Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Caprese Sandwich

I've been waiting all year for fresh local tomatoes so I could enjoy what has become my absolute, number one favorite sandwich, the caprese. Based on the insalata caprese from the Campania region of Italy, the caprese sandwich is the ultimate example of how a few high quality ingredients can be combined simply to make something truly fantastic. All you need to make this amazing sandwich is a good loaf of crusty, chewy Italian style bread, some tomatoes, fresh mozzarella (preferably mozzarella di bufala), fresh basil leaves, extra virgin olive oil, and some salt and fresh ground pepper.

The key to this sandwich is making sure that you use the best possible ingredients, and that means waiting all year long until the end of summer when you can get the freshest, most delicious tomatoes at the peak of their season. Don't even think about trying to make this with bland, mealy, refrigerated supermarket tomatoes in the middle of winter, you'll regret it. Plus, that extra long wait makes the sandwich that much more special when you finally do have one, and the good thing is, we are in the peak of the tomato season right now! As soon as you're done reading this, I suggest you go get yourself some. Pair the sandwich with a simple salad and a glass of wine and you've got an amazingly light, refreshing, and incredibly tasty summer meal.

Start with a good loaf of crusty bread, like rustic bread, and cut it in half lengthwise. Ciabatta also works nicely for this sandwich. You don't want to use a narrow loaf here, like a baguette, choose something that is at least 4 to 5 inches wide.

Wash and slice the tomatoes into 1/4 inch thick slices. Slice the mozzarella as well.

Pick some fresh basil leaves off of their stems, rinse and dry them. Get out your best extra virgin olive oil.

Generously drizzle the olive oil over both halves of the bread. Layer the mozzarella slightly overlapping and completely covering one half of the loaf.

Layer the tomatoes over the mozzarella, and sprinkle generously with salt and fresh ground black pepper. Top the tomatoes with a layer of basil leaves.

Top the sandwich with the other half of the bread, slice carefully into pieces, and enjoy!


Caprese Sandwich
15 minutes - Serves 2 to 4 as a meal depending on appetite
  • One large loaf of crusty bread (not baguette, something wider)
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • about 4 medium size balls of fresh mozzarella, sliced into 1/8 to 1/4 inch slices
  • 2 large, ripe tomatoes (whichever variety you prefer), rinsed and sliced into 1/4 inch slices
  • 10 to 20 leaves of fresh basil, stemmed, rinsed and dried
  • kosher salt (1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon)
  • fresh ground black pepper (about 1/4 teaspoon)
  1. Slice the bread in half lengthwise
  2. Generously drizzle olive oil over both halves of the bread
  3. Layer one side of the bread with the mozzarella slices, slightly overlapping and completely covering the bread
  4. Layer the tomatoes over the mozzarella
  5. Sprinkle salt and pepper over the tomatoes, add more or less to taste
  6. Top the tomatoes with a layer of basil
  7. Place the other half of the bread on top, press down slightly and carefully slice the sandwich into as few as 2 or as many as 8 slices (and smaller and it's hard to slice/eat without the sandwich falling apart)

Friday, August 22, 2008

"The Sauce"

A little over a year ago, my good friend Sal, whom I jokingly refer to as "the most Italian person I know," fondly described to me a yearly activity in which his family used to partake. Every year at the end of the summer, the family would gather together for a weekend, and while the children ran around and played till exhaustion in the August heat, the adults would take perfectly ripe red plum tomatoes and turn them into enough tomato sauce to last the whole year. Throughout the year, whenever his mother wanted to make pasta, Sal was instructed to go to the basement and get a jar of sauce. He lamented that following the death of his paternal grandfather, the yearly tradition of making "the sauce" fell by the wayside.

This story appealed to me for many reasons. I have somewhat of a love/hate relationship with tradition. I don't like to do things just because that's the way it has always been done, but on the other hand, I realized that sometimes there is both great wisdom and great satisfaction to be found in "the way it has always been done." In this case, the latter definitely applies. Traditions such as this one go back to a time before highly processed foods, industrial farming, and grocery stores, when it was impossible to have tomatoes in the winter unless you canned them in the summer. I also loved the idea of gathering together and enjoying the company of family and friends centered not around a birthday or holiday, but an activity that directly contributes to the physical sustenance of all involved. We decided to renew this tradition and keep it alive a bit longer. So last August, Sal and I made our first batch of sauce, under the watchful eye of Sal's grandmother. In broken English and perfect Italian, she passed on her years of sauce making wisdom to us (and stopped to make us a huge spaghetti lunch, with bread and salad and everything).

