21 June 2012

AUNTIE PASTA: Capri's Caprese

SARONNO, Italy – It’s not hard to see why the romantic little island of Capri has been the preferred playground of the rich and famous since the days of the Romans.  It is still one of the most popular destinations in the world, a beautiful place, surrounded by sparkling emerald Tyrannian Sea and cooled by balmy sea breezes.  
 The Piazzetta of Capri
It’s pure joy to sit back and relax at a sidewalk cafe, nibble on some local olives, sip a limoncello and carpe diem – sieze the day. And who knows, maybe a wild boar or two will wander into town, just to say hello, snuffle around a bit and see if there isn’t a spare acorn or two to munch on.  
 Sit Back, Enjoy the View
When you tire of relaxing in Capri, the larger of the two towns on the island, you can go up to Anacapri, the smaller of the two, or hike up to the Belvedere of Tragara, where all the villas are, including Mariah Carey’s  (I think).  Another option is to go down to Marina Piccola, the little harbor, where you can swim or sit on the tiny beach and marvel at the strange sea stack formations, the Faraglioni, that broke off from Capri millions of years ago. The Marina Grande, the big harbor, is on the other side of the island and from there you can explore all of the secluded beaches and magical sea caves, including the Blue Grotto. 
 The Sea Stacks from Marina Piccola
Capri  has been inhabited since forever, even before the Romans. In fact when the Roman workmen were digging the foundation for the luxury Sea Palace villa of the Roman Emperor Augustus,  they uncovered giant bones and stone weapons. Possibly the remains of a brontosaurus cookout? The emperor put the bones and weapons on display in the garden of his villa.  
 Today's Charming Houses of Capri
Augustus' successor Tiberius built a series of villas at Capri, the most famous of which is the Villa Jovis, one of the best-preserved Roman villas in Italy. In 27 CE, Tiberius permanently moved to Capri, running the Empire from there until his death in 37 CE.

Such a spectacular setting calls for light, refreshing summer food, starting with a classic dish that was created on Capri, the caprese. It’s as easy as can be, with only four simple ingredients, mozzarella, tomatoes, basil and olive oil. The preparation is even more simple: slice the mozzarella and tomatoes, and alternate slices of each on a dish. Drizzle some extra virgin olive oil on top, add a basil leaf or two and eat.  It may be simple but that doesn’t mean the Capresi cooks don’t have a few secrets or two (actually four)  to making the best caprese salad. 
 What Grows Together Goes Together
Secret Number One is the mozzarella. On this beautiful island they only use mozzarella di bufala from the buffalo farms in Campagnia;  Secret Number Two: only the sweetest, juiciest, vine ripened tomatoes will do; Secret Number Three: dress the tomatoes and mozzarella with a thin ribbon of extra virgin olive oil DOP, from Campania;  and Secret Number Four, top with fresh basil leaves, preferably grown in the cooks own herb garden or windowbox. And that’s it. Oh, maybe a grind of pepper and a sprinkle of salt, but nothing else.  Cool and refreshing and pure heaven to eat on a warm summer’s day.

Another popular summer dish in Capri is Caponata. Regular readers of this blog have probably figured out by now that Italian is a language with a passport. It travels up and down the boot, wandering from one side to the other, and wherever it lands the locals take it and use the words to mean what they want them to mean. If the Sicilians want to call a vegetable dish a caponata, that’s fine, but in Capri, Naples and the rest of Campagnia, it is a bread and tomato salad made with freselle.  And why is it called caponata if it is made with freselle and tomatoes?  Because the freselle, also known as pane biscottato, are also called capone, hence caponata.  

 Jucy Ripe Tomatoes


This is also a simple dish to prepare. Basically, all  you do is make a simple tomato salad, add the softened freselle, then just mix and eat. It doesn't sound like much but it is really more delicious than you can imagine. 

Capri's Caponata (Bread and Tomato Salad)
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups water
4 to 6 whole-grain freselle or pane biscottato
1 tablespoon red or white wine vinegar
4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
3 or 4 juicy tomatoes, depending on the size, rough chopped (add the juice back into the bowl)
fresh basil or flat-leaf parsley leaves, torn or shredded
optional: anchovies or tuna, capers, olives, roasted peppers, sliced red onions

Put the tomatoes into a bowl, Add the capers, onion, peppers,  bread and anchovies if you are using them, mix and taste. Add salt if needed, pepper and mix again.   

Stir in 1 tablespoon of red wine vinegar and about 4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Taste and add more salt, pepper, vinegar or oil if you think it's needed. Mix once more to really really blend the flavors.

In a medium bowl, dissolve the salt in the water. Dip the pane biscottato or freselle for a minute or two into the salted water. The bread will continue to soften as it stands.  (Or, if you are impatient like yours truly, soak them until they are soft and then squeeze out the excess water.)

Squeeze the water out of the fressele and break them up into approximately 1½- to 2-inch chunks and place them in a serving bowl. Add the tomato salad in the bowl with the broken bread and mix. Garnish or toss well with some additional fresh basil or parsley leaves.

Serve immediately. 

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