Thursday, June 22, 2006

Dinner for one. caprese salad.

Living alone means that I can eat whatever I want for dinner, cook an elaborate feast if I choose, or eat cereal if I can't bring myself to make any effort. I can stop at the local PCC after work and wander around, see if there is anything interesting, choose something new to experiment with, be home in five minutes and in no time at all find myself sitting at the table with dinner. It has been a long, hot day and tonight I feel lazy, so I bought some chicken salad, cubes of chicken tossed with some sort of creamy dressing and crunchy chunks of onions and celery, fragrant with herbs, and a loaf of crusty bread. Then some tomatoes, and balls of fresh mozzarella floating in a little tub. Caprese salad.

Like tiramisu and fresh figs my memory of caprese salad belongs to the first trip I took to Italy over a decade ago. One night we had dinner at a friend's apartment, of which I remember only two dishes. (Most likely there were also bowls of olives, loaves of bread, a good wine. Possibly some tiramisu. But I can't remember). First came marinated anchovies, tangy and sweet and moist, eaten in one bite, the bones spit out onto the side of the plate, light-years away from the salty, dried little fish that my parents were always disgustingly ordering on their pizza. And then there was caprese salad. Insalata caprese, to give it its proper name. The mozzarella had been made that morning at a local farm outside Naples, and it was creamy and soft and oozed meltingly on the tongue. It was the height of summer and the tomatoes were luscious and ripe and tasted like tomatoes should taste. For some reason the tomatoes I have eaten in Italy in the bright days of summer have been better than any tomotoes I've ever eaten anywhere else in the world. The salad was adorned with basil leaves and drizzled with olive oil. It was the most perfect kind of dinner, simple and easy and cool at the end of a hot summer day.

Here at home, years and thousands of miles away from that time, I sometimes like to add a bit of balsamic vinegar, the good kind, densely complex in flavor, mellow and syrupy, a contrast to the clear greeny-gold olive oil, or perhaps few drops of pumpkin-seed oil, heady and fragrant with that aroma of pumpkin seeds that always makes me thing of autumn days, of Halloween. But when I am alone, and I have the plate of sliced tomatoes and mozzarella all to myself, I need nothing more than a sprinkle of sea salt, the flaky Maldon crystals that crunch nicely as I eat the dripping tomatoes, bright red against the creamy white cheese.

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