This year we struck out on our own, and despite a few rookie mistakes, turned out a wonderful batch of sauce. I love the idea of starting with whole, fresh ingredients in the peak of their season and turning them into something that can be enjoyed all year long. I enjoy supporting local farms, and knowing that the furthest my tomatoes had to travel was a few miles. Then there is the confidence of knowing exactly what is going into the food as it is processed (whatever I want to be in there). I take pride in the hard day's work and the product we have to show for it. Lastly, and most important to me, is the idea of family and community that is reinforced by an activity such as this one. It is a tradition worth keeping in a time when it seems like all traditions of any worth are quickly being lost, or worse, replaced with cheap, quick, and soulless imitations all for the sake of saving time. Now every time I make a nice tomato sauce this winter, I will think of my friend, the beautiful Saturday we enjoyed, the good conversation we had and the mess we made! And I will dream of the day when our children are reminiscing about the August weekends they enjoyed running around together as their crazy old dads made sauce in the garage. Who knows? Maybe they'll want to learn how to make a few jars for themselves.

The two stars of this show are mason jars and red plum tomatoes. The jars you can get at most grocery stores, and we picked up the tomatoes at a local farm a few days before making the sauce.

Our equipment consisted of many large pots, a few large plastic buckets, some paring knives, a wooden spoon, a propane tank and burner, and a food mill that Sal's dad had hooked up to an electric motor. We set up everything in my garage and got started around 9 in the morning.

The first step was to wash the tomatoes and cut them into quarters. As we did this we would cut out any rotten spots and tossed any tomatoes that were too far gone.

We put the quartered tomatoes into our pots and plastic containers as we cut them. It took us about 3 hours to quarter our 10 cases (200 pounds) of tomatoes. When we cut them all up, we filled a pot about 3/4 full with tomatoes and then covered them with water. We set the pot on the propane burner to begin stewing the tomatoes.

After about 15 minutes, and a good amount of stirring, the pot came to a boil. At this point we would boil the tomatoes until we determined they were cooked and soft enough to mill.

We took the tomatoes out of the pot with a large strainer basket and placed them in a bowl. We'd let them sit for a few minutes and then pour off some of the excess liquid in order to ensure that our sauce would not be too watery. In the meantime, we'd throw another batch of raw tomatoes into the boiling water. We then used a slotted spoon to feed tomatoes into the hopper of the food mill, straining out even more water.

As the tomatoes passed through the mill, the watery pulp of the tomatoes was pressed into sauce which emptied into another pot. The seeds and peels came out of the end of the augur and we collected those in a bucket.

We then strained the seeds and peels and passed it through the mill three more times to extract the maximum amount of sauce from the tomatoes.

After all the tomatoes were stewed and milled, we had about 12 gallons of sauce in 3 large pots. We added 1/2 cup of salt to each pot and then set one onto the burner, and brought it to a boil. While the sauce was coming to a boil, we set out a bunch of mason jars on a table with some basil which my extremely busy wife so graciously washed. We also finally allowed ourselves a beer at this point.

Into each mason jar we placed about a few leaves of the basil.

Once the sauce came to a boil, we let it boil for 20 minutes, stirring every few minutes to make sure it wouldn't stick and burn on the bottom of the pot.

The boiling sauce was ladled into the jars, which were filled as high as possible, and the tops were screwed on tightly.

We then placed the hot jars into cloth lined boxes to cool, and that was that! We finished around 7 that evening, so the whole process took about 10 hours from start to finish. The sauce (which is really nothing more at this point than crushed tomatoes) is amazingly fresh tasting and bursting with tomato flavor.

It tastes great as is, makes a delicious quick sauce with garlic and oil, works wonderfully in my favorite spaghetti sauce recipe, and is perfect on pizza (see the picture below for a sample of my first use of this year's batch). I use it in any recipe I make that calls for crushed tomatoes, which I don't need to buy in the grocery store anymore.

When it comes down to it, I really enjoy making the sauce as much as eating it. Like making bread, another process I've come to love, I get a profound sense of accomplishment throughout the experience, and feel a deeper connection to, and appreciation for, whole ingredients and how they become the foods and tastes that I love so much.