It’s rare that I eat in a restaurant and e-mail the chef immediately after for a recipe, but that’s exactly what happened after feasting on the marinated buffalo mozzarella and local tomato salad at Duke’s Grocery.
You’ll find variations on this caprese-like salad throughout the city, all summer long. Too often they’re bland, made with lackluster tomatoes, stiff mozzarella, watery balsamic, or all of the above. Chef Alex McCoy’s version is the opposite. You’ll only see it on the daily changing chalkboard menu if sweet local tomatoes are available; McCoy gets his from Potomac Farm Market. The creamy mozzarella di bufala is top-quality, and burrata makes a nice substitute if you’re really feeling decadent.
What makes the dish, besides the essential ingredients, is the toasted fennel, spicy chili, and fresh herb vinaigrette. The mixture acts both as a marinade for the cheese and the salad dressing.
The result: a vibrant take on the summertime staple.
Marinated Mozzarella and Local Tomato Salad From Duke’s Grocery
Serves 4 to 5
1 tablespoon whole fennel seeds
½ cup coarsely chopped herbs, such as chives, cilantro, Italian parsley, spring onion, and/or oregano
1½ tablespoons chopped birds eye chili, Thai chili, or serrano chili
8 cloves of garlic, chopped finely
¾ cup really nice, fruity olive oil
Zest and juice of three lemons
Salt and pepper to taste
4 balls of burrata or mozzarella di buffalo (try to find mozzarella from Campania)
4 or 5 local tomatoes
Optional: chervil, to garnish
Set a dry pan on medium high heat. Add the whole fennel seeds, tossing them and constantly moving the pan while they toast. You’ll know they’re ready when you smell the wonderful anise fragrance the seeds start to release. Remove them from the pan, let cool, and then crush them coarsely with the bottom of a heavy pan or a bowl.
In a glass bowl, mix together the chopped herbs, fennel seeds, chili, olive oil, lemon juice and zest, garlic, salt, and pepper. Let sit for about 30 minutes.
After 30 minutes, tear the cheese balls in half with your hands and toss them in the bowl with the herb vinaigrette. Let sit for another 20 to 30 minutes to absorb all of the delicious flavors and spices.
Slice your tomato. Don’t be modest. We want big, thick, juicy slices of tomato. Do this a few minutes before plating, so the tomato won’t dry out. Fan your tomatoes out on a plate or serving piece, and lightly season with salt and pepper.
Remove the cheese balls from the vinaigrette and lay them over your tomato, ripping the cheese apart a bit more as you spread it out.
Spoon some of the delicious herb vinaigrette over the cheese and tomato, making sure not to inundate the fruit with too much oil.
Garnish with chervil, a touch more salt and pepper (or more hot chili), and chow down!