The most famous use of fresh, high-quality mozzarella in the U.S. is in a tomato salad from Capri called, appropriately, Insalata Caprese; you just alternate slices of the star ingredients, drizzle with olive oil, garnish with basil, and you are good to go. To me, however, the crunch of a raw tomato slice doesn’t play all that well with the milky, velvety chew of great fresh mozz made that day. Over the years, I’ve developed my own take on this salad…..substituting roasted red pepper for tomato. See if you don’t agree that it’s an upgrade.
4 large red bell peppers, about 8-10 oz. each
½ teaspoon salt
2 large garlic cloves, peeled and very finely minced
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 large balls of fresh, unsalted mozzarella (only the freshest and best will do))
torn basil leaves for garnish
To make the salad:
1. Start 24 hours before serving. Place the peppers over a hot fire–either on your BBQ grill, or directly on the jets of a gas cooktop. Cook each side of the whole peppers, including tops and bottoms, turning frequently, until the peppers are charred completely black on all sides. Immediately place the peppers in a large paper or plastic bag, and close the bag tightly. Let rest for 20-30 minutes.
2. Working with your hands, slide off the charred skin from the peppers. Discard the skin. Do not wash the peppers with water! It is much, much better to have a little char remaining on the red, skinless flesh than to wash away the sugars and oils.
3. Cut up the peppers, working quickly. Remove the stems by cutting across the tops of the peppers, trying to leave as little flesh attached to the stems as possible. Discard stems. Now cut the peppers the long way, from top to bottom, dividing each pepper into three “filets.” Trim away the ribs inside each filet, removing the whiter, starchier parts. You should now have 12 fairly smooth, evenly sized pepper filets.
4. Place the still-warm filets in a bowl just large enough to contain them. Sprinkle with salt and garlic, mixing well. Pour on the olive oil, and mix well again. Cover very tightly with plastic wrap, and let sit at room temperature for 24 hours. When ready to serve, there should be about 1/2 cup red pepper juice in the bottom of the bowl.
5. To prepare the salad, slice the mozzarella balls into 12 roughly even slices altogether. Pick up a pepper filet, and shake its juices back into its bowl. Place the filet at one end of a long platter. Top with a mozzarella slice, partially covering the pepper slice. Salt the mozzarella slice to taste. Continue building this interlocking line of slices, making sure to shake off the pepper juice with each new pepper slice, and making sure to salt the mozzarella slices, until you have 12 slices of pepper and 12 slices of mozzarella overlapping each other.
6. Whisk the pepper juices remaining in the bowl for 20 seconds, then pour juices over and around the cheese and pepper slices on the platter. Top with lots of fresh, hand-torn basil leaves. Serve immediately.
Makes 6 appetizer servings.
David Rosengarten is a travel writer, cookbook author and TV journalist who has hosted or co-hosted approximately 2,500 shows on the Food Network. A frequent guest on NBC’s Today show, David has written about food and wine for a wide array of publications and travels frequently throughout the U.S., Europe, Latin America and Asia, writing and lecturing on various culinary subjects Currently, David is the editor-in-chief of The Rosengarten Report, which received the James Beard Award in 2003 for the best food and wine newsletter in the country.
Recipes by Rosengarten is a recurring bi-weekly feature on www.winemag.com.