Rosie Hawthorne’s recipes: Summer’s last hurrah

By on September 30, 2018

It’s September and there’s still time for a few last hurrahs from the summer garden. My tomatoes have been ripening in the hot summer sun and are now bursting with intense, concentrated flavor. My volunteer watermelons (Yes. Volunteers – the best kind!) are only getting sweeter, a benefit of their long growing season.

To celebrate both of these garden gems, I have two offerings for you — a classic Tomato Caprese and a not-so-classic tomato and watermelon salad.

Caprese refers to the Italian Isle of Capri and, in culinary terms, “a la Caprese” denotes a preparation of some of the most notable ingredients in Italian cuisine — tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and basil, which, not coincidentally, represent the colors of the Italian flag.

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The “trick” to making classic Caprese is quite simple — use the very best ingredients. I’m taking the basic ingredients and adding a balsamic vinegar reduction for a happy twist.

Before we begin, let’s talk about vinegars. You have distilled white vinegars, cider vinegars, rice vinegars, Chinese black vinegars, malt vinegars, red wine vinegars, white wine vinegars, champagne vinegars, and sherry vinegars, among others. Balsamic vinegar, however, is in a league of its own, so how do you pick out a quality balsamic vinegar? Buying balsamic vinegar is akin to buying wine. You check out the label.

Grape “must” should be the only ingredient, “must” being freshly crushed grape juice and the solid parts — skins, stems, and seeds. Avoid any adulterated balsamic vinegars, which typically list a host of ingredients — sweeteners, stabilizers, emulsifiers, and chemical colorings. That’s not a true balsamic.

True balsamic vinegar is always labeled “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale” (“Traditional Balsamic Vinegar”) and has a D.O.P stamp (“Denominazione di Origine Protetta” or “Protected Designation of Origin”), a certification which guarantees the quality, production, and place of origin.

Traditional balsamic vinegar is made only from Trebbiano or Lambrusco grapes grown in the Modena or Reggio Emilia regions of Italy, using traditional methods. The grapes are boiled until reduced and the resulting concentrated grape juice mix, called a “must,” is aged and fermented for a minimum of 12 years.

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The vinegar is stored in a “batteria,” a series of five or more progressively smaller barrels of different type woods (juniper, chestnut, oak, cherry, ash, mulberry, acacia), with each wood making its own contribution and imparting a different, nuanced flavor into the liquid.

The volume is reduced by about 10 percent each year through evaporation, which concentrates the flavors and enhances the complexity. Once a year, the vinegar from the smallest cask in the sequence is bottled and each barrel is topped with vinegar from the next barrel, with the largest barrel getting filled with the new yield.

Now that you know more (or less) than you want to about balsamic vinegars, let’s showcase them — first in Caprese Skewers, then in a Watermelon and Tomato Salad, attractively served in carved watermelon bowls.

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Caprese Appetizers
Tomatoes, sliced (I used a colorful variety of heirlooms.)
Fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced (The best you can find. Ideally, buffalo mozzarella.)
Just-picked basil
Extra virgin olive oil (I prefer a fruity oil for this.)
Kosher salt
Freshly ground pepper
Balsamic vinegar

Arrange the tomatoes, cheese, and basil, alternating, on a skewer, and place on serving platter. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil, sprinkle with kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper, and dribble with balsamic vinegar, or a balsamic reduction, for intense, concentrated flavor.

For the balsamic reduction: Pour a cup of balsamic vinegar into a small pan. I always place this pan in an iron skillet, which serves to diffuse the heat, allowing a gentle reduction; otherwise, it’s quite easy to burn the vinegar and ruin it. Bring vinegar to bare simmer over low heat and continue cooking until it’s reduced by approximately half and has slightly thickened to a syrupy glaze.

Next, I have a sweet and savory, cool and refreshing salad for you — a bright, colorful watermelon and tomato salad. And before you say, “What? Watermelon and tomato? Together? That doesn’t sound right,” I have to say, “Trust me on this. It works.”

I’m giving you the basic ingredients and a guideline for amounts. You can adjust to suit your personal tastes.

Watermelon and tomato salad
1 personal-size watermelon (8-inch diameter), preferably home grown

Slice watermelon in half. Using a melon baller, scoop out melon. After removing all melon, take each watermelon bowl and cut a small sliver on the bottom so the halves sit evenly. Then carve a decorative edge along the top, the simplest being cutting “vees” out to make a jagged edge.

Salad:
4 cups watermelon balls, chilled
½ cup sliced Kalamata olives
1 cup pistachios, toasted
½ cup diced cucumber
4 radishes, sliced paper thin
2 cups tomatoes, sliced
1 cup feta, crumbled
1 TB each chopped mint and basil
Zest of two limes
Combine all ingredients.

Dressing:
Juice of 2 limes
2 TB balsamic vinegar
2 tsp sugar
6 TB extra virgin olive oil
Whisk all together.
Season to taste with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper .

Pour dressing over salad. Toss to coat.
Scoop salad into watermelon halves and serve.

Enjoy!

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