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The Best Salad of Summer

August 4, 2014

There is nothing special about corn. It’s everywhere. And I mean, everywhere. It’s in your soda. It’s in your cereal. It’s in your beef. It is in your cheese. Science has made it immune to some of the most potent herbicides known to man. These days, corn would seem to be the building block of food in general.

But to anyone who has had an ear of sweet corn that’s been planted in rich soil, grown with care, and ripened by the summer sun, you know exactly how special corn can be. Just a quick soak in hot water to cook out a bit of the rawness, and it doesn’t even need to be slathered with butter and salt.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t feel free to gild this lilly with churned cream and some crunchy flakes from Île de Ré.

It’s easy to forget how great seasonal produce can be when it becomes a ubiquitous part of our surroundings. And that extends to the dishes made from seasonal produce. Salad greens should be outlawed in upstate New York for most of the year. Yet people demand their side of shriveled lettuces.

There is one other thing that’s on menus all year long.

Caprese salads are simple things. They are made from tomatoes, mozzarella, basil and olive oil. The challenge with simple things is that to make them delicious, every single ingredient has to be amazing.

Sure, one could always defile this dish with a “balsamic glaze” and achieve a level of sweetness that should already exist in ripe, heirloom tomatoes. The lightness of this salad is often ruined by a dense mozzarella. Technically, this should be made with Buffalo mozzarella, made from the milk of Italian water buffalos. Basil leaves need to be both tender and aromatic. Good olive oil can offer a pepperiness of its own which can spare these other immaculate ingredients from being sprinkled with hard black specks.

Yes, you can get Buffalo mozzarella all year long, but it’s best in the summer when the animals are being fed on pasture. Coincidentally, that’s exactly when tomatoes and basil are in season. It doesn’t take a genius to put them all together with a great quality olive oil.

But how many restaurants that pay lip service to this salad in November do justice to it in August? It’s hard to tell. Bland olive oil, industrially produced cheese, tough basil, and commercial tomatoes can doom the dish to mediocrity.

It’s good to see at least one place getting it right. Surely there are others, but this is the one I happened to stumble upon last night.

The time is now people. Caprese salads are a fleeting thing. Well, at least the ones worth eating won’t be around for long. Get out there and enjoy this taste of summer, and maybe you’ll remember why these things became a year-round fixture of every Italian menu in the first place.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Dave permalink
    August 4, 2014 2:14 pm

    Salad greens should be outlawed for most of the year in Upstate NY? Why? Are you talking about a specific “salad green”? Most lettuces/greens are good cool weather crops. A lot of salad greens will actually bolt in the heat of July/August. You can grow good greens from April/May-ish right up to the first frost (early October-ish). You can get away with stuff like kales and spinaches in surprisingly cold weather.

    I would say you can get acceptable “salad greens” of one sort or another for half of the year or more. You just need a good source or to grow them yourself.

    But I do agree that really good tomatoes grown locally have a fleetingly short window of optimal tastiness.

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