Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese Helps Celebrate Summer

As summer temperatures climb, what is more tempting than a fresh salad? And what salad is more appealing to the eye and to the taste buds than Caprese Salad? The sublimely fresh and colorful combination -- Fresh Mozzarella cheese, luscious tomatoes and aromatic basil -- is just magical.

The classic Caprese Salad can be an inspiration for a number of creative dishes, says Debbie Casucci-Crave, of Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese. She and her husband, George, craft award-winning Fresh Mozzarella, using milk from the Holstein cows on the dairy farm operated by the Crave brothers.

Debbie loves foods that reflect her own family’s Italian heritage. And while she is a fan of the classic Caprese Salad, she also enjoys reinterpreting the familiar dish, either by plating the salad creatively, or by updating the recipe with less-traditional but equally delicious ingredients.

Debbie starts every Caprese Salad with Crave Brothers Farmstead Classics Fresh Mozzarella, a creamy white soft cheese that they make in a variety of sizes: Perline is a tiny, 2-gram ball, Ciliegine is a cherry-size ball, and Bocconcini is a small ball of about 1.5 ounces. Fresh Mozzarella styles that are good for slicing include Ovoline, an egg-sized ball of approximately 4 ounces, 8-ounce Balls; and 1-pound Logs. Offering the ultimate in sliced convenienceare medallions, pre-sliced portions of Fresh Mozzarella and Marinated Fresh Mozzarella, which is made with a custom blend of olive oil and spices.

It’s important to use only the freshest tomatoes and basil. Summer is the perfect time for this because perfectly ripe ingredients are widely available, from back-yard gardens, farmers markets and grocery stores. But once you’ve chosen the right cheese, basil and tomatoes, the sky is the limit for creative ideas, says Debbie.

Sliced Salad: For a rustic, bountiful salad, alternate hearty slices of Fresh Mozzarella with equally thick slices of plum tomatoes on a platter. For a more elegant approach, use thinner slices of cheese, alternated with thin slices of tomato on a delicate plate. Or create a composed Caprese Salad in the style of a Cobb salad, with each component arranged in a straight or diagonal line across the plate; either Medallions or Perline Fresh Mozzarella will work well. In any case, drizzle the salad with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, sprinkle with sea salt and freshly ground pepper, and add fragrant basil, with the leaves whole, chopped, or torn into small pieces.

Skewered Salad: For this easy and fun dish, use Ciliegine or Bocconcini balls and alternate on a wooden skewer with cherry tomatoes and a folded basil leaf. The Fresh Mozzarella, tomatoes and basil can be left whole or cut in half. Serve the skewers as a colorful garnish with an entrée of grilled meat, fish or pasta. Or, showcase the skewers on a buffet: Artfully arrange them on a large platter, or put them in a vase, like colorful, edible flowers.

Bite-Size Treats: For Caprese Salad as finger food, cut the tops off cherry tomatoes and, with a melon baller or serrated grapefruit spoon, remove the seeds. Turn the tomatoes upside down to drain. Cut a thin slice off the bottom of the tomatoes, to make a more stable base. Cut Fresh Mozzarella into cubes that fit inside the tomatoes, and stuff each tomato with a cheese cube. Sprinkle with olive oil, salt and pepper, and garnish with basil leaves. For more eye appeal, use cherry tomatoes in varied colors – red, orange, yellow and multi-colors.

Caprese Sandwich: Start with hearty Italian buns or bread. Sprinkle the bread with olive oil or balsamic vinegar, and add a smear of flavorful pesto. Then layer on slices of creamy Fresh Mozzarella and fresh tomatoes, and top with another drizzle of olive oil, a little salt and freshly ground pepper, and basil leaves. Serve open-faced or top with another slice of bread for a simply delicious Caprese Salad Sandwich.

