Caprese, mon amour

Probably the best thing about summer cooking is that it takes so little to make something wonderful.
Think about it.
Winter revolves around generating heat, warming yourself over the hot oven, roasting tubers and boiling soups, glutting on fat and starch and heavy cream.
Chicago’s long, ragged season of frost lasts for nearly six months and the summers are short, and often brutally hot and humid.

I don’t want to bother with an oven right now. So, it’s a good thing I have a long, varied playlist of salads in my mental repertoire. I am so good at combining raw vegetables and fruits that I even considered becoming a raw vegan at one point! Seriously. And with all this juicy, summertime produce laying around, why bother messing with perfection?

I think a nice Caprese salad is just about one of the best things ever thought up by the human mind. Shakespeare? Meh, I could take it or leave it, but bring on the Caprese!

All you really need to make a delicious caprese salad are the following ingredients:
Really good heirloom tomatoes, bright red and at their peak of ripeness.
Really good mozzarella, not the spongy, block kind of processed mozarella, but real, honest-to-goodness, soft mozzarella packed in brine.
Really good basil, I prefer large leaves, deep green and fragrant.
Really good olive oil, extra virgin, preferably cold pressed, with a lovely greenish-yellow sheen and a buttery flavor.
(P.S. Spectrum makes the best olive oil I’ve ever tasted in my life).

Cut the tomatoes and the mozzarella in thick, hearty slices. Alternate tomato slices with basil leaves, then mozzarella slices. Sprinkle with sea salt and coarse black pepper and drizzle with olive oil.
I think the best way to enjoy caprese is while reclining, on a beach, or in a hammock or the sunny greenery of your own backyard.


Cheese Please

I’ve been reading about cheese. It’s not really a topic that many people agonize over, but I have a conflicted relationship with dairy. I was diagnosed as lactose intolerant at the age of ten after months of mysterious and crippling stomach pains. This was one of the worst things that ever happened to me. Not only did I come from a family that consumed simple carbs, dairy and meat almost exclusively, but it began a long association with cheese and excruciating pain.

My issues with lactose were the primary reason that I decided to try out veganism in my early 20s. I was looking for respite. I spent quite a lot of money on lactose pills for the times when I wanted to enjoy an ice cream cone, or cream cheese on my bagel. It was tedious to constantly monitor my intake for lactose levels. Eventually, I gave up on dairy. As I have mentioned already in this blog, I was vegan for a solid three years before I decided to make a (limited) comeback.

I gave in partly because avoiding dairy in our culture proved profoundly difficult and also because I love food.

I have made the decision to return to dairy, but due to my long absence, I am a novice fine cheese eater. For instance, a few weeks ago I ventured to my local specialty shop and had to force myself to confess that I knew absolutely nothing about cheese. I explained to the adorable boy at the counter that I was a former vegan. He nodded in recognition and offered his own admission: he didn’t know anything about cheese until he started working at a fine cheese shop. See, there was no need for me to get all embarrassed about my lack of expertise.

I plunked the bottle of Côtes du Rhône that I had found in a discount bin down on the counter and asked him to help me pair the cheeses. We tasted a piave, a ewe’s milk hard cheese, and a French triple cream that tasted like buttery silk. I bought sampling sizes of each and dashed home to experience them in full.

There I sat at the dinner table with the sizable chunks of cheese and a hearty glass of the Côtes du Rhône. I tasted each individually first, sipping at the wine between tastings. The piave was salty and sharp with a slightly nutty finish. It tasted like a younger, softer version of parmesan. The ewe’s milk cheese was salty as well, with brine crystals that popped between my teeth. This cheese was more buttery and its flavor lingered in my mouth even after the sip of wine. The triple cream was almost beyond description in its buttery richness. The rind on the triple cream was mild with only a hint of earthiness. I had to restrain myself from gobbling the entire wedge in wild abandon. I then moved on to experiment with tasting the cheese in combination with the wine, a most pleasurable exploration. The piave really came alive with a mouthful of the wine, the ewe’s milk cheese intensified in flavor and the triple cream mellowed and contrasted nicely with the acid. I realized that the cheese boy had offered me the safest cheeses for my home tasting and I was happy to find myself considering more pungent flavors. I don’t know if I am yet ready to tackle the blues or the mysterious, cave ripened and mossy varieties, but I realized that there’s really no need to fear the cheese counter.

I have a feeling this is only the beginning.

For further reading see: Laura Werlin’s Cheese Essentials: An Insiders Guide to Buying and Serving Cheese (With 50 recipes)