June 02, 2011

Grilled Caprese Salad, or I Can't Think of a Creative Title Because There are Maine Rednecks Driving by My Mother's House with No Mufflers

If you've never been lucky enough to set foot in a Stew Leonard's, I'm going to go ahead and say you've never really lived. Yes, I mean it.

Imagine the type of food heaven that Willy Wonka, a farmer, and Walt Disney would create. Imagine a Whole Foods (keep the free samples and seductive displays, lose the pretension) crossed with a Putt-Putt Range (keep the fun mechanized animals and winding course, lose the weirdos).

Stew Leonard's is the type of place that Connecticut and New York children grow up begging to visit, well before they're old enough to realize that it sells food that's good for them (well, mostly). As a Massachusetts child, I had never experienced one until last summer, and it's safe to say that the trip changed my perspective on grocery shopping.

On a recent trip to Stew's, T's mom and I spotted the first good-looking beefsteak tomatoes of the season. Plump, red, and extremely fragrant, they were the real thing after months of the grainy, pale, bland mush grocery stores try to pass off as tomatoes in the off-season. So we bought...a few.

Then we passed the cheese display, where free samples of fresh mozzarella were being offered to passersby. Did I sample the cheese? Why, yes. Did I think about creating some sort of disguise (purse over head as hat?) so that I could come back around for another sample? Why, yes.

And inspiration struck. Instead of the typical Caprese Salad, why not try grilling the tomatoes first? The heat would caramelize the natural sugars in the tomatoes, rendering them extra sweet and smoky. It would be Caprese Salad plus a little je ne sais quoi, and we all know how I love my I don't know what.

Grilled Caprese Salad

  •  2-3 large beefsteak tomatoes, sliced (core removed from center slices)
  • 1 ball fresh mozzarella, sliced
  • 1 bunch fresh basil, leaves torn in half (tearing as opposed to cutting keeps the leaves from bruising and turning dark green)
  • Olive oil, to taste
  • Salt and pepper to taste
1. While you slice the tomatoes, preheat the grill on medium heat. Sprinkle the tomatoes with salt and freshly-ground black pepper.

2. Spray the grill with a little olive oil or nonstick cooking spray, and then grill the tomatoes for about two minutes a side. I learned that I needed to have the grill a bit hotter in order to really sear the tomatoes, and ended up not getting those gorgeous grill marks on any of these babies.

3. Assemble the Caprese Salad, stacking one piece of mozzarella and one half of a basil leaf on each grilled tomato. Drizzle olive oil over the top of the platter, sprinkle with a bit more salt and pepper, and serve immediately; the tomatoes will turn a bit mushy if you let them get cold.

In retrospect, I should have drizzled a little bit of balsamic over the top of the platter. A little acidity to balance the sweetness of the tomatoes and the creaminess of the cheese would have really made the dish perfect. Oh well!

If you make too much and are worried about mushy tomato leftovers, never fear! T's mom resuscitated our dish the following night by putting the leftovers in a casserole dish, sprinkling the top with breadcrumbs, and baking it at 350 degrees for about fifteen minutes. The mozzarella turned all melty and delicious, and we had a Caprese Casserole on our hands.

I just love it when a great meal leads to a second great meal. The power of leftovers, people. Spread the word. Amen.

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