5 Tips for a Great Insalata Caprese – Caprese Salad

caprese insalata full bike tours italyIt seems a bit silly to talk about a formal recipe for this dish – a few ingredients, a bit of chopping, and you are done. But this simple dish illustrates the importance of great ingredients, and doing little to them. Alice Waters of Chez Panisse was once criticized by a fancy French chef, who described her food as “not cooking, just shopping”. Her emphasis on fresh, seasonal ingredients, and doing relatively little to them, is how Italians often cook – this is how we cook on our Italy cycling tours. Dishes are simple, ingredients few, and limited to products that are being harvested from farms that morning. When you have great components, great food is easy to make.

caprese ingredients cycling tours italyAccording to Faith Willenger, Insalata Caprese (the salad from Capri, an island off the Amalfi coast) was created in the 1950s at the Trattoria da Vincenzo for regulars looking for a light lunch. It would be served only in the summer, and consisted of a just-picked tomato and fresh fior da latte, cow’s milk mozzarella, as there are no buffalo on the island. On Capri, it would be served with wild arugula and wild oregano. Today, it is found on tables throughout Italy, usually with mozzarella and basil, and is very popular with tourists. However, unless the caliber of the components is high, it is a rather mediocre dish. Here are my tips for making a great Caprese salad.

  1. Fresh just-picked tomatoes – this one tip means that I don’t bother with Insalata Caprese 9 or 10 months out of the year. Feast on it while tomatoes are fresh, but don’t bother with the tasteless January tomatoes shipped in from who knows where. You are not doing much to the ingredients, so if they don’t have flavor, your salad won’t either.
  2. A great cheese – A fresh, local mozzarella or a great imported fresh cheese. I would choose even a high quality goat or ricotta before resorting to a packaged processed mozzarella. Here, I’ve used burrata, a creamy mozzarella.
  3. Good olive oil – Once again, ingredient quality. This is the excuse to invest in a nice, high quality extra-virgin olive oil, not the cheaper olive oils on your grocery shelves.
  4. No vinegar – This would fight with the delicate cheeses. You want to enhance the natural flavors of the ingredients you’ve selected with care, not overwhelm.
  5. Don’t forget the salt – Something that many overlook, but salt is used to activate your taste buds and allow you to taste flavors. And use kosher salt or sea salt; not iodized.

caprese insalata close bike tours italyInsalata Caprese

1 pound fresh local tomatoes; a mix of different varities of heirloom tomatoes makes a lovely presentation
Fresh cheese – mozzarella, burrata, even goat or ricotta
Fresh basil leaves, cut into thin strips (chiffonade) (or substitute arugula)
Extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Slice tomatoes crosswise into 1/2 inch thick slices. I like to use a serrated knife for this.

If you are using a fairly firm cheese like mozzarella, you can slice it as well. Place the tomato and cheese slices on a serving platter, alternating. If the cheese is too soft to slice, serve as I did – just place the cheese in the middle of the serving platter.

Garnish with the basil strips, drizzle with the olive oil, season with salt and pepper and serve.

To chiffonade basil:

Take several basil leaves and stack them together. Flatten and place on a cutting board.

flat basil leaves ski tours italyRolll up the leaves, as if you were rolling a cigar.

rolled basil leaves ski holidays italyWith a SHARP knife, cut the roll crosswise into thin strips.

chiffonade basil leaves wine bike tours italyToss the strips with your fingers to separate.

chiffonade basil private bike tours italy

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Caponata Griglia – Grilled Caponata

caponata swordfish sicily bike toursCaponata, a mixture of eggplant, tomatoes and other vegetables in an agrodolce, is a relish we see throughout Italy as we explore Italy by bike, from Sicily to the Veneto. The sweet and sour flavor combination found in agrodolce, from ‘agro’, sour and ‘dolce’, sweet, is often attributed to the influence of the Arabs, who supposedly introduced it to Italy through Sicily. However, we see the same combination of flavors in the traditional Venetian dish, saor, served over fried seafood. The Romans, like the Arabs, Asians, and other nations in medieval Europe, didn’t separate sweet from savory, so it is likely that agrodolce made it’s way into Italy through many kitchens.

