Red, White and Green

With its hues of red, white and green, it looked like the Italian flag on a plate. The colours of the dish were reinforced by a liberal dusting of dehydrated tomato, celery and asparagus around the plate. The burrata from the antipasti menu at Ottimo seemed like a literal embodiment of the old adage that one of the best ways to get to know a country is by eating it.

Minimalism and a respect for fresh produce is predominant in Italian cooking. And this burrata, served with sundried tomatoes, pesto, and some lightly dressed salad greens, seems to do just that. Of course, things can be a bit more minimalistic that this. So, we must back up a little bit and talk about another Italian antipasto first.

The Caprese Salad is a fine example of how simple but good-quality ingredients can be served without much mucking around, allowing them to sing both on their own and in unison. Ripe tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, basil, some good quality extra virgin olive oil and balsamic, and a bit of salt and freshly cracked black pepper; that’s it. With no complicated dressing or intricate knife skills, this might be one of the simplest salads to put together.

What makes a caprese salad great is the ingredients. With so few things on the plate, there is no room to hide. In a dish where the tomato speaks for itself, you need good-quality heirloom or vine-ripened tomatoes that have a deep flavour. The basil needs to be fresh, and the olive oil and balsamic need to be of the best quality possible.

Which brings us to the mozzarella. There is a whole variety of  mozzarella out there, but Italy’s buffalo milk mozzarella is the king. The curds are separated from the whey and re-cooked in hot water, which makes it stretchy. The more you work it, the stretchier and more layered it becomes, much like a saltwater taffy. A good quality mozzarella should be firm but not rubbery, with a delicate milky flavour. 

And the mozzarella at Ottimo is spectacular. Sourced from Italy, you can taste the milk. The texture is just perfect, very different from the slightly gummy mozzarella found elsewhere. It is the hero of their caprese. The one thing which made me not like their caprese all that much was the tomato. As Vir Sanghvi so correctly points out: “you can’t get good tomatoes in India”. And with the absence of a good-quality tomato to hold its ground, the caprese fell flat.

Which is why drying out the tomatoes for the burrata made such a difference. I have a bit of a weak-spot for sundried tomatoes, dated though the ingredient may be. It is never a replacement for premium-quality tomatoes, but when they are unavailable, which is usually the case in India, drying out the tomatoes in the sun or even the oven creates an end-product that is tart, sharp and bursting with tomato flavour. What it lacks in freshness, it makes up for in intensity.

Which brings us to the burrata itself. Burrata is made by stuffing mozzarella with stracciatella, a mixture of cream and stretched, shredded mozzarella curds. The addition of cream makes it richer, and since they use really good mozzarella to begin with, their burrata is mind-blowingly good. The contrast of the firm, milky mozzarella and the rich creamy stracciatella is spectacular. Pair that with the sharp bite of the sundried tomato, and you’re in heaven.

The sundried tomatoes soaked in olive oil are flattened and cut into discs using a little cookie cutter. These discs are then carefully arranged on the burrata, making it visually reminiscent of a pepperoni pizza. The oil from the sundried tomatoes oozes ever so slightly onto the white burrata, and its bright orange hue stands out against the pristine white background.

Of course, there is something else colouring the burrata, and that is the green from the pesto. A classic pesto Genovese is made by combining fresh basil, pine nuts, parmesan, garlic, salt and extra virgin olive oil in a mortar and pestle to form a paste. There are other varieties of pesto, some swapping the pine nuts for walnuts or the basil for sundried tomatoes, but this is the gold standard.

The pesto is spread out in a generous layer on the burrata, adding a flavour accent to the tart tomatoes and the creamy cheese. At the bottom is a layer of salad greens, very lightly seasoned and dressed with olive oil, just to add a little bit of texture to an otherwise texturally monotonous dish.

In a way, this dish takes the simple caprese salad and kicks each of its components up a few notches. The fresh tomato is sun-dried, the mozzarella is stuffed with even more shredded mozzarella and cream, while the basil is pounded with a handful of other ingredients into a pesto. There is no balsamic, but considering how intense the sundried tomatoes are, you don’t really miss the sharp acidity of the balsamic, the absence of which in a caprese (and this one in particular), would have been very noticeable.  

Eat everything together and you create a symphony in your mouth. You get the creamy, milky burrata, with the sharp acidity of the sundried tomato cutting through the richness, accented by the herby notes in the pesto and the subtle fresh crunch of the salad greens.

If an Insalata Caprese is all about simplicity and fresh ingredients, Ottimo’s burrata is a lesson in how each of those ingredients can be tweaked and twisted to create a very similar yet drastically different end-result. This might just be one of my most favourite vegetarian dishes of all time.



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