Eric Akis: Colourful caprese salad will grab your guests’ attention

If you need a side dish to serve with a Mediterranean-style grilled fish, chicken, pork, lamb or other entrée, my deluxe version of caprese salad would work well.

That salad is named after the Italian island of Capri, where it’s believed it was first made. It’s traditional prepared with sliced fresh mozzarella, ripe tomatoes and basil, all simply seasoned with salt and olive oil or olive oil/balsamic vinegar dressing.

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When I was recently at a farm market, though, and saw locally grown zucchini and eggplant for sale, they inspired me to expand caprese salad’s ingredient list. And I started to do that by slicing and grilling those vegetables.

When they had cooled, I then arranged them, and some sliced ripe tomatoes, and sliced mozzarella di bufala, in an overlapping spiral on a serving platter and sprinkled them with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Locally grown, heirloom varieties of tomato are now in season and you can use your favourite type (s) in the salad. Mozzarella di bufala is made from water buffalo milk and the type I used was made by Vancouver Island’s Natural Pasture Cheese Company (naturalpastures.com). It’s sold at many local grocery stores and smaller food stores and delis. It’s not inexpensive, but it is an artisan product and fabulous.

For another hit of flavour, I topped the salad with capers and thinly sliced garlic, both quickly fried in hot olive oil until wonderfully aromatic. To finish the salad, I topped it with whole basil leaves, and drizzled it with balsamic crema, olive oil and the oil I cooked the capers and garlic in.

Balsamic crema, also called balsamic cream and balsamic glaze, is syrupy, reduced balsamic vinegar. It’s sold in the vinegar aisle or deli section of most grocery stores.

As you can see by the recipe photo, my deluxe version of caprese salad is colourful, a perfect for summer, eye-catching creation that will catch you dinner guests attention the moment you set it on the table.

Grilled Vegetable Caprese Salad with Fried Capers and Garlic

This deluxe version of caprese salad adds grilled vegetables and fried capers and garlic to the list of ingredients traditionally used. Serve it as a side dish for a Mediterranean-style entrée.

Preparation time: 40 minutes

Cooking time: about 7 minutes

Makes: six side dish servings

9 (about 1/4- to 1/2 –inch thick, 3-inch diameter) slices of eggplant, each halved

18 (about 1/4- to 1/2 –inch thick, 2-inch diameter) slices of green and/or yellow zucchini

2 Tbsp capers, drained well

2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus more for the grill and drizzling

2 large garlic cloves, halved lengthwise, then thinly sliced, widthwise

1 (170-gram) tub mozzarella di bufala, drained well (see Eric’s options)

18 slices ripe tomato

• sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

18 medium whole green and/or purple basil leaves

• balsamic crema, to taste

Preheat your barbecue or indoor grill to medium-high. Oil the bars of the grill. Grill eggplant and zucchini, in batches if needed, about three minutes per side, until just tender and nicely charred. Set eggplant and zucchini in a single layer on a baking sheet and cool to room temperature.

Thoroughly pat capers dry with paper towel (this will help prevent splatters when you fry them). Set a small, fine sieve over a small bowl. Place 2 Tbsp olive oil in a small pot set over medium-high heat. When oil is hot, add the capers and garlic and fry until the capers crisp up, and garlic turns light golden, about 30 to 45 seconds. Pour and drain the capers and garlic into the sieve and set aside for now.

Cut the ball of mozzarella di bufala lengthwise in half. Now cut each half piece of mozzarella, widthwise, into 12 thin slices.

Set out a 12- to 14-inch round serving platter. Arrange the eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes and cheese in an overlapping spiral on the platter. Tuck the leftover slices of cheese at various points around the salad. (The salad can be made to this point an hour or so before serving. Cover and keep at room temperature until needed.)

Sprinkle the salad with salt and pepper. Now top with the fried capers and garlic and the basil. Drizzle the oil you fried the capers and garlic in, plus some fresh olive oil, all over the salad. Now drizzle salad with balsamic crema, to taste. Let the flavours of the salad meld together a few minutes, and then serve.

Eric’s options: If you can’t find mozzarella di bufala, you could replace it with a similar sized tub of bocconcini cheese, drained and sliced.

eakis@timescolonist.com

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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