Fresh mozzarella sales soar in summer, and we all know why. Just look in people’s shopping carts and you can tell what’s on the menu: insalata caprese. Again. At every dinner party, insalata caprese. On every buffet, insalata caprese. I enjoy the dish as much as anyone—especially with homegrown tomatoes—but sometimes I just want to switch it up. With hardly any more effort, you can make some juicy bruschetta for a dinner-party appetizer or quick lunch.
In Italy, mozzarella typically means mozzarella di bufala. Made with cow’s milk, it’s fior di latte. The bufala producers get bent out of shape when cow’s milk producers use the mozzarella name; the bufala folks think they own it. I’m not wading into that argument; I like both types. Fior di latte tends to be sweeter and milder, bufala more tangy, with a faint animal scent. What I care about most is freshness and what’s on the ingredient label.
The best mozzarella I ever had was at Mimí alla Ferrovia, a restaurant near the Naples train station. Everybody was eating it. The waiter brought a whole ball to the table and snipped it in quarters with scissors. The cheese opened like a flower, oozing whey. It was so amazing, we came back the next night. Of course, in Naples they say that by the time the mozzarella gets to Rome, it’s too old.
Actually, mozzarella needs to relax a bit. On day one, it’s pretty chewy. Several years ago, I judged the mozzarella category at the American Cheese Society competition, and I learned a lot from my judging partner, a professional mozzarella maker:
- Mozzarella should have a thin, taut, elastic skin.
- Slices should be compact and hold together, not break apart into layers.
- A slice should exude beads of fresh whey.
- The cheese should have a sweet, milky scent, with no sour notes. It may have some lactic, cultured-milk aroma and a touch of acidity but it shouldn’t taste tart.
- It should be tender and supple, not spongy.
- It should have just enough salt that you don’t notice either the salt’s presence or its absence.
- It should be made with whole milk. (You knew that.)
The traditional way to make mozzarella is with a culture. The modern way, because it’s faster, is to use citric or lactic acid to create the curd. I seek out mozzarella made with culture because I prefer that subtle buttermilk flavor. Point Reyes Farmstead mozzarella is cultured; so is Gustosella from Italy. If the cheese was made with acid, the ingredient list will say so.
If you’re purchasing packaged mozzarella, check the sell-by date. That will give you some clue about age.
Bruschetta Caprese Style
I buy ciliegine, the smallest mozzarella balls, and cut them in half, but you can use bocconcini or even 1-pound balls cut into bite-size nuggets.
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon coarsely chopped Italian parsley
- ½ teaspoon dried oregano
- Pinch hot pepper flakes
- ½ pound ciliegine-sized mozzarella, drained and halved
- 1-1/2 teaspoons salted capers, rinsed and coarsely chopped
- Halved cherry tomatoes
- 6 half-inch-thick slices of pain au levain
- 1 clove garlic, halved
- Large leaves of fresh basil
- Coarse sea salt
- Kalamata olives
In a small skillet over low heat, warm the olive oil with the parsley, oregano and pepper flakes just until you can smell the herbs. Cool completely, then pour over the mozzarella and toss gently. Add the capers and the tomatoes (as many as you like) and toss again gently. I like to crush a few tomatoes with a fork to make the mixture juicier.
Toast the bread, then lightly rub one side of each slice with the halved garlic. Put a basil leaf on each toast and top with the mozzarella-tomato mixture, including any juices. Sprinkle a little coarse sea salt on top, garnish with olives and serve.
Serves 6 as an appetizer
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