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The Mystery of The Albany Caprese

August 11, 2016

This blog is a reflection of my life. It is. That’s just how it works. I have experiences with food out in the world, those spark ideas, and then things rattle around in my head until I can get to my keyboard and expunge them.

Except of course for the ideas that just fade away. One of these days I’ll have more discipline to write down some of the more interesting thoughts that emerge from energetic conversation about food with people.

But because I’ve been spending more and more time with the Yelp gig, a lot of my current thoughts revolve around those activities. If I’m finding the blog to be a little too Yelp-centric these days, I have to imagine that other people have felt the same way too.

And it’s not like I don’t have other ideas floating around. I’m sitting on a story about two mayonnaise alternatives. Obviously, I’ll have to come up with a better hook for that piece, but it’s coming.

However, today’s rant is another Yelp-inspired tale, and it’s all about the dreaded Caprese salad.

Fundamentally, there is nothing wrong with the Caprese salad. It’s perhaps one of the world’s most glorious dishes. Brilliant in its simplicity. Sliced tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, basil, olive oil, and salt. Some might say black pepper. I’d disagree. But we don’t have to split hairs on that one point.

A cheesemonger in the Bay Area once told me that the most remarkable thing about this dish is that everything in it, including the cheese, shares the same peak season. Yes, cheese has a season as well. Apparently, the summer grasses make the buffalo mozzarella its very best.

There’s one problem with a dish that’s this simple. There is nowhere for inferior ingredients to hide.

The only way the Caprese works is when every single component of the dish is working its hardest. And that’s why I say you don’t need any black pepper, because you should get all the peppery bite you need from the exceptional olive oil you use to punctuate the dish.

But here in Albany, the quality of the oil is a tertiary concern at most because far too many restaurants still have a Caprese salad on the menu all. year. long.

Last night I just turned some Roxbury CSA tomatoes into a bread salad. They were quite good. However, even these local August tomatoes were still not Caprese level good. I’m hopeful to find some even better ones down on the farm in Pennsylvania next week.

The fact that restaurants continue to sell a Caprese salad in the depths of an upstate winter led me to believe that people in the Capital Region must love this dish. They must go gaga for it. They must enjoy it so much that they demand it’s continued presence on the menu.

It’s the only sensible reason to drag this great dish’s noble name through the mud for most of the year. At least as far as I can see.

So I thought it would be easy to find raves about this dish on Yelp. But you know what I got instead? Crickets.

Seriously. Silence.

My hope had been to find a few good local examples of this classic combination, so that when tomato season hits in earnest, people could venture forth and try a version that’s worthy of its name.

But nada. Nothing. The best I could come up with on Yelp was a picture of the tomato and mozzarella salad that’s served at Cafe Capriccio. And they use a third of the real estate on the plate for arugula. Sure, the restaurant grows its own tomatoes, which is admirable indeed. However, tomatoes, mozzarella, and arugula isn’t a Caprese salad. It’s just not.

So what gives? Did I miss something? Surely someone in the Capital Region making a Caprese salad in summer that’s worthy of the name.

And maybe it’s a lost cause. Perhaps there is such burnout from poor out-of-season Caprese salads that people have lost their love for the real thing. And maybe its presence on the menu is simply a dying vestige of the past.

I have no idea. Any thoughts?

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Daniel Naylor permalink
    August 11, 2016 10:39 am

    The Friday night cookouts at The Cheese Traveler have an excellent Caprese Salad as a staple on their menu.

  2. August 11, 2016 11:09 am

    the only Caprese salad that I found worthy of eating was in Chicago about 20 yrs ago at a tiny hole in the wall eatery that two Italian sisters opened in Uptown. They would travel from Indiana every day to make exquisite meals using their garden produce.

    This was before chefs had so much fame for cooking with fresh ingredients. They were like magical visions; appearing in uptown next to a BBQ rib place.

    They made their cheese themselves and grew the tomatoes and basil in their back yards. Id never had Caprese salad til then and the thing I thought was so interesting was that it was always served at room temp- so all the flavors were came out.

    It was divine!!

    Now I live on my farm in Mid Missouri raising geese and chickens.

    So the only way I would get this again is if I make it all myself. Otherwise mozzarella is a stick and its breaded and deep fried and served with Ranch dressing, tomatoes are eaten on sandwiches and basil is something dried in a spice bottle :-(

    *Im so homesick for good food!

  3. August 11, 2016 1:04 pm

    I think the reason there is no comment on the restaurant quality of Caprese Salads is that in the summer if you have a garden, you make them yourself. It’s simple and FAR, FAR better than any Caprese Salad out there. If it’s winter and you know ANYTHING about tomatoes you avoid them like the plague. People who may not know about tomatoes, eat and order and don’t think much about how they are really supposed to taste.

  4. -R. permalink
    August 11, 2016 1:56 pm

    ^^^^ Cheryl has the correct and only answer, IMO. I only eat tomatoes for three months out of the year, without exception. You only have the latter half of June through the beginning of September for tomatoes here in the frigid northeast, with the weather gods smiling upon you. And yes, the best tomatoes come from one’s own garden. I don’t use chemicals, and washing/rinsing or over-handling a tomato fresh from the garden reduces or eradicates a very particular flavor element from a fresh tomato. You know that element when it’s present, and miss it when it’s not there. Of course, if you don’t grow your own you’re likely to have never experienced that particular flavor (you rarely run across it in restaurants, especially here in the US).

  5. EPT permalink
    August 12, 2016 7:48 am

    Cheryl and -R. have said it all. The Summer is when you do this salad, when tomatoes are at their best. I would NEVER order this in a restaurant, it’s just not going to be quality. This year I’m having a great crop of tomatoes, both cherry and regular. Where you get the mozzarella is a personal choice. Basil, I grow along with fig trees.

    BTW, your invite to the tour is appreciated but right now I’m not into consuming large quantities of food, especially if it’s raining. OTOH if you would like to partake in some fresh figs, usually goat cheese covered figs with chopped toasted pine nuts wrapped in fig leaves and grilled, let me know as the figs look like they’re going to ripen early this year.

  6. Kerosena permalink
    August 12, 2016 10:19 am

    I think 20-25 years ago when it started appearing on Albany menus it seemed SO chic. Like a real NYC kind of dish. Over the years it’s become a sort of lazy shorthand for the diner and the restaurant. It’s on the old guard menus and it never occurred to anyone to take it off.

    Shibboleth – an old idea, opinion, or saying that is commonly believed and repeated but that may be seen as old-fashioned or untrue

  7. August 12, 2016 5:09 pm

    We have caprese salad on the menu to highlight fresh, local tomatoes and basil and either the organic, farmhouse mozzarella di bufala that we get imported from Salerno, Italy or a domestic burrata. It is a way for us to bring attention to mozz di bufala, which many in our community do not know about. We feature the olive oils that we sell in the shop. This week for the Friday Night Cookout we are making it with Maplebrook Burrata, green zebras or brandywine tomatoes and Paniole olive oil, an organic oil made by a Brunello di Montalcino producer in Tuscany. We also add a light touch of La Vecchia Dispensa “12 year” vinegar.

    Prior to tomato season we serve mozz di buffala in a dessert course option with fresh strawberries, fresh mint, and an even denser (more aged) vinegar or mostocotto.

    Bottom line: with these ingredients, it’s still one of the best, most satisfying way to pay homage to a great cheese and enjoy super fresh, seasonal ingredients and fine oils and vinegar.

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