You know those people who always tend to order the same thing no matter where they go?
Unadventurous? Predictable? Boring?
That's me when it comes to caprese salads.
I'm not sure why, but I love, love, love that magical combination of a deliciously ripe tomato, a beautiful, creamy slice of mozzarella (or any of its lovely cousins, hello burrata!), and really fresh basil. Top that with some extra virgin olive oil and sea salt, and I'm set. Don't even add balsamic vinegar - it's really not necessary.
I have such a hard time resisting caprese salads on menus, regardless of whether it's in salad form or sandwich form. I become that boring eater, always ordering the same thing.
A couple weeks ago, I received an intriguing invitation to a tasting and recipe demonstration. We would learn how to make Neptune Oyster's Lobster Caprese Salad from Michael Serpa (executive chef). We would also be tasting several different kinds of tomatoes courtesy of Backyard Farms tomatoes (the ones used at Neptune Oyster).
My favorite salad? Made by the chef of one of my favorite restaurants in Boston?
It wasn't hard to decide.
We started out the evening by learning a bit about Backyard Farms and their tomatoes. Backyard Farms grows their tomatoes year round in greenhouses in Maine. They decided to begin their business to address the issue they saw with supermarket tomatoes: bland, tasteless, and not really ripe when picked.
They set up shop in Madison, Maine, a small town full of "hardworking people who just needed jobs." Instead of hiring seasonal migrant workers, Backyard Farms hires full time employees as farmers. These farmers receive benefits, are given responsibility for their own "plot" (resulting in more accountability/ownership and thus better tomatoes overall), and tend to stay with the company for years.
Their philosophy is to keep the tomatoes on the vines as long as possible. They can achieve this because they do not ship to far away places. Their rule? The destination must be less than a day's drive away (about 10 hours). Most of their tomatoes are sold in Maine, New York, and Boston (with some making it as far south as Maryland). This allows them to wait until the last possible moment before hand-picking the vine-ripen tomatoes, which arrive at the supermarket the following day.
I agree their tomatoes taste a lot better than normal supermarket tomatoes (though still not quite as good as a real, summer tomato in August). In fact, coincidentally, I had independently purchased some Backyard Farms tomatoes myself just a few days prior to learning about this event. I had chosen them because they smelled the nicest - they had that sweet, fragrant "tomato" smell that reminded me of summer. They are also convenient because you can find them at both upscale markets and your standard supermarkets (e.g., Shaw's, Hannaford's, Harvest COOP, and Whole Foods).
We learned a lot of interesting tomato facts.
1. Never Refrigerate Tomatoes
Keeping tomatoes at temperatures below about 50 °F will cause the sugars in the tomatoes to turn to starch. What results is a mealy and not-sweet tomato.
3. On a Vine, Eat Tomatoes from "Closest" to "Furthest" from Cut Vine
On a vine, the tomato closest to the part of the vine which was cut off from the main stem is called the "King Tomato." This tomato ripens first, and therefore should be eaten first. In general, the tomatoes closest to the cut vine ripen first while the one furthest from the cut vine ("Tail Tomato") ripens last. You can also feel the tomatoes to confirm this. I could definitely tell that the one closest to the cut vine was softer and more ripe than the last one.
4. Cut Tomatoes with a Serrated Knife to Avoid Bruising Them
I've always noticed that tomatoes (and peppers!) are among the hardest things in life to slice - you really need a super sharp knife. Although I have finally acquired some crazy sharp knives, I've found that if my knives are not super sharpened, it's still sometimes a challenge to cut tomatoes well. Using a serrated knife (even an average one), makes this job so much easier.
"Cooking" Demonstration by Michael Serpa from Neptune Oyster
For the second part of the evening, Michael Serpa from Neptune Oyster demonstrated to us how to make Lobster Caprese, a summer offering at Neptune Oyster.
The "recipe" is surprisingly easy. I guess when the ingredients are high quality, you don't need to mess with it too much. I'm sure the devil is in the details of execution, and Michael Serpa did it flawlessly.
Toss lobster pieces with some extra virgin olive oil, freshly squeezed lemon juice, shallots, chives, salt, and pepper. Add in basil, followed by tomatoes, and then finally, mozzarella.
Mix it all together - ideally by hand! For plating, he spreads some basil pesto on the bottom of a plate, adds a few pieces of grilled toast, and then layers everything else on top.
So simple, yet fantastic. I can attest that it was very, very good.
Alas, Chef Serpa did not measure anything (he just kind of "knew" how much stuff to add by eyeballing it), and thus I can't give you an exact recipe with measurements. Seriously, though, you probably can't go wrong.
White Anchovy Salad
Chef Serpa also made a second salad using Backyard Farms cocktail tomatoes. The cocktail tomatoes are much smaller, and therefore much sweeter. Smaller tomatoes tend to have much more sugar content (case in point: have you ever tasted a grape tomato? Yum).
This simple salad had a Mediterranean bent, consisting of Spanish white anchovies, olive tapenade, roasted red peppers, and cocktail tomatoes served with a generous blend of salad greens consisting of French breakfast radishes, arugula, celery leaves, and parsley.
This dish is not available at Neptune Oyster, and instead was designed specifically by Chef Sherpa for Backyard Farms (recipe provided below).
Both were fantastic, although my inner caprese-obsessed mind still loved the lobster caprese more (which is great because I can always go back to Neptune Oyster, at least during the summertime, and order it).
Backyard Farms sent us all home with a cool gift pack that included all three types of tomatoes that they sell: the beefsteak, tomatoes on the vine, and cocktail tomatoes. We also got a nifty serrated "tomato knife", sea salt from Maine, a bottle of Filippo Berio olive oil, and a cute tomato cutting board!
White Anchovy Salad with Summer Tomatoes
Michael Serpa of Neptune Oyster
20 Spanish white anchovies (Boquerones)
1 box cocktail Backyard Farms tomatoes, quartered
2 red bell peppers
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 bunch basil
1 bunch flat parsley
30 black Nicoise olives, pitted, finely chopped
1 French baguette, sliced lengthwise
5 French breakfast radishes, thinly sliced
1 small white onion, thinly sliced
1 cup baby arugula
1 bunch of celery, light green inner leaves
Sea salt and cracked pepper to taste
Disclaimer - I did not pay to attend this event. All opinions in this post are my own.
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