Caprese salad takes me back about fifteen years to my parents’ garden, and, in particular, to the sweet 100 cherry tomatoes my dad grew. I had never really been fond of tomatoes, probably having been overexposed to the underripe ethylene-gassed ones at my first job working as a sandwich artist when I was a young teen, so in response I steered away from tomatoes altogether. My dad was always urging me to try the ones from the garden: “Try them, you’ll like them!” or “You’ve never had a tomato like this before!” he’d say. Ya know how when you’re a kid you sometimes want to prove your parents wrong? I thought this tomato thing would be an easy opportunity to do so. Well, I was wrong, and those sweet 100 tomatoes made a fool out of me. They were a revelation: truly red, readily plucked from the vine with the slightest tug, and so juicy and sweet that you suddenly think to yourself “Hey! Tomatoes really are fruits!”
I used to pick as many of those little tomatoes as I could carry in my hands, sometimes using the bottom half of my shirt as a makeshift bucket, then scurry back to the kitchen and toss them in a bowl with onion, garlic, balsamic vinegar, olive oil and some fresh basil my mom had sitting in water like a bouquet atop the counter in one of the countless glass jars she’d repurposed from honey, pickles, or olives. If I was lucky there was a hunk of mozzarella in the fridge which would liven up the mix, and if I was really lucky, there was an odd or end of crusty bread around. As a young adult still living at home, this was one of the first things I would make for myself that felt like something I had put together not based on a dish from my childhood that was familiar and I knew I liked, but something new I had discovered unexpectedly based on that one moment of experiencing the joy of a perfectly ripe summertime tomato grown by people that loved me.
Last summer I don’t think I used the grill at all, owing to being in the last semester of my bachelor’s at school, so this year I’ve resolved to grill all the things (all the things!), including this caprese. The mozzarella ends up with a slightly firmer texture from its time over the flames while the tomatoes’ flavor intensifies into something a little smoky and a whole lot sweet and savory.
bamboo skewers, for grilling tomatoes and mozzarella
cherry or grape tomatoes, or a mix of both
Soak the bamboo skewers for a minimum of thirty minutes. Wash the vegetables, drain the mozzarella, and preheat the grill to medium.
Small dice the red onion, mince the garlic clove, and place them in the bowl you plan to serve the caprese in, along with the crushed red pepper, 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, and the balsamic vinegar.
Thread the tomatoes onto skewers from top (vine end) to bottom. Leave 2-3 inches of room at the top and base of the skewer for ease of handling. Thread the ciliegine onto skewers as well, again leaving a couple inches at each end of the skewer. Set all prepped skewers on a sheet pan. Use a pastry brush to sweep the remaining tablespoon of olive oil over both sides of the tomatoes and mozzarella. Season with a hefty pinch of salt and some freshly cracked black pepper.
Grill the tomatoes over medium heat, turning every-so-often, for about 9 minutes, or until the skins have some grill marks and the tomatoes are starting to pop and sizzle. Remove the tomato skewers back to a sheet pan and turn the grill up to high heat.
Grill the mozzarella skewers for about two minutes total, turning halfway through. After the first minute, the ciliegine will start to lose their ball shape and go melty, turn them over and cook for another minute. Remove skewers back to the sheet pan with the tomatoes.
Transfer the grilled tomatoes and mozzarella into the serving bowl and use a spoon to gently toss to coat with the onions, garlic and dressing. Taste and adjust seasoning with more salt or pepper to your liking. Tear the basil leaves over top of the caprese just before serving.