A new twist on a classic: ladybug caprese salad

There is nothing like the flavors of fresh mozzarella, basil, olive oil and tomatoes. The myriad of ways these simple ingredients can be put together boggles the mind, ranging from pizza to lasagna to panini.  The culmination of this combination is an excellent example of the simplicity of Italian cuisines: Caprese... nothing more than a simple insalata (salad) of these basic components.

While you can simply lay some slices of tomato on a plate, top them with mozzarella and basil, and then drizzle with extra virgin olive oil, at times you want some to do something to impress or simply for fun, and the kids will love making...
Ladybug Caprese Insalata.

It couldn't be easier. Place slices of mozzarella on your plate (placing mozzarella in the freezer for 15 minutes will help make slicing easier) then top each one with a fresh basil leaf. Next, take cherry tomatoes and with a very sharp paring knife, cut the separation between the two "wings" a little more than halfway up and tease them open--just a little so they look like beetle wings. Next, slice a bit of the "neck" of the tomato off so you can tuck a pitted, black olive into it as the "head". The two antennas are easy to make using the soft stems on the end of the leaves. Make holes with a toothpick, then insert the stems.

Now, how to make the spots has become a subject of debate all over social media. There are several ways to make them. The first (and easiest) is to use aged balsamic vinegar... dotting the spots on using a toothpick. (The thin stuff they pass off as balsamic in supermarkets will not work). Aged balsamic is viscus enough to stick and shouldn't drip or more. Just be careful not to drizzle olive oil on the backs of your ladybugs if you use this method. If you don't want to spend the extra cash on aged balsamic, just reduce the supermarket variety in a saucepan under high heat to create a reduction--a thick glaze--and use that.

The second way, is to cut very tiny dots from the skin of a black olive. Use a sharp paring knife to skin the olive, then do very small julienne strips. Then, slice into little dot shapes. It's a bit finicky, but not really hard to do. The dampness of the inside of each olive skin dot will help stick them to the cherry tomatoes. Pick each "dot" up with the tip of your paring knife to put into place.

A third way is to use individual grains of course, black sea salt. You can pierce the skins of the tomatoes at each location of a dot, then gently sit a grain of salt in each one.

A fourth method is to take some cream cheese and color it with black paste food coloring (the type used in cake decorating). Then use a very small circular piping tip and pipe little dots onto the ladybug backs.

Some think that an edible marker can create the dots, but my experience in using these markers is that they are a water based dye and will bead up on the smooth skin of a tomato. You won't be able to draw a spot that will hold its shape and they might even run, especially if you drizzle extra virgin olive oil over the creation.  

To finish off the plate, carefully sprinkle some fresh black pepper around the mozzarella but be careful not to get any on your ladybugs. Alternately, you can leave out the black pepper. Then drizzle extra virgin olive oil over the creation, but remember, if using balsamic as the dots, steer clear of them. Finish with a sprinkle of sea salt.

You can make your Ladybugs on a serving platter or on individual plates, perhaps two per person.

--Jerry Finzi

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