Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Found: A Delicious Winter Caprese

Attention Mozzarella-Tomato-Basil Lovers: No need to lament the state of tomatoes during these dark winter months when Mario teaches you can always resort to roasting. The slow-roasting method reveals the flavor in these seemingly pallid duds.

Of course, you do want to go for the best tomato your market has to offer. To me, this means some kind of hothouse cherry tomato variety.

Picky purveyors Ricky and Lesley served up a pre-Lost viewing meal with Mario's Winter Caprese recipe as the powerful prelude. The dish achieves something similar to that of its summertime predecessor -- with warm, slow-roasted tomatoes, oozy mozzarella, dark pesto dollop and toasty pinenuts -- it is appropriately of the season.

Mozza's variation includes burrata instead of mozzarella di bufala bocconcini. A delicious modification, especially if using Gioia's burrata, the local California favorite.

If you decide to go burrata, be sure to go easy on it (this is difficult). The key to this dish's success is the balance of its ingredients. On our last visit to Mozza, Nancy Silverton was not manning the mozzarella output and we received a lavish amount of burrata in our caprese. True to the law of diminishing returns, I realized there can be such a thing as too much burrata.

Winter Caprese Salad

(from Molto Italiano by Mario Batali (HarperCollins, 2005), page 30)

6 Plum tomatoes, cut lengthwise in half (or large cherry tomatoes)
3/4 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 clove garlic
3 tablespoons freshly grated Parigiano-Reggiano
3 cups fresh Basil Leaves, plus a few more for garnish
2 tablespoons Pine Nuts
4 large Bocconcini from buffalo mozzarella cut into quarters (or Burrata)

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees F. In a medium bowl, toss the tomatoes with 1/4 cup of the olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Place cut side down on a small baking sheet and bake for about 2 hours or until the tomatoes are softened. Remove the tomatoes from the oven and let cool.

Transfer the cooled tomatoes to a colander and set aside to drain while you make the pesto.

Combine the garlic and Parmigiano in a blender and pulse until the garlic is roughly chopped. Add the basil and pulse 7 or 8 times, or until the leaves are shredded. With the blender running, slowly add the remaining 1/2 cup of the olive oil, blending until smooth.

Toast the pine-nuts in an 8-inch saute pan over medium heat, tossing frequently, until golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer to a plate to cool.

To serve, arrange 3 tomato slices cut side down on each plate. Place a ball of mozzarella (or scoop of burrata) in the center, and spoon 2 tablespoons of the pesto onto each ball of mozzarella. Sprinkle with the pine nuts and garnish with the basil leaves.

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