Eating a ripe, juicy tomato in summer is a delight. Sometimes that's all you need to appreciate it.
Echoing the colors of the Italian flag, a Caprese salad is often presented as an alternating sequence of basil, mozzarella and tomato. Simple, right?
That's the beauty of it. When you're looking for a few ways to set yours apart from the pack of what everyone else will be serving at their cookouts, try these tips:
Use the best tomatoes
"I love it so much at this time of year when we have really good tomatoes," says cookbook author and Italian food expert Domenica Marchetti.
They should be ripe, fragrant and juicy. Marchetti likes heirloom tomatoes, which are bursting with flavor.
With their vibrant colors and interesting, bumpy shape, they look cool when sliced and layered.
Grape or cherry tomatoes (a mix of whole and cut, combined with small balls of mozzarella) are excellent in summer, too. I find they're the safest best when you're trying to put something together outside of peak season.
Even the best tomatoes can benefit from salting, though. Sprinkle cut or chopped tomatoes with salt and let them sit for about 10 minutes before proceeding.
This flavors the tomatoes and draws out some moisture, which you can discard for the sliced salad arrangement or use when you're going the chopped-in-a-bowl route.
Look for a moist mozzarella
The dry, shrink-wrapped mozzarella on the supermarket's dairy aisle certainly has its place. I often prefer it for pizza-making because it doesn't release as much liquid all over the pie.
In Caprese, though, you want the cheese to be soft — often labeled as fresh mozzarella and packed in liquid.
You can drain fresh slices for a few minutes on a clean dish towel if you don't want the liquid pooling.
Famed Italian cookbook author Marcella Hazan appreciated the benefits of fresh mozzarella and how its milky whey would mix with the tomato juice and vinegar to form a sort of dressing perfect for dipping bread.
She favored buffalo mozzarella, although as Arthur Schwartz points out in "Naples at Table: Cooking in Campania," in Capri — the Italian island after which the salad is named — the favored cheese is cow's-milk mozzarella, or fior di latte. Either one works great.
Grab a good extra-virgin olive oil
With so few raw ingredients in play, oil that is old or bitter will be noticeable. Be sure to use an oil that tastes good to you. Marchetti prefers using a variety with a grassy undertone because of the way it complements the flavors in the salad.
Add other seasonings to your taste
A traditional take would be seasoned with nothing more than salt and pepper. "Even adding vinegar is already corrupting it," says Marchetti, who at the same time admits to sometimes drizzling her Caprese with balsamic. You would probably not find it done in Capri or Naples, however, Schwartz writes.
But, hey, it's your salad. There are no Caprese Food Police.
Even Hazan suggests red wine vinegar in the "Capri-Style" salad she shared from her husband, Victor, in her book "Marcella Cucina."
You could also experiment with a flavored olive oil. A bit of smoked olive oil mixed with regular extra-virgin olive oil really made one of our variations sing.
A colorful and flavorful basil oil, in addition to or instead of fresh herbs, is a nice touch.
Mix in seasonal produce
This is a departure from the Italian standard, but Marchetti likes ripe peaches or nectarines in a Caprese salad. Chunks of watermelon would be right at home with chopped tomatoes and hand-torn mozzarella.
Don't make in advance
Caprese is at its best soon after it's prepared.
You do want your mozzarella to be at room temperature, so give it a little time on the counter while you prep the other ingredients.