The simplicity of the Caprese salad (insalata Caprese) is what Chef Lance Cook, CEC, CCA, executive chef at Hammock Dunes Club in Palm Coast, Florida, likes most about it. A hallmark of Italian cuisine, the dish “is a celebration of the season and locality.” Chef Cook says. Legend has it that the salad’s origins date back to post-World War I Italy, when a patriotic cook wanted to showcase the colors of the country’s flag in a dish. It first appeared on a restaurant menu at the Hotel Quisisana in the early 1920s, but it was only in the 1950s when the salad was turned into a sandwich that its popularity peaked and it became a staple in Capri. The addition of other ingredients, including Balsamic vinegar, and the switch to bufala (buffalo) mozzarella came in later years.
For a modern spin on the Caprese, Chef Cook introduces some of the gastronomy techniques he picked up during his time throughout his career and years ago at the Culinary Institute of America as part of the “Experimental Kitchen” curriculum. For the dish, Chef Cook still starts off with freshly made mozzarella (from curd), but instead of slicing it, forms it into an airy balloon, which can be filled with anything from tomato aspic to foams and garlic-infused air, but in this case, stayed hollow. He then swaps liquid caviar pearls for the Balsamic vinegar to add texture and turns lemon oil into a powder for a little pop of flavor and color. For the basil, instead of a chiffonade, he adds micro basil leaves as well as a pesto-pignoli component. He also uses baby heirloom tomatoes, such as banana leg, San Marzano and green zebra, and adds some charred onions for a little smokiness. “Although I love the simplicity of the Classic Caprese, I believe it could be better with a different eye appeal, utilizing produce that incorporates various colors while accenting the freshness of the tomatoes and giving it a modern-day spin,” says Chef Cook.
Classic Caprese Salad:
- 1 each beefsteak tomato
- 1 each ovoline, buffalo mozzarella
- 3 each fresh basil leaves
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- Kosher salt, to taste
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Select the best vine-ripened tomatoes you can find. Slice the tomatoes in about 1/4-inch to 1/2-inch slices. Do the same with the mozzarella cheese. Chiffonade fresh basil leaves. Arrange on the plate as desired. Season with kosher salt and pure ground black pepper. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. Finish with the basil chiffonade. Serves 2-4.
Modern Caprese Salad:
For the balsamic caviar (pearls):
- 2/3 cup balsamic vinegar
- 1 1/2 tablespoon honey
- 2 grams agar agar
- 1 gallon canola oil (chilled to 37 degrees)
Bring vinegar and honey to a simmer (180°F). Add agar and stir until incorporated. Cook at 190°F to 200°F for one minute. Remove from heat. Allow to cool for a couple minutes. Place in squeeze bottle with fine tip. Make droplets of vinegar mixture into the chilled canola oil. As the mixture hits the canola oil surface it begins to set, dropping to the bottom and becoming completely set. Continue to make droplets into the canola oil until vinegar mixture is gone. Pour canola and balsamic caviar through a strainer or chinois. Rinse caviar with cold water to remove excess oil. Use as needed. Reserve canola oil for another use.
For the baby heirloom tomatoes:
Place in fryer basket. Dip into 350°F fryer for 5 to 8 seconds. Remove from oil and allow the air to hit the tomato for about 10 seconds. Place tomatoes back into the oil until skin blisters off (about 3 seconds). Remove, peel, chill, season, plate.
For the Meyer lemon dust:
- 3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 each Meyer lemons, zest only (no pith)
Combine all in heavy bottom sauce pot over medium heat. Bring oil to 150 degrees for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand for 3 hours (or until room temp). Strain.
Place 1 pint maltodextrin in food processor. Stream in room temp infused oil until malto is light and fluffy. Season with kosher salt and pure ground white pepper. Reserve for plating.
For the basil pesto:
- 1 cup basil, fresh (stems removed)
- 1 T pine nuts, toasted
- 1 each garlic, clove, large
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- ¼ cup parmesan, grated
Combine basil, pine nuts and garlic in food processor and process until minced. Stream in oil while processor is running; process until smooth. Add cheese and season with kosher salt and pure ground pepper. Set aside.
For the mozzarella:
- 2 pounds mozzarella cheese curd, cut into small pieces, room temp
- 1 gallon water (180°F degrees)
- 1/2 cup kosher salt
Place cut curd into bowl. In a large saucepot, bring water to 180°F degrees with the addition of the salt. Gently ladle the hot water around the curd by pouring the hot water into the side of the bowl and allowing it to pool around the curd. Add enough water to cover the curd. Let it sit for 1 minute. Work the curd with 2 wooden spoons by lifting and stretching, until smooth and elastic. Remove a piece of the stretched curd for the balloon. Stretch out piece of curd and place over syringe or ISI canister nozzle. Incorporate air to blow up the curd balloon. Twist the bottom to stop air from escaping. Trim, season and plate.