City Gay and Country Gay

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Battle Caprese: Olive oil vs. balsamic vinegar

Hey Country Gay,

Long time, no blog. My latest experiment in the kitchen flies right in the face of your tomato hatred. Sorry about that.

To me, a good quality Insalata Caprese is one of the most balanced dishes in all of the land. I've purchased a few pre-made versions lately from different store deli aisles and noticed them putting a spin on my most favoritest of salads. Instead of the classic use of olive oil, they're dousing their red, white and green in brown instead of yellow. Balsamic vinegar instead of olive oil, I mean.

I haven't been able to formulate an opinion on the substitution (until now) because it's not exactly fair to formulate one based on the grocery store deli-made version of a classic Italian salad that should be served fresh. I decided to take the matter into my own hands and settle the battle once in for all in the City Gay Kitchen.

To start, I restocked my olive oil and balsamic vinegar supply with a couple of new bottles of "decent" quality. There are a LOT of oil and vinegar purists out there, but those people are either filthy rich or filthy insane about their dressing of choice. I grabbed a bottle of "flavorful" (there's also a "delicate") Masserie diSant’eramo olive oil -- about ten bucks for 8.5 oz -- and a bottle of Monari Federzoni balsamic vinegar -- about eight and some change for the same size.

I know even that sometimes seems like a lot to spend on glorified condiments, but it really does make all the difference in flavor to spend a little more.

We (Gus was my helper again) sliced up some fresh mozzarella and tomato and pulled a few leaves from my new basil plant.

It's worth noting here that the popularity of big round slices of mozzarella must be skyrocketing because it comes pre-packaged that way now in a tub full of water. I opted instead for the traditional big ball of cheese and that suited me just fine. We served up two healthy servings of those three ingredients, sprinkled some salt and pepper on each and then splashed a little vinegar on one and a little olive oil on the other.

So let's start with the traditional:

I'll start off first by saying that the Masserie diSant’eramo olive oil has a great flavor for the price. Up until a few months ago, I was totally ignorant to what a good, quality olive oil tastes like. But I stopped by our O & Co. here in the city (they're a worldwide company with ten locations in North America) and got schooled on what real olive oil tastes like. I won't go into the whole spiel, but I will say that olive oil is very similar to wine in that there are all sorts of price points and flavor profiles, so you should understand what kind of quality you're getting at each price point.

A good way to size up your olive oil is to pour a little on a spoon and taste it by itself first. If you're not experiencing flavor in its lone state, that's essentially what it's doing for your dish -- nothing.

The Masserie has a very soft, buttery taste and feel to it, but it also has a tiny subtle kick of spice in the after taste (you'll feel it at the back of your throat). For ten bucks, I'm not sure you'll get an oil as complex as this. If anybody knows of any inexpensive kick ass brands, give City Gay a heads up.

But enough about the oil. The dish itself was quite good, but it actually lacked something. Gus put her finger on it right away (not literally thank God) and pointed out that the tomatoes were fairly flavorless. I'll say this for all the world: Hot House tomatoes you find in grocery stores routinely disappoint me. Farmers markets are really the way to go for good tomatoes. Had the tomatoes been meaty and sweet, this would have been nearly the perfect salad.

Now onto the balsamic:

Let's get the big pink (gay) elephant out of the room right away. That's not a pretty dish. There's something slightly vile about covering beautiful, fresh ingredients with a muddy-colored substance. Alright, there, I said it.

But how did it taste? Gus used phrases like "flavor explosion" (because I asked her for a sound byte) and she asked if that could be her salad after the taste test was done. I will say, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed the flavor. But one thing I realized right away is the purpose of the olive oil in a traditional Caprese is to soften up the acidity of the tomato. Balsamic just adds to the acidity and does overwhelm the senses, but in a good way sort of.

Again, had the tomato been up to snuff, I think I would have preferred the traditional use of oil in the salad because I like how you can enjoy each ingredient as a separate entity, but they create such a harmonic balance together. The balsamic is overwhelming and the tomato and mozzarella end up serving more as texture than as flavors. Still, I won't deny enjoying it.

In the end, for me, good olive oil still wins the battle. For Gus, I think balsamic vinegar has a new life-long fan.

Now if I could only find a place here that makes good Caprese pizza, my life would be complete.

- City Gay


slambo said...

I must admit the traditional salad does look tasty, tomatoes and all. It's that sort of thing that makes me wish I liked tomatoes. However, if given one of these salads, I would just eat the big balls of cheese, which would be incredibly satisfying to my ever-growing stomach.

Girl With Blog said...

I've never liked Caprese salad, but perhaps that's because I've only ever had the vinegar variety. I hate vinegar.

Also because the tomatoes people use are never flavorful, and mozzarella doesn't have enough flavor on its own. Face it, it's kind of the tofu of cheeses.

I'll have to try the olive oil style, to be fair.

r. . . said...

I heart Caprese salad. It's the one thing I make a beeline for when at Whole Foods (the only semi-decent place for good produce in Vegas). To be honest, I'm not sure what they use, I'll have to check that out.

I will say the first salad looks delish, and I will have to try to make one of these for myself. . .when my tomato hating husband is away. wa waa.

Carollani said...

Try Tutta Bella's in Columbia City.

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