caponata ingredients cycling tours italyAgrodolce (and saor) are made by reducing sweet and sour elements, traditionally wine vinegar and sugar. Often other flavoring elements are added, like onions, raisins, and pine nuts. There are many ways to use it, as a accompaniment for poultry, rabbit, or seafood; served over wide noodles, or topped on a crostini with ricotta.

eggplant sicily bike toursCaponata is made by cooking eggplant, capers, and onions in an agrodolce. Tomatoes were included later, as they didn’t arrive in Italy until the 16th century. It originated as a seagoing fare, as the vinegar acted as a preservative – and might explain it’s popularity in the cuisines of Sicily and the Veneto, both with seafaring histories. It then became known as ‘inn food’, with caponata coming from the Latin word for inn, “caupo”. The rich would use it as an accompaniment for meat; the poor would enjoy it as is, not being able to afford meat.

grilled caponata ingredients italy bike toursTraditional recipes for caponata call for fried eggplant, which can be quite heavy and high in fat. I love the flavors, but prefer a lighter preparation, so I grill everything first, then combine in the agrodolce sauce for a last few minutes of cooking. It keeps in the refrigerator for several days, but it usually doesn’t last that long, given the many ways it can be put to use – on chicken, pork, or fish (it is wonderful on swordfish), on pasta, as a sandwich spread, or a pasta sauce.

caponata crostini italy ski toursCaponata Griglia – Grilled Eggplant Caponata

2 large or 4 small eggplants, peeled and sliced lengthwise in 1/2-inch thick slices
2 fresh peppers, halved and seeded – I like to use mixed colors
1 red onion, sliced into 1/4 inch thick slices
2 tomatoes, 4 plum tomatoes, or 1/2 pint cherry tomatoes, cut into halves
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, extra for brushing
2 celery ribs, cut into 1/4 inch dice
1/2 cup pitted mixed olives
1/4 cup currants
1 tablespoon capers, rinsed and coarsely chopped
1/4 cup light brown sugar
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts

Preheat a grill to medium-high heat.

Brush the eggplant, peppers, onion and large tomato halves with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Stick a toothpick sideways through each slice of onion to hold the rings together while grilling. Cherry tomatoes I use raw – they are too tricky to grill. Grill the eggplant until golden brown and cooked through, about 4 minutes each side. Grill the peppers until soft and blackened in spots. Grill the onions until just soft. Grill the tomatoes until charred all over, about 8 minutes. Remove the eggplant, peppers, onions and tomatoes from the heat and cut into dice.

Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large sauté pan. Add the celery and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the eggplant, peppers, onion, tomatoes, olives, currants, capers, sugar, vinegar, and the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil, salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer. Cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the basil and mint; taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Transfer the caponata to a bowl and allow to sit for at least 30 minutes before serving. The caponata can be made in advance, covered and refrigerated. Bring the caponata to room temperature before serving.

For Grilled Caponata Crostini with Ricotta

Grill the bread on both sides until slightly charred, about 30 seconds each side. Remove the bread from the grill and drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Top each slice of bread with a spoonful of ricotta cheese, and a spoonful of the caponata. Drizzle the top of each slice of bread with more olive oil and scatter basil on top.


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Aperol Spritz

aperol spritz cycling tours italyHugely popular in the Veneto, guests on our cycling and ski tours always ask about the brilliant orange drink that almost everyone seems to be enjoying in the early evening. Italians love their bitter liquors, with Aperol, Campari, Cynar, and many others to try. This spritz is a perfect late afternoon refreshment, low in alcohol, crisp, and not too bitter. And it has found it’s way across to the US, as I find various versions of a “spritz” now on bar menus, Aperol commonplace on liquor store shelves, and even a pre-mixed spritz in a bottle (ugh).

