dish doesn't need any additional salt; there's already enough salt in the capers, olives, and mozzarella. :)

To make this dish vegan, simply substitute imitation cheese (like soy cheese, etc.) for the mozzarella, or omit the mozzarella altogether.

Alternate Preparation Ideas: This recipe could easily be converted into a cold pasta salad recipe. Just add small pasta shapes like elbow macaroni, penne, trotolle, farfalle (bowtie pasta), rotini, cavatelli, conchiglie (shells), etc.

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