Friday, July 12, 2013

Insalata Caprese: a Food Nazi's Take

Most of you reading this post will be familiar with the classic summer salad called Insalata Caprese and won't need a reminder that it is the quintessence of summer.

An Insalata Caprese from the Summer of 2012
This classic salad says a lot about me, the way I cook, and the way I approach food. For better or for worse. Customers (my wife even) call me a Food Nazi especially when it comes to this salad. My dictionary says a Nazi is "a harshly domineering, dictatorial, or intolerant person." I'm going to own most of this.

When it comes to ingredients that I eat and that I serve to my customers, I am totally intolerant of all that is bad. Bad quality, bad flavor, bad technique, and so forth. But then, I like to think that this is why people come to dine at One Block West. Because it absolutely matters to me what I serve and what you eat. If that makes me a Nazi, so be it. This does not embarrass me. In fact, I wish more of us cared.

What sets me off on this mini-rant is that seemingly every restaurant in town has Insalata Caprese on the menu right now and has for months. Are you kidding? Field-ripened tomatoes are still some weeks away yet, even now in mid-July. These restaurants, including many who should know better, are doing this why? Because we let them. Worse, we abet them. We order the gross crap that they call Insalata Caprese and we reward them financially for doing it.

Are we so far removed from our farms that we do not know that we have awesome tomatoes only during August and September (in our part of the world; you may have a different season where you live)? Are our standards so lax that we accept rubber mozzarella made in an unnamed factory some weeks or months ago?

Our standards must be compromised. What else can account for our letting restaurants foist junk off on us?

Think about this glory of summer. It is a dish where the chef has no place to hide. If the ingredients are not the best, then it all fails. When the ingredients are amazing, the result is ambrosial and greater than the sum of the parts. Warm, never refrigerated tomatoes of deep flavor and mouth watering acidity. Tender basil so perfumed that the kitchen smells of an herb garden. Mozzarella so tender and warm, just having been stretched. Sea salt. Cracked pepper. And green herbaceous unfiltered extra virgin olive oil that tastes of freshly pressed olives.

And when I have all these ingredients at their peak, then this dish goes on the menu and only then. It's a short four- to six-week run for sure, but it is a heavenly time indeed. When you see this dish on my menu, you should order it, if only because you know the stars have all aligned. That time is coming and I can barely contain myself, like the bear waiting to gorge on the salmon spawn that will surely start at any time now.

And you must know that as much joy as this salad brings me each year during its fleeting appearance, it also brings me much sadness. I become sad because so very few people order the salad after I have gone to the trouble to ripen each tomato just so, after I have picked the best basil, and after the cooks have stretched the nightly batch of mozzarella.

Why is that, do you reckon? There are several reasons, but it comes back to the question I asked earlier. Are we so lax as to accept inferior versions of this salad? Yes we are. And as a result, inferior versions of this salad have become ubiquitous and that ubiquity fosters contempt: "Not another Insalata Caprese!"

I care deeply about this salad as I do everything I cook, eat, and serve. I care to the point of being called a Food Nazi. And I wonder if my caring really matters to anyone other than me.


  1. It matters to me and a very select few. Unfortunately, when the masses see that salad on a menu they order it, regardless of the time of year. You are not alone in this but you are the exception....not the norm

  2. Thank you for caring, Chef! We farmers salute you for respecting our products. Keep the faith!

  3. I love that salad when you have it in season.

    Also, I prefer "food enthusiast", since the Nazis were really real and killed a whole bunch of people for stupid reasons and you likely don't want to be identified as one of those.