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How to make a tomato, cucumber, mozzarella summer salad

Paul Cappiello, Special to Courier Journal
Published 8:02 a.m. ET Sept. 4, 2020 | Updated 11:22 a.m. ET Sept. 4, 2020

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I have always thought that gardeners are a lot like golfers. Not that I’ve swung a 4-iron in the last 20 years, but back when that was part of my weekly repertoire, I can remember thinking there were amazing similarities in both activities’ ability to shed alarmingly accurate light on the practitioner’s inner psychology. 

Take the golfer. Depending on the individual (or depending on the day for certain individuals) the emotional approach to each shot can reveal much. On the one hand, there’s the golfer who approaches each shot like it has a significant chance of going where the golfer intends. In essence, each and every shot is a potential hole-in-one.

Then there’s the other side of the coin — the golfer who only sees water hazards, sand traps, out-of-bounds markers and pilfering gophers.

Sound familiar, gardeners?

So I try to make it a practice each and every summer to remind myself that the overproducing zucchini crop, the occasional raccoon chomp on a tomato or the moth-eaten pumpkin leaves are really just the superficial spoils of an otherwise miraculous season. If you think back to the winter evenings spent perusing seed catalogs, the four-times daily check of seed trays to see if anything has germinated, and the first planting out of those precious transplants, it’s all in anticipation of that horticultural hole-in-one.

And now that we’re enjoying the spoils of victory, we sometimes need a reminder to savor the moment.

Home gardens are on the rise as people stay home during the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo: Courtesy of Michelle Infante-Casella.)

So how do you savor the summer garden? For some, it’s a morning or evening spin around the garden, clippers in one hand and coffee or gin and tonic in the other (you choose, no judging here!) clipping a bouquet to enjoy in the house for the next week. For others, it’s a trip to the vegetable garden for some late summer treats.

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Given the choice, I always opt for the food-based solution. So here’s my homage to the summer garden — tomato salad with balsamic vinegar. Don’t worry non-food types, there’s no cooking required!

First start with a good tomato — no surprise there. If there was only one reason for me to get out of bed in August, it would be for a “Mr. Stripey,” “Hillbilly,” “Brandywine Yellow,” or “Japanese Black Trifele.” While none of these heirloom tomato varieties will win any awards for sheer tonnage produced, the fruit they do produce makes all the work, the sweat, the mosquitoes and the root rot diseases worth it.

Those super-somethings engineered to last on a grocery store shelf longer than a bag of rocks, well we can get those in January.

Next, there’s the cucumber. Now I’m not talking about the foot-long beast of the cucurbit world. My preference is for the small, so-called pickling cucumbers. My current favorite is “Boston,” a 19th-century selection with incredible flavor and crunch that would make a beaver jealous. Skin on or skin off, it’s your choice.

Tomato and Mozzarella salad with ‘Boston’ pickling cucumber and ‘Brandywine Yellow’ tomato (Photo: Courtesy of Paul Cappiello)

But you can’t have a proper tomato salad without an excellent selection of fresh, handmade mozzarella cheese. Now in the old days when I had more hair and less waist, there were two kinds of mozzarella. There was the stuff from the local Italian deli — all wrapped in paper and dripping in liquid with seemingly endless layers and unbelievable flavor. And then there was the stuff you got in the supermarket … basically plastic wrapped in plastic.

But times have changed. And while there is no real substitute for the real thing made by hand, there are some supermarket brands out there these days that aren’t bad at all. It’s a personal thing so sample and choose. My personal favorite is from Lotsa Pasta on Lexington Road. If they ever go out of business, I’m moving!

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Finally, there’s that balsamic vinegar to tie it all together. Now just like everything else in life, there’s balsamic and then there’s balsamic (and that’s a whole other topic that we’ll get to this winter.) There’s the wimpy stuff with all manner of a fancy-schmancy name but no pedigree. I guess that’s OK for a salad dressing where all you need is a little dollop of tart flavor here and there.

But for this summer salad creation, we need a good, 18+-year-old balsamic vinegar, all thick and dark as coal soot. You hold this stuff up to the light and all you see is a thousand years of history. Sure, it might cost more than an ‘82 Chateau Lafite but then again, summer’s almost over.

If not now, when!? Bon appetite!

Yew Dell Botanical Gardens, 6220 Old Lagrange Road, yewdellgardens.org.

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