Lebanese “Caprese” Salad
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The nomination process began a few weeks ago and it closes….tomorrow, September 30, 2009. Yup. Apparently I’m not a “lots of notice” kind of gal. But hey, let’s be spontaneous! Let’s take a road trip on a whim, turn around and go to the seedy dive instead of Milestones for dinner, and click on a blogging event just because we can.
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And now I guess that’s enough of my shameless pandering. Let’s talk about FOOD!
At the risk of waxing into hyperbole with a sweeping generalization (“Oranges are everybody’s favorite fruit!”), I actually have not come across anyone who didn’t dig in like a dirty hyena at Zebrafest 2009 when a caprese salad was on the table. Well, except for the Vengeaful Tomato Haters, but I’m kind of prejudiced against those people so I don’t include them in the mix. I’ll support you in an effort to stop friendly (kitchen) fire, but not the War on Tomatoes.
A traditional Italian caprese salad is simply fat slices of fresh ripe tomatoes, fresh buffalo mozzarella or bocconcini, and fresh basil. It’s very fresh. Some cooks will dress it up with a bit of the old S&P, a drizzle of olive oil or a splash of balsamic, but the key is to just enjoy simple ingredients which have a natural affinity for one another.
The Lebanese caprese salad is a riff on the same. The main difference comes from the herbs, which are parsley and mint instead of basil, and the cheese. Jibneh (arabic for “cheese”. Creative, I know) is a semi-soft unripened cheese which is generally packed into a salty brine for both flavor and preservative properties. The texture of jibneh is somewhat soft and just a little bit chewy, with a mild and barely sweet fresh milk flavor. If you can’t find jibneh, and don’t want to make your own, you could substitute Halloumi which is firmer and saltier but otherwise does a great job.
Lebanese “Caprese” Salad
Serves 6-8 as an appetizer, but there will be nothing left on the plate. Seriously.
- 6 large ripe field tomatoes *
- 300 g jibneh or a semi-firm unripened cheese **
- 1 lemon
- small handful mint (about 3 tbsp chopped)
- few sprigs parsley (about 1 tbsp chopped)
- 2-3 tbsp good quality extra virgin olive oil
* We’re “in between” tomato harvests in the garden, but I found these deliciously juicy vine ripened organic field tomatoes at the grocery store. If you’re going to make a capreses salad, this is the season for it.
** A semi-soft unripened Middle Eastern cheese would be ideal, but if you can’t find jibneh or halloumi…you’re out of luck. No, just kidding. In a pinch you could use a creamy Macedonian feta, but be cognisant of the fact that even a mild feta will still be significantly saltier and might have a goatier taste. Yes, ‘goatier’. It’s a word (that I made up but happen to enjoy).
Use a sharp serrated knife to slice the tomatoes horizontally into rounds that are about 1/4″ thick. When you discard the stem and butt ends there will be about 4-5 slices per tomato.
Use a very sharp, thin knife to slice the cheese into thinner slabs, each one about 1/8″ thick….or whatever thickness you need to make sure that there are the same amount of cheese slices as there are tomatoes.
Lay a tomato flat and overlap it most of the way with a piece of cheese. Repeat this process until both are done, spacing the tomatoes and cheese evenly because it looks prettier this way. Well, that and the composed salad is easier to dress, but mostly for the pretty factor.
Coarsely chop the parsley and mint leaves, and sprinkle them evenly on top of the dressed salad. You don’t really need to measure the olive oil, just drizzle the salad with a few good glugs. Squeeze the juice of 1/2 – 1 lemon (to taste) on top.
Yes, that’s it. Not exactly a difficult recipe, is it? To add to the Middle Eastern appeal of this pseudo-caprese, a few bowls of assorted olives would be delighted to get an invitation to the party.
How can something so simple be so delicious? The fresh and cooling mint is a natural pair against the sweet acidity of delectably ripe seasonal tomatoes. The slightly salty cheese is a perfect foil to the sweetness of the tomatoes and adds a lovely chewy texture against their tumescent and juicy flesh. Freshly squeezed lemon juice brightens the dish right up.
And yes, I just referred to tomatoes as “tumescent” again. What of it. You can get all lathered up by leather whips or boys named Sue, just leave me my seasonal produce.
This salad is best when served immediately, but the tomatoes and cheese don’t really mind lounging around in their vinaigrette bath for a couple hours in the fridge. I would caution that you want to eat this salad the day that it’s made so that the cheese doesn’t get all squidgy, but finding volunteers to help you polish off the plate won’t be a challenge. Trust me.