wine bar cycling tours italyThe spritz supposedly originated during the Austrian rule of Venice. The beer-loving Austrians ‘spritzed’, (from the German word spritzen, to spray) the local wine with water to lower its alcohol content. Aperol was born in 1919 at the International Fair in Padova. Created by the Barbieri Brothers, Aperol’s ingredients include bitter and sweet herbs and citrus, including licorice, fennel, aniseed, popular buds, bitter clover, wormwood, valerian, gentian, bitter orange, and rhubarb. It tastes and smells similar to Campari, but with less than half the alcohol (11% versus 23%). In fact, early marketing campaigns referred to Aperol as “il liquore degli sportivi”, or the “choice alcohol for the active individual” due to its low alcohol content. It did not become successful until after World War II, when it made it’s way into the “Lo Spritz”, and today this term is synonymous with Aperol and the Italian ‘aperitivo”. Gruppo Campari now owns Aperol.

aperol spritz cycling tours italyAperol Spritz

3 ounces Prosecco
2 ounces Aperol
Splash of soda

Combine the three ingredients in a glass, with ice cubes. Stir, and garnish with a slice of orange.

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Polenta alla Griglia con Soprèssa Vicentino

grilled polenta sopressa bike tours in italyProbably the most popular cured meat we enjoy on our bike tours and ski holidays in the Veneto is the ubiquitous Soprèssa Vicentina. Somewhat similar to the soppressa found elsewhere in Italy, in the Veneto, where the local dialect hates double letters, it is soprèssa, and has gained EU PDO (Protected Designation of Origin, in Italian DOP) status to ensure the final quality and origin of these traditional salumi.

polenta sopressa grilled cycling tours italyThe Soprèssa Vicentino dates back to the thirteenth century, when the Scaligari family ruled Verona. The choicest parts of the pig – shoulder, loin, pancetta, and throat fat are minced and mixed with spices and sometimes a generous amount of chopped garlic and then enclosed in cow intestines and hung for drying. The specifics of the Soprèssa Vicentino DOP production guidelines are numerous, and include the allowed breeds, their diet, production techniques and aging. All steps must take place in the Veneto region.

grilled radicchio ski holidays italySoprèssa Vicenta is mainly produced in 1.5 to 4 kg. pieces, even as large as 7-8 kg. It is aged for 60 – 120 days, today in special rooms that ensure the ideal temperature, humidity, and ventilation. The large size means that top-quality soprèssa is still good at the start of the next production cycle. The large diameter produces a double fermentation which results in its unique flavor; delicate, slightly sweet, and peppery or garlicky. When cut, the meat is compact yet tender, with a medium-coarse grain; pinkish-red in color, a spicy aroma with the fragrance of herbs.

grilled radicchio ski tours italyWe see soprèssa used in so many dishes in these regions: as the centerpiece of an antipasti platter of cured meats and cheeses, in fritattas, pasta sauces, and soups; wrapped around lean cuts of meats before roasting. The time-honored method of testing the seasoning of your soprèssa is to use a bit of the minced and spiced meat to flavor a risotto prior to enclosing the remainder in the intestines. Soprèssa is often paired with polenta, and served with mushrooms or sautéed wild chicory or dandelion greens.

grilled polenta ski holidays italyWe make polenta often in my cooking classes, a very simple peasant dish. Here are 5 tips to making perfect polenta from a previous post. I am often asked what to do with any leftovers, and here’s a very easy use for them – allow the leftover polenta to cool and harden, cut into squares and brushed with olive oil, then grill. Grill some soprèssa slices, and serve the warm grilled polenta and soprèssa with a salad of wild chicory, dandelion greens, or radicchio and arugula.

Polenta alla Griglia con Soprèssa Vicentino

4 cups cooked polenta (my 5 tips for Best Polenta are here)
Extra virgin olive oil
1 head radicchio, cut into quarters
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
8 thick slices of Soprèssa Vicentino, or other great salumi
Mixed bitter greens, wild chicory, dandelion, or arugula
Place warm polenta in a square or rectangular pan or plastic container. Allow to cool and harden. Turn out onto a cutting board and cut into 8 pieces. Brush both sides with olive oil.

Brush radicchio quarters with olive oil, and season with salt and pepper.

Turn on grill. Place polenta squares on grill, and cook until heated through and the outside displays nice grill marks on both sides. Grill radicchio until softened and just beginning to brown. Just as the polenta is finishing up, place the slices of soprèssa on the grill to heat. Remove polenta, radicchio and soprèssa from grill.

