It's on virtually every Italian restaurant's summer menu, and one of the star ingredients is overflowing on a farmer's market table near you. Insalata caprese, that iconic antipasto, takes the delight of a fresh tomato and does it one better by adding two of the tomato's most natural partners: basil and cheese. It's a classic that's taken firm hold in the States, or at least in this corner of my state, and has become so common that it's almost cliché.
But like so many clichés--Beethoven's 5th symphony, anyone?--there's a good, solid grounding at the heart of its overwhelming popularity. What better distillation of summer's bounty than fresh, juicy tomatoes, soft mozzarella cheese, and sweet basil? Oh, you can dress it up with some balsamic vinegar and some black pepper or what have you, but all you really need is some salt and perhaps a bit of olive oil. Perfection.
It's hard to imagine making insalata caprese even more sublime than it already is, but if there's a way, I think I've found it. The key--bear with me here--is rice. Not just rice, but lovely short-grain Italian rice that's been slowly cooked with leeks and broth and wine until it becomes a creamy, unctuous mess. In other words, risotto.
Making risotto in the middle of summer might sound crazy, and all I have to say about that is thank goodness for air conditioning! If I'm going to be standing around stirring a pot over a hot stove for half an hour when it's 85F or warmer outside, I'll be a much happier camper if there's a modern marvel blasting cool air into my kitchen. I typically feel guilty for running the air conditioning just so that I can be comfortable while cooking something that probably isn't very summer-friendly, but to be honest, I forgot all about the guilt when I tasted this risotto.
Folks, this one's a winner. I encourage--nay, I implore you to make the pilgrimage to your favorite farmer's market, buy yourself some ripe tomatoes and basil and cheese, and cook this risotto as soon as you possibly can. (Unless you don't care for risotto, in which case, you may picture me giving you my sternest look.) Make it, taste it, love it. The tomatoes, added in off the heat, don't cook so much as warm gently, swathed in risotto's viscous goodness.
You can serve it with a green salad if you like; but when you taste the risotto, in all likelihood you'll forget about everything else on the table. The real danger here is that you'll want to eat the whole pot yourself, which will risk a) the alienation of your dining companions, and b) the need for a dolly to wheel you from the table to your bed. Don't say I didn't warn you.