By SHANNON WATKINS
My best friend Amy is my best friend for a number of reasons, not least of which being because she likes comic book characters even more than I do and she’s a great cook. I’d tell you how she makes her curry rice but I believe she tends to wing it; you’ll just have to track her down and flatter her, and perhaps she’ll make some for you. Start by praising her taste in comic books, it might help.
I go over to her place, way back in the country near where I grew up, when I’m home for a visit. Generally she feeds me something delicious while I play with the succession of kittens that troop in and out of her home, because she’s far too tender hearted to turn away strays. Then we flop down on the couch and watch superhero movies. It’s a great way to spend an evening that I’d recommend to anyone.
As yet another reason she’s a good friend, she occasionally she puts me on to a quantifiable recipe like this week’s, which is about perfect warm-weather food.
Summer isn’t usually a time anyone wants to spend near a hot kitchen, but a little bit of heat isn’t too awful, if the results are worth it. It usually is a time you vow to take advantage of the season and eat lots of fresh produce, which sometimes just means you have more vegetables going to sludge in your crisper than normal. The perfect dinner, then, from my perspective, uses up some produce in such a way that you actually want to eat it, and is light enough to not make you sorry you ate it when faced with blazing hot weather. If it’s something you’re comfortable making a couple times a week when the ingredients are in season, so much the better.
Caprese salad is such a dish, though it’s usually a side. As with any good Italian dish, it’s simple is only as good as its ingredients. It’s basically just fresh sliced tomatoes, fresh sliced mozzarella, and basil leaves arranged together and drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with a bit of salt. It’s refreshing but not quite substantial enough on its own, which is why I’m glad some clever soul figured out a way to add a couple of extra things and make a meal out of it.
The bread doesn’t have to be ciabatta, I suppose; a plain Italian loaf or even a baguette would do the trick, and individual ciabatta rolls to make personal-sized versions of this would be a nice appetizer for an Italian summer dinner party. Just aim for the best quality. Likewise, cardboard supermarket tomatoes won’t do the job; ripe ones from your garden or your generous neighbor’s or the farmer’s market are what you want. And fresh basil in those little plastic containers at the grocery store ought to suffice, although straight from the ground or a flowerpot garden is the best.
Also, the mozzarella you want isn’t the shredded, yellowy kind but the chalk-white sort that comes in rounds the size of a tennis ball, generally sold as “fresh” even if it technically isn’t.
Finally, you can do the trick with balsamic vinegar, or you can cheat like I do and buy a bottle of balsamic glaze, which leaves one less dish to clean.
Caprese Garlic Bread
1 loaf ciabatta or other bread, halved horizontally
4 Tbsp. salted butter, or unsalted with salt added to your taste
3 cloves garlic, minced
12 oz. fresh mozzarella, sliced
fresh tomatoes, sliced slightly thick
1/3 cup chopped fresh basil
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar if not using bottled glaze
Preheat oven to 400F. Mash butter and garlic (and salt, if needed) together and spread evenly over bread halves. Place mozzarella slices on top and put in oven until melted and gooey but not brown, 12-15 minutes depending on your oven (keep a close eye).
Meantime, if you’re not taking a shortcut and using glaze, put 1/3 cup of balsamic vinegar in a small pot on the stove, bring to a boil and then simmer on low until reduced by half, about 5-7 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Once the cheese is melted, take the bread out, top with tomato slices, sprinkle with fresh black pepper and coarse salt if you like, drizzle with the vinegar glaze or reduction, and toss the basil leaves over it all.
If you want more to eat alongside, I’d suggest a few slices of salami artfully fanned out on a plate and maybe a small dish of olives. It goes well with a glass of wine or iced tea, and is best enjoyed with movie, a pile of kittens, and a spirited discussion over which member of the Avengers is the best.