New York City food icon Eli Zabar is generally a light-hearted guy, but when asked to choose an olive oil during a recent visit to his grocery spot Eli’s Vinegar Factory, his manner grew serious. “I have very strong feelings about olive oil,” he announced.
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Zabar, 72, is also as proud as a new father of his rows and rows of colorful heirloom tomatoes and fragrant basil grown across seven rooftop greenhouses on the Upper East Side. And his feelings on mozzarella that isn’t made fresh daily in his own facility with milk from a small farm in Vermont? “I would say you should pretty much skip it. Live without mozzarella.”
This is the kind of guy that knows a good Caprese salad. So, we had him make us one (don’t be jealous!) and share his time-tested tips for you to follow just as the season’s juicy crop is hitting the farmers markets.
NYC’s Original Urban Farmer
Rooftop farms are all the rage these days, but Zabar just may be the city’s original greens-in-the-sky grower.
More Reading: Hyperlocal produce: New York City’s biggest urban farms
“Let me show you how this all started,” he says to me, beckoning me towards freshly baked cherry pies and sourdough breads. In 1995, he decided to harness the heat from his many ovens to warm greenhouses above the kitchens, building an energy-efficient, organic farming system that’s now over half an acre and produces 20 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, all kinds of herbs, salad greens like deliciously spicy arugula, berries, and more. The produce is sold in his markets uptown and used at his local restaurants and wine bars, including E.A.T, Eli’s Table, and the new Eli’s Essentials Wine Bar.
The Perfect Caprese Salad
No matter which of those establishments you visit, you’ll notice his attention to quality ingredients that are good for you, the planet, and your palate. But in case you can’t head to one of those spots and enjoy a tomato picked earlier that day, here are Zabar’s seven simple steps to make the perfect Caprese salad on a hot August day.
1. Don’t slice the tomato like you’re putting it on a sandwich. Instead, cut thick, chunky wedges.“I think you get more of the flavor that way,” he says, plus a juicy, meaty bite. The tomato, of course, should be as fresh as possible.
2. Buy super fresh mozzarella. Head to the farmers market or a specialty grocer to try to get freshly-made cheese made with milk from happy, grass-fed cows. It’s worth it, really.
3. Make sure the tomatoes and mozzarella are warm. Refrigeration is the enemy of flavor in both cases.
4. Drizzle with the highest quality olive oil. Zabar imports his own, of course, but no matter what you have access to, buy quality EVOO and store it in a cool, dark place. “Most decent oils will have a date somewhere on the bottle, what year they were harvested,” Zabar advises, “and you should not get oil that’s more than a year old. “ One caveat: The harvest was rough last year, so he says going back to 2013 is okay.
5. Use sherry or red wine vinegar instead of balsamic. Balsamic is a Caprese staple, but Zabar says the flavor is too overpowering. “Whatever character the salad had, it loses it.” he says. Use sherry or red wine instead, with one part vinegar to three parts olive oil.
6. Be generous with flaky sea salt and cracked pepper.
7. Chop the basil into thin strips and sprinkle it on top. Like the balsamic, big leaves will overpower the other flavors. Also, when you chop it up, it’ll become amazingly fragrant. And making your mouth water is a good thing when it comes to the final step before sitting down to enjoy. —Lisa Elaine Held
For more information, visit www.elizabar.com
(All Photos: Lisa Elaine Held for Well+Good)