Place the greens in a medium bowl. Cut the radicchio into coarse pieces and add to the bowl with the greens. Season with salt and pepper, and drizzle with olive oil. Divide the greens and radicchio between 4 plates, top each with two pieces of polenta and two pieces of soprèssa. Serve.

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Risotto al Tarassaco – Risotto with Dandelion Greens

risotto al tarassaco ski holidays italyWith the arrival of spring, and disappearance of snow, mountain meadows in the Altopiano d’Asiago to Trentino abound with many varieties of herbs and wildflowers. These regions in northern Italy that we visit all year round, with our summer bike tours and winter ski holidays, have a long tradition of using local plants in cooking and digestifs. Over the centuries, the residents of these regions have developed an expertise in the many possible uses of these plants. Once passed down from generation to generation, this tradition is in danger of disappearing.

dolomites view banner cycling tours italyThere are a few bright spots, however. Many Italian chefs in the rifugios we enjoy on our Italy tours are now rediscovering the plants growing in their own back yard, and putting them to use in their modern kitchens. Everyone seems to have their own homemade flavored grappa, with their favorite combination of plants. One plant easily found both in Italy and in my own backyard here in the US that makes it’s way into many dishes is the humble dandelion.

dandelions passo fedaia bike tours italyThe dandelion, Taraxacum, or tarassaco in Italian, is a flowering plant in the Asteraceae family. The entire plant is edible, from the yellow flower that is used to flavor frittatas and risottos, to the taproot which can be roasted and ground into a coffee. The leaves are most commonly used, with a slightly bitter flavor they are best cooked. Historically, dandelion was used as a herbal remedy to treat infections, bile and liver problems, and as a diuretic – the latter property leading to the folk name for the plant, in English “piss-a-bed” or French “pissenlit.”

dandelions green onions bike tours italyIn Conco, Italy, just north of the Asiago plateau, their native microclimate and soil produce dandelions that are particularly delicate, sweet and tender. They celebrate the appearance of tarassaco each spring with their “A tavolo con il Tarassaco di Conco” festival. Held in April and May, the restaurants of Conco offers menus that highlight their local dandelions, from appetizers to desserts, soups and risottos, stuffed roasts and salads. Miele di Tarassaco – the local honey – is the perfect accompaniment to a great aged Asiago cheese.

saute risotto rice bike tours italyHere is a recipe for a simple Risotto al Tarassaco, flavored with some fresh spring onions. I had no dandelions in my yard, but purchased these at my local farm stand. I would have garnished this dish with the yellow petals of the flower, had I had some. Next time! I am sure to make this again.

Risotto al Tarassaco

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
6 cups vegetable or chicken broth
1 spring onion, white bulb chopped into 1/4” dice, green stems thinly sliced
1 cup risotto rice (Vialone Nano, Carnaroli, Arborio)
1/2 cup white wine
1 bunch dandelion greens, washed and coarsely chopped
1/2 cup grated aged Asiago cheese

Combine the oil and butter in a heavy, large skillet over medium-high heat.

Warm the stock in a saucepan, covered to keep it from evaporating.
Add the chopped white bulb of the onion and cook until soft and translucent, about 2-3 minutes. Stir in the rice to coat with the oil, and cook for 1 minute.

Add the white wine and stir, cooking until absorbed by rice. Begin to add the broth, 1/2 cup at a time, stirring after each addition and waiting until the broth is absorbed by the rice before adding the next 1/2 cup.

After about 10 minutes of cooking, when the grains of rice are beginning to soften, stir in the chopped dandelion leaves.

When the rice is tender, but still firm to the bite – al dente, turn off the heat. Add in a last 1/4 cup of broth and the grated cheese. You likely will not use all of the stock – you should cook just until done, not until the stock is gone! The amount of cooking time will depend greatly on the type of rice, the age, and relative humidity, so use your judgement. Season with salt and pepper, garnish with the sliced green onion stems and any dandelion petals, and serve immediately.

chopped dandelions green onions bike tours italy

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