Alarm bells were ringing in my head the other day. – tomatoes were taking over my kitchen! I had a bowl of bright red beefsteaks from my CSA farm share on the counter; my cherry tomato plants had “given birth” to dozens of grape-sized balls ripening on my windowsill; and, of course, I couldn’t resist scooping up handfuls of orange, yellow and purple heirlooms tantalizingly displayed in the local Saturday morning farmers’ market and presently sitting in a large plastic bag on my kitchen table. So now that I had this smorgasbord, what exactly was I going to do with it all?
Thankfully, I was invited to an empty nesters party over Labor Day weekend. An empty nesters party you may ask? Yes, we had just dropped my younger son, Spencer, off at the University of Delaware and three other couples we are friendly with had done the same with the youngest in their broods. We decided we should get together, whether it was to celebrate or commiserate, or a little of both. (I do have to point out that technically we are not empty nesters as my older son, Sam, just graduated from college and has moved back in with us for now.
Back to the tomatoes. I had cut out a recipe for Caprese salad from the July 20 Wednesday Food Section of The New York Times. Now it was going to come to my rescue. But, why save a recipe for Caprese salad? Isn’t it just tomatoes and mozzarella? So say the purists. But as this recipe proves, there’s room for a few welcome additions, making it more of an antipasto. And the accompanying Times photo showed just how beautiful it could look — complete with green and black olives, roasted yellow and red bell peppers, prosciutto, and green and purple basil.
The important thing here is everything should be as fresh as possible. I don’t want to hear back that you purchased your rubbery, bland mozzarella from the supermarket. Splurge and buy it fresh from your local Italian deli or gourmet store. And also, serve it at room temperature so it has a nice creamy texture that almost melts in your mouth. While you’re at the deli, pick up an assortment of good quality olives and some thinly sliced prosciutto de Parma (Yes, it’s worth buying the imported prosciutto).
As for the red and yellow bell peppers, I suggest getting them from a farmers’ market or the organic section of your supermarket. Even better, pick them from your own garden if available. Whatever you do, please, just don’t buy them in a bottle, I beg of you. I have to admit, this was the first time I had ever blackened my peppers under the broiler. I was more than a little worried that I would burn them, and I didn’t have any extras to spare. However, my fears proved unfounded, and it turned out to be an easy task. I just placed the peppers under the broiler and turned them with tongs a few times to get their skins thoroughly blackened and blistered.
Then I put the peppers in a brown bag, ensuring that their skins would easily separate and slip off once cooled. Finally, I cut off their tops, deseeded/deveined them, and sliced them into thin strips. The end result was a smoky, sweet roasted pepper that tasted incredible.
The next part made me feel like an artist, only my palette was full of colorful foods instead of paints. I pulled out a large round glass plate from the inner recesses of my dining room cupboard. First, I filled the center of the plate with thinly sliced, creamy white mozzarella. Then I cut the larger tomatoes into rounds, the medium ones into quarters, and the cherries into halves, then encircled the mozzarella with them and the olives. Next, I draped the prosciutto around the outside and tucked in some green and purple basil leaves. The final touch was sprinkling the plate with kosher salt and drizzling on extra-virgin olive oil and a tiny bit of reduced balsamic vinegar (I like the Balmí brand), which has a bright, sweet taste. If you want to make the reduced balsamic yourself, heat the vinegar in a skillet until it boils, then simmer until it gets syrupy (will be cut into a quarter of the original volume).