Sunday, September 9, 2018

Summer Tomatoes. Caprese Skewers.

There are few things more perfect than a summer tomato - a Southern summer sun-ripened tomato fresh out of your garden.  There is no match.  Forget those imposters that have been masquerading as tomatoes in the produce section throughout the winter.  Those ain't 'maters.  I wait all year for the real deal and it's totally worth the wait.

It's a fact - Southerners do tomatoes better than anybody.

A just-picked, still warm-from-the-sun tomato, preferably the first pick of the season, is a thing of beauty.  Slice that tomato and put those slices, lightly salted and heavily peppered, in between some  white Wonder bread with a slathering of Hellman's mayo (Don't start on the Hellman's vs Duke's feud!) and you have a Southern phenomenon - the exquisite tomato sandwich.  So simple, yet so intense.

And then there's the fried green tomato, another Southern delicacy.  Dunked in buttermilk or an egg bath, dusted in cornmeal and flour, and then lightly fried, it's part of our heritage.

Let's not forget the old-fashioned Southern sweet tomato pie - tomatoes picked at their peak, slices of Vidalia onion, garden-fresh herbs, mounds of cheese, and don't forget the mayo(!), all piled into a pie crust and baked until bubbly, golden-brown perfection.

All this is leading to somewhere  -  It's leading to the classic combination of tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil, the building blocks of a Caprese Salad, or in my case, Caprese Skewers.  "Caprese" means "in the manner of Capri,"  Capri being an Italian island off the coast of Southern(!) Italy in the Tyrrhenian Sea.  See, it is a Southern thing!

 "Caprese" refers to a salad consisting of tomatoes, mozzarella, basil, and olive oil. All simple ingredients, but you end up with what I call culinary synergy, where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  I'm taking the basic ingredients and giving it a little kick with the addition of a balsamic vinegar reduction.

Don't skimp on ingredients here.  Go pick tomatoes and basil out of your garden (or go to the farmers' market if you're garden-impaired).  Get the freshest, best mozzarella (preferably made from buffalo milk) you can find.   Do NOT use the ubiquitous block mozzarella chosen for pizzas.  Use fresh mozzarella, which is a whole different animal.  And pick out a lovely extra virgin olive oil and a good balsamic vinegar. 

To pick out a good extra virgin olive oil, try visiting a specialty shop.  Here on the Outer Banks, I frequent Outer Banks Olive Oil.  They have an impressive assortment of olive oils and vinegars and you can taste test first before you buy.

As for vinegars, you have your distilled white vinegars, your cider vinegars, your rice vinegars, your Chinese black vinegars, your malt vinegars, your red wine vinegars, your white wine vinegars, your champagne vinegars, and your sherry vinegars, among others.  Balsamic vinegar, however, is in a league of its own, so how do you pick out a quality balsamic vinegar?   Buying balsamic vinegar is akin to buying wine.  You check out the label.

True balsamic vinegar is always labeled "Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale" and has a D.O.P ("Denominazione di Origine Protetta") stamp, which guarantees the quality, production, and place of origin.  It is only made in either Modena or Reggio Emilia, Italy, using traditional methods.  If expense is not an issue, go with this.  By the way, balsamic vinegar's origins date almost 1000 years ago and the name comes from the Latin Balsamum, meaning a "balm" or restorative, as it was originally valued for its curative and therapeutic properties and assistance in digestion. 

The production of this traditional balsamic vinegar is governed by a special certification agency, the Consorzio Produttori Aceto Balsamico di Modena, a consortium of producers which administers very strict regulations and procedures.  Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale vinegar is made with Trebbiano or Lambrusco grapes, grown in the Modena and Reggio Emilia regions of Italy.  The grapes are boiled until reduced and the resulting concentrated grape juice mix (containing the skins, seeds, and stems) is called a "must," (from the Latin vinum mustum meaning "young wine") The must is aged and fermented for a minimum of 12 years.  The volume is reduced by about 10% each year through evaporation, which concentrates the flavors and enhances the complexity, and the vinegar is stored in a "batteria," a series of five or more progressively smaller barrels of different type woods (juniper, chestnut, oak, cherry, ash, mulberry, acacia), with each wood making its own contribution and imparting a different, nuanced flavor into the liquid.  Once a year, the vinegar from the smallest cask in the sequence is bottled and each barrel is topped with vinegar from the next barrel, with the largest barrel getting filled with the new yield.  Balsamic Vinegar of Modena is bottled only in distinct, bulb-shaped 100 ml bottles. Balsamic Vinegar of Emilia is bottled only in 100 ml bottles shaped like an inverted tulip.  The bottles are wax-sealed and have unique identifying numbers. The color of the label will indicate the level of aging:  red for 12 years (affinato or fine); silver for 18 years(vecchio or old); gold for 25 years (extra vecchio).

The I.G.P (indicazione geografica protetta or protected geographical indication) label is your next best bet.  The production criteria here are not as rigorous as those of tradizionale vinegars, but the geographic designation confirms that the processing takes place in the region of Modena, although the grapes can come from most anywhere.  The aging process is a minimum of two months and not necessarily in wooden barrels.  Ingredients are usually wine vinegar with coloring, caramel, and thickeners.  This is likely what you'll find in the supermarkets - a mass-produced, industrialized product that still maintains some controlled quality standards.

 The final category of balsamic vinegars is "condimento" which is not supervised as closely or didn't age as long as a D.O.P. or was made by producers located outside of Reggio Emilia and Modena.  These vinegars do not meet the DOP or IGP standards. Since the production process and origin are not guaranteed by the label, you'll get a wide range of quality here.

Before you buy, check the ingredients list.  Cheap balsamic vinegars have added sugar, caramels, xanthan gum, or preservatives added to mimic the sweetness of aged balsamic.  The best quality vinegars (the Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale)  have grape "must" or mosto d’uva cotto as the only ingredient.  Always check for the "must."

Now that I've probably confused you and you know more than (or less than) you want to about balsamic vinegars, lets make Caprese Appetizers.

Simply alternate sliced garden tomatoes, fresh mozzarella cubes, and just-picked basil leaves on a skewer and arrange on a platter.  I like to use an assortment of heirloom tomatoes, for both color and flavor.  Next, sprinkle a bit of kosher salt, give it a good grinding of pepper, drizzle some extra virgin olive oil, and dribble some balsamic vinegar reduction to tart it up.  You can use a high quality balsamic vinegar for dribbling and forget about the reduction, but if you want to make the reduction, don't use the real expensive stuff.  A moderately priced balsamic vinegar will do just fine.

For the balsamic reduction:    Basically, what you're doing here is evaporating the water and concentrating the sugars over slow and gentle heat to make a syrupy balsamic glaze. Pour a cup of  vinegar into a small pan and I always place this pan in an iron skillet before putting it over heat.  The skillet serves to diffuse the heat and allows a gentle reduction.  Otherwise, it's quite easy to burn the vinegar and ruin it.  Simply bring the vinegar to a bare simmer over low heat and continue cooking until it's reduced by approximately half and has a thickened consistency, like pancake syrup.  You'll end up with a sweet and tart complex syrup that can be used in both sweet and savory dishes.







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