If you’re like us and have a bounty of tomatoes and basil from your garden (or your local farmer’s market), this is the perfect meal to take advantage of these summer staples. And the recipe, from America’s Test Kitchen, is as easy as the Italian island of Capri (the supposed birthplace of the caprese salad) is beautiful. It’s so easy that it barely even constitutes a “recipe” in the strict sense of measured ingredients and detailed instructions. The most important take-away from the recipe is the technique of freezing the mozzarella cheese before adding it to the hot cooked pasta to keep the cheese from melting into a gooey mess. The rest is simple: whisk together olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, a shallot and salt & pepper for the dressing and marinate the tomatoes in it; boil the pasta; combine the pasta, mozzarella and tomatoes; then add the basil just before serving. The flavor combination of vine-ripe tomatoes, creamy mozzarella and homegrown basil is as fresh as it gets. Adding al dente pasta provides a hearty texture and elevates a simple side salad into an ideal summer main course.
Start by whisking together 1/4 cup olive oil, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, 1 minced garlic clove, 1 finely chopped shallot, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper in a large bowl. (Pro tip: when the recipe recommends a large bowl, go ahead and use the big one, or take your chances by starting with the medium-sized bowl and having to also dirty the large bowl when you later realize all the ingredients won’t fit in the medium bowl.)
Add the tomatoes (cored, seeded and diced) to the dressing and marinate. We marinated ours for about half an hour, and the recipe says not to marinate for longer than 45 minutes.
Cut the mozzarella into 1/2 to 1 inch pieces (we used the store-bought mozzarella shaped in balls and immersed in a tub of whatever that cheese liquid is, and cut them into fourths), place the cheese on a plate and put it in the freezer until the cheese is slightly firm — about 10 minutes.
While the tomatoes marinate and the cheese chills, boil the pasta in salted water until al dente. We used whole wheat penne pasta, but any short tubular or circular pasta will work just as well.
Drain the pasta, then add it and the mozzarella to the bowl with the tomatoes (this was my “we’re gonna need a bigger bowl” moment), and let the mixture sit for about 5 minutes.
Just prior to serving, add the chopped basil and taste. Adjust the flavors with additional lemon juice, salt & pepper and/or a little sugar.
We served our pasta with a green bean side dish for a healthy, summer-centric meal.