18 June 2015

AUNTIE PASTA: The Three C's - Caprese, Caponata, Capri

CHIAVARI, 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 the sparkling emerald Tyrannian Sea and cooled by balmy sea breezes.  
The Piazzetta on 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 – seize 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.  

If you feel like exploring the island, you can start by going up to Anacapri and visiting the Villa San Michele. The Tuscan furnishings from the 1700’s are interesting as is the Egyptian sphinx. A long standing legend holds that if you put your left hand on the sphinx and make a wish while looking out over the sea of Capri your wish will come true.  
 Marina Piccola
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. 

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.  Could they be the remains of a brontosaurus cookout? The emperor put the bones and weapons on display in the garden of his villa.  
 One of Capri's Spectacular Views
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 BC, Tiberius permanently moved to Capri, running the Empire from there until his death in 37 BC.

Such a spectacular setting calls for light, refreshing summer food, starting with a classic dish that was created on Capri, the caprese. With only four ingredients, mozzarella, tomatoes, basil and olive oil, it’s as easy as can be. Start by slicing the mozzarella and tomatoes, and then alternate slices of each on a dish. Drizzle some extra virgin olive oil on top, add a basil leaf or two and eat.  While it may be simple it doesn’t mean the Capresi cooks don’t have a secret or two (actually four) to making the best caprese salad you have ever tasted
What Grows Together Goes Together 
Secret Number One: the mozzarella. There is only one - the mozzarella di bufala from the buffalo farms in Campagna; 
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, but vinegar is a no no. You want to enhance the flavor, not drown it out; and
Secret Number Four: top with fresh basil leaves, preferably grown in the cooks own herb garden or window box. 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.
Juicy Ripe Tomatoes 
If the Sicilians want to call a vegetable dish a caponata, that’s fine, but in Capri, Naples and the rest of Campagna, it is a bread and tomato salad made with friselle, a rock hard bread that looks like a bagel.  And why is it called caponata if it is made with freselle and tomatoes?  Because friselle, which is sometimes known as pane biscottato, are also called capone, hence caponata.

This is also an easy dish to prepare. Basically, all you do is make a simple tomato salad, add the softened friselle, then mix and eat. It may not sound like much but trust me, it is delicious.  
Friselle and Tomatoes  - A Summer Delight

1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups water
4 to 6 whole-grain friselle 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

If you want you can also add: anchovies or tuna, capers, olives, roasted peppers, sliced red onions, even lettuce and other greens. This is just one of the many versions of this salad. You are only limited by your imagination, so have fun with it.

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. Soak the pane biscottato or friselle for a minute or two in 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).

Break the softened friselle into 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.

p.s. whole wheat friselle (aka freselle) are best for this recipe. This dish is also very popular in Puglia and other parts of Italy where it is called "insalata di friselle e pomodori".  

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