Chopped or Tossed Salad: For a quick and colorful Caprese Salad variation, toss Fresh Mozzarella Perline, Ciliegine or Bocconcini balls or cubes of Fresh Mozzarella with tomatoes similar in size to the cheese. For maximum eye appeal, use heirloom cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes or tear-drop tomatoes. Sprinkle with basil leaves, and add extra texture and flavor with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, a bit of honey, Italian seasoning, or pine nuts. Other add-ins can include rings of red onions, al dente pasta or even bite-size chunks torn off a loaf of hearty Italian bread.

Debbie Crave says that these ideas are just springboards for other reinterpretations of a classic Caprese Salad, and points out the creative energies at work at these acclaimed specialty stores: Larry’s Market, in suburban Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Metcalfe’s Market, with locations in Madison and Wauwatosa, Wisconsin.

Larry’s Market: This store, originally known as The Brown Deer Market, has been a neighborhood fixture for over 100 years. In the 1960s, Larry Ehlers, then an employee of the store, became fascinated with selling “exotic” merchandise such as fresh-cut flowers, frozen foods, perishables and specialty cheeses – items that were novel products in food stores at the time. Ehlers later bought the store, renamed it Larry’s Market, and proceeded to set the bar for specialty food purveyors in Milwaukee. Today, Steve Ehlers ensures that Larry’s Market maintains its edge by being open to new products, offering classes and tasting opportunities, and stocking a variety of quality products. At the heart of Larry’s Market is the cheese case, with a selection of fine cheeses from around the world -- and from Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese, located just an hour away in Waterloo, Wisconsin.

With the same original thinking that has made Larry’s Market a specialty food destination, Steve Ehlers offers a new take on the Caprese Salad. Inspired by the milky flavor, smooth texture and versatility of Fresh Mozzarella from Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese, he transformed the traditional Italian salad into a bold, Mexican-style dish. He starts with traditional Caprese ingredients – Fresh Mozzarella cheese, olive oil, salt and pepper. But he uses sliced and grilled yellow squash instead of the usual fresh tomatoes, cilantro in place of basil, and toasted pepita (pumpkin seeds) rather than pine nuts. Ehlers adds popular Mexican flavor accents such as chopped onions and jalapeno peppers, and a squeeze of fresh lime juice. The result is a zesty and delicious salad that pays homage to the original Italian Caprese, yet is truly distinctive.

Metcalfe’s Market: The Metcalfe family operates two premiere food stores: one in Madison and one about 75 miles away, in a Milwaukee suburb. The stores offer a wealth of grocery and culinary options, with outstanding meat, seafood, produce, bakery, wine and deli departments, as well as a cheese department that features 500 varieties of cheese from Wisconsin and from around the world. To guide the ever-increasing emphasis on fine fresh and prepared foods at Metcalfe’s Markets, Leah Caplan joined the company in 2009. Caplan, who previously was corporate chef at Kraft Foods and chef/proprietor of the Washington Island Hotel, Restaurant and Culinary School, delves into everything from recipe development to serving as the liaison with local vendors of produce, meat, vegetables and cheese.

Caplan’s innovative, reinvented Caprese Salad is made with Ciliegine Fresh Mozzarella, fresh basil and Orecchiette pasta (orecchiette is Italian for “little ears,” the shape of the pasta). In the summer, when fresh local produce is at its peak, she finishes the salad with sunflower oil and slices of fresh, meaty heirloom tomatoes. In the winter, with a less-dependable supply of good fresh produce, Caplan makes “Year-Round Tomato Dressing,” a tasty blend of tomato juice, red wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar, ketchup, salt, pepper and fresh parsley. Both of Caplan’s salads meld traditional Caprese Salad ingredients in a unique and flavorful way.

Debbie Crave says that fresh interpretations of the Caprese Salad merit their own place alongside the classic Caprese Salad – and that they are not intended to displace the always-popular original.

“What’s amazing about Caprese Salad is that it is so simple and yet perfect,” Debbie said. “A novice cook can make a Caprese salad that tastes as good as one made by an expert chef.”

In virtually any style of Caprese Salad, the mix of flavors, textures and colors is deeply satisfying. The marriage of garden-fresh basil, vine-ripened tomatoes and creamy, mild farmstead Fresh Mozzarella cheese is a special gift of summer. Mangia!

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