Growing up as I did with two Italian-American parents means that to me, summertime will always be the time for gardening—and enjoying the fresh vegetables and fruits of that garden!
Both sides of my Italian family have established summer vegetable gardens here in America. My grandfather was a master gardener, and used knowledge he brought over from Sicily to create his perfect garden in a very small patch of land in Brooklyn, New York. As a small child, I knew that my fondest memories of summer would begin as I opened the large, decorative, black iron gate to enter what to me was a miraculous place – my grandparent’s a two story attached brick building that had my grandfather’s grape vines growing happily along the only free side. Out back, there was a small cement landing where the family gathered amid large decorative clay pots of herbs, with a pergola for the ripened grapes to hang from and provide shade, of course!
The rest of my grandfather’s yard was dedicated to all kinds of vegetables and fruits, perfectly staked in neat rows so that no space was lost on his small plot of land. I loved picking the perfectly red, vine-ripened tomatoes, green peppers and fresh, soft purple figs to take home. Yes, my grandfather even managed to keep fig trees alive during the cold NYC winters by bundling the branches up a pail and covering them with blankets, just so we could enjoy baskets of fresh figs for the summer. And enjoy them we did!
While my grandfather was busy gardening, my grandmother was busy in the kitchen! She created wonderful tomato salads for summertime with our fresh tomatoes and our favorite herb—basil, with its leaves freshly pinched off right from the stem of the plant. Even today, the women in my family keep a small pot or glass with water by the kitchen window with cuttings of fresh basil ready to make a cool tomato Caprese salad or a Panzanella salad for lunch.
Making Caprese and Panzanella salads entails following a couple of simple methods, using whatever you have on hand, rather than following a strict recipe step by step. However, it is best to come as close as possible to the recommended ingredients, as the ingredients themselves will be the stars of each dish.
For the most mouth-watering Caprese salad imaginable, use fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes and soft, fresh buffalo mozzarella. Coarse sea salt adds extra flavor to the tomatoes. Top all with a generous drizzle of your favorite pungent or fruity, extra-virgin olive oil from Italy, rather than the a more bland olive oil that you would use for cooking on the stove top.
For Panzanella salad, which probably originated as a clever way to use up day-old, stale bread, be sure to use a crusty loaf of Italian bread and make sure it has time to dry out. If you want, drizzle the bead with a little bit of olive oil and brown in the oven, either before or after cutting into cubes. The mozzarella for this salad should be a firm mozzarella, as it needs to be cubed and mixed in with the other ingredients. I prefer my panzanella salad with hard cubes of bread; if you like, use the drippings from the fresh tomatoes to soften the bread.
And, of course, large, sweet, fresh basil leaves from the garden are an essential ingredient to both salads!
But whatever ingredients you have on hand, I’m sure you will enjoy these simple and refreshing tomato and basil salads on a hot summer day! -Kathyn Occhipinti
3 large, vine-ripened tomatoes,
(each a different color to add interest;
heirloom tomatoes if desired)
Fresh buffalo mozzarella, sliced
Large, whole, freshly picked basil leaves
Extra-virgin olive oil from Italy
In an individual or large dish, create colorful layers of tomato slices (sprinkled with sea salt), mozzarella slices, and basil leaves.
If making in a large plate of Caprese salad for a crowd, have the tomato and mozzarella slices lengthwise once they are assembled and place a piece of mozzarella in the center to create a “flower” pattern, as in the picture above. Decorate with extra basil.
Let sit for about 15 minutes for the tomato juices to develop. Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil.
Serve with Italian bread to mop up the tomato juices and enjoy!
Check out my Instagram post if you’d like to see me actively making a Caprese salad that can be shared by two people. Remember, the correct choice of ingredients is the key to this simple “salad. A touch of sea-salt to bring the juices out of the tomatoes that provide the acid for the “vinaigrette” and a drizzle of your favorite extra-virgin olive oil makes an exquisite summertime treat!
1-2 large, vine-ripened tomato, cut into small wedges
or several cherry tomatoes, halved
Large, freshly picked basil leaves, torn
Dry Italian bread, cubed
(from the day before or browned in the oven)
Italian extra-virgin olive oil
Optional: Add 1/2 red onion, chopped coarsely
Optional: Drizzle with Italian red wine vinegar
In a large dish, combine small wedges of fresh tomatoes or halved cherry tomatoes, mozzarella, torn basil leaves, and dry Italian bread. If using the optional chopped red onion, it can be added at this point.
Drizzle on extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle with fresh sea salt to taste.
Mix again gently to combine all and enjoy!
Optional: Drizzle bread with olive oil and brown in oven prior to or after cutting and mixing with other ingredients.
Optional: After cutting tomatoes, put into a colander, add salt and mix. Put a bowl that contains the bread cubes under the colander. Allow the bowls to stand at room temperature until tomato juices form and drip onto the bread to soften the bread.
Optional: Add a drizzle of Italian red wine vinegar along with the olive oil.
— by Kathryn Occhipinti
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD, is the author of the
Conversational Italian for Travelers series of books and a teacher of Italian for travelers to Italy in the Peoria and Chicago area.
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Caprese and Panzanella Salads with Fresh Tomatoes and Basil