The tomato-mozzarella-basil caprese salad is a true summer staple. When tomatoes are at their juiciest best, it is a joy to serve them with as little fuss as possible. The pairing of tomatoes and mozzarella is deliciously simple, creamy and fresh classic. I’ve taken the idea of the caprese in a lot of directions to maximize this lovely flavor combination, so it’s no wonder I eventually landed on this chicken salad version. I was looking for another creative way to make a wonderful cold salad for a summer meal, one that could be a centerpiece, not just a supporting character. But I wanted to do something lighter and fresher than the creamy mayonnaise form (not that there is anything wrong with that). I felt like chicken dressed in a vinaigrette style dressing would be perfect, and so I turned to this creamy flavor packed standard dressing from my repertoire. And it seemed only natural that a salad with a dressing made with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese have an Italian flair. So tender chicken, creamy mozzarella, crisp pine nuts, juicy tomatoes and a sprinkle of basil it is.
I find mozzarella “pearls” easily in the grocery store, they are little bite-sized balls of cheese perfectly suited for salad. If you don’t find these, tear a ball of fresh mozzarella into small pieces instead. I like the symmetry of round cherry tomatoes and the bright pop of red, but you could easily use oblong grape tomatoes or varicolored varieties. There is likely to be some dressing left over, but never fear. It is delicious on any green salad and will keep for a few days in the fridge.
Summer Caprese Chicken Salad
For the Dressing:
2 cloves garlic
½ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
2 Tablespoons white wine vinegar
Zest and juice of one lemon
¾ cup olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
For the Chicken:
4 boneless skinless chicken breast halves
¼ cup pine nuts
8 ounces mozzarella “pearls”
1 pint cherry tomatoes
1 bunch fresh basil leaves
For the Dressing:
Place the garlic, cheese, vinegar and lemon zest in the carafe of a blender and blend to a rough paste. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil until creamy and emulsified. Add the lemon juice and blend to combined. Taste and blend in salt and pepper as needed. Transfer to an airtight jar. The dressing will keep in the fridge for 5 days.
For the Salad:
Preheat the oven to 400°.
Place the chicken breasts on a roasting tray lined with non-stick foil. Brush them with olive oil, then season generously with salt and pepper. Roast until the chicken reaches 165°on a meat thermometer and the juices run clear, about 25 minutes. Leave the chicken breasts to cool completely, then cut into small chunks. Place the chicken in a bowl and add the mozzarella, then pour over about half of the dressing and stir to coat completely. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for at least four hours or overnight.
About an hour before serving the salad, toast the pine nuts in a dry skillet until lightly golden and fragrant. Add the nuts to the chicken and mozzarella in the bowl. Half the cherry tomatoes and add to the salad. Stack up the basil leaves and roll into a tight cigar, then slice into thin strips. Add the basil to the salad and stir to combine everything. Shake the remaining dressing well to combine, then add a bit at a time until the salad is nicely covered in dressing, but there is not a great deal pooling in the bowl. You may not use all the dressing. Cover and keep in the fridge until shortly before serving.