There's something I've clearly noticed in the 15 years that I've been working as a cooking teacher: the Italian cuisine is probably the most loved of ALL. Pretty everybody seems to enjoy our pastas and the other simple and yet tasty dishes that are part of our cooking tradition so I was wondering... what is the secret of this world-acclaimed cooking style that makes it so appealing to all palates?
I summarize this "secret" with the formula "Less is more, more is more". Confusing? It's not a contradiction as much as it may seem, and I'll explain you why.
Have you noticed how obsessed and picky with food we Italians are? Well, that's probably part of the reason why our cuisine is so popular.
We LOVE our food and tend to talk about it all the time, especially when we're eating. A classic question at lunch is "What shall we eat for dinner?" and when we're eating out with family or friends it's very common to hear conversations like this one: "Do you remember that time we ate at XY and had that wonderful meal?" with plenty of details about the food.
We're kind of always busy with thinking of food, cooking it, eating it or talking about it (obsessed is the word). :)
This thing of always talking about food when we're eating is quite peculiar and so very Italian. Let's face it, I don't think there's any other country in the world where that happens that much.
This extreme love for food makes us very choosy as far as ingredients are concerned: we simply want the best. Moreover, we don't like too many things on our plates but we tend to prefer just a few, great quality ingredients put together with love (ingredient numero uno) by careful and experienced hands.
So that's for me the essence of the "less is more, more is more" principle: a few very good ingredients prepared in a simple yet skilful way guarantee the best, yummiest results. Less ingredients + more quality = great food.
Take for example one of our most famous dishes: the insalata caprese. It's a preparation that doesn't even requite cooking and yet it's one of Italy's most renowned and loved dishes. It's just good, sun-ripened tomatoes, great, juicy mozzarella, the freshest basil, salt, pepper and a drizzle of great extra virgin olive oil. And yet... these few ingredients can cause an explosion of taste and sensations in your mouth that are difficult to explain if you've never tried a good caprese before (and I'm clearly not talking about rubbery supermarket mozzarella, watery tomatoes and freeze-dried basil).
Last August I had the privilege and the pleasure of cooking for the expatsHaarlem/Haarlem Foodies/Haarlem Photo Club Mobile Food Photography workshop atProefPark Haarlem 2015. The dish I prepared for all the participants to photograph was, indeed, a simple caprese, yet taken to another level: a caprese destrutturata (a deconstructed caprese). A delicate mozzarella mousse gently resting on a bed of diced, seasoned tomatoes and topped with intensely tasting fresh basil. A really surprising and different way to have your caprese and a perfect little starter for a dinner party.
Try it, it's very easy and extremely satisfying. Just make sure you buy good, tasty tomatoes (for example Tasty Toms or any other type of good smaaktomaten as they call them here in Holland to distinguish them from the ever-present tasteless ones) and great mozzarella (it doesn't have to be buffalo, I actually prefer cow's milk ones). A very good extra virgin olive oil is important too, I use my own import organic one from Puglia, peppery and strong. These and some fresh basil are all ingredients that nowadays can easily be found practically everywhere in The Netherlands. I still remember the agony of looking for good Italian products when I arrived here, almost 30 years ago. Thank goodness my days of "suffering" have long gone and now I'm a happy cook. Things have changed quite a lot here in Holland and these days we can all enjoy great products from all over the world, Italy included. :)
Caprese destrutturata (deconstructed caprese salad in a glass)
4 ripe yet firm tasty tomatoes
2 mozzarella balls (about 125 gr. each)
sea salt and black pepper
3-4 tablespoons of extra vergine olive oil for the mousse plus a bit extra for the tomatoes
basil leaves and/or edible flowers for seasoning and garnishing
4-6 verrines (little glasses)
Cut the mozzarella balls in chunks and put them in the mixer together with a drizzle of olive oil and a pinch of pepper. Puree until you obtain a nice, smooth and slightly fluffy cream.
Dice the tomatoes after removing their seeds and hard central parts.
Season the diced tomatoes with salt, olive oil, some shredded basil leaves and a bit of black pepper.
Fill each little glass with a layer of diced tomatoes and a layer of mozzarella mousse (you can use a piping bag).
Garnish with basil leaves and/or edible flowers.
TIP: for some extra taste you can use as last layer some home-made pesto instead of basil leaves.