Heirloom Caprese Salad

Take advantage of summer's best heirloom tomatoes to create this chopped caprese, packed with pesto and olives. 

Growing up, raw tomato was my least favorite vegetable. Nothing elicited more feigned vomiting or shrieks of "ewwwwww!" than a simple slice of tomato accidentally landing on my sandwich. 


I unfairly blamed my mom for many things growing up, but even she will admit to being the source of my severe tomato aversion. Want to see a grown woman have a panic attack? Just place a wedge of beefsteak on her plate and let the fun begin. In a perfect example of social learning theory (look at that psychology degree paying off!), I picked up this same behavior. 

It wasn’t until many years later when I tried a slice of heirloom tomato in a caprese salad that I finally came around. It was my love of cheese that inspired me to swallow my fears and take that first bite, and when I did, I found it was nothing like the mealy bland tomatoes I tried in the past. This tomato was firm and juicy with the perfect balance of fruity sweetness and acidity. It was more than a vehicle for mozzarella - it was delicious!


There’s a reason this heirloom tomato tasted so different from the ones I was used to. Most grocery store vegetables are cultivated to hold up through transport, look pretty on the shelf and to resist herbicides and pesticides. Taste isn’t very high on that list of priorities. Although there is no strict definition for an heirloom plant, they are typically old varieties, developed before the age of industrial agriculture. Heirlooms seeds were preserved by passing them down generation to generation. Families usually picked for the tastiest vegetable, not necessarily the best looking or most shipable.
If you garden, you should grow heirloom plants. It's a fun way to preserve our heritage, especially here in the agricultural south. You can find some heirloom varieties at home and gardening stores, like Home Depot. Many health food stores also have a good selection of heirloom seeds. If you look online, you'll likely find a seed company (maybe your alma mater) and buy locally.  However, if you share in my inability to grow plants from seed (also my mom's fault), look to your local farmer's market, which is sure to have plenty of seedlings this time of year!

Here's a look at my favorite heirloom tomatoes:
Cherokee Purple: I love their beautiful, deep reddish-purple color. It has a rich flavor and very few seeds, which are my least favorite part of the tomato. This tomato became popular when it was sent to a seed company by a man living in Tennessee stating it was given to his family by Cherokee neighbors 100 years earlier.  Say a little prayer that our Cherokee Purple plant starts to produce! Update - it didn't....
Brandywine: One of the most popular heirloom varieties, also growing in my backyard right now, and this one actually is producing. The fruit is typically large with a pink color and very low acidity. Brandywine tomatoes are often cited as the best tasting tomato.  
Chocolate Stripes: A large, mahogany red tomato with olive green stripes. It has an earthy flavor with what some call chocolate undertones.
San Marzano: These blood red Italian plum tomatoes are often found canned at the grocery store and are considered the highest quality canned tomato. San Marzano's are grown in the rich volcanic soil at Mount Vesuvius (of Pompeii fame) and are under strict regulation, but you can purchase the seeds online and grow them at home. 
Yellow Pear Tomato: These are small, yellow pear shaped tomatoes, which I've found to be very easy to grow, even for me! They were first grown in the 1700s in Europe. The little yellow tomatoes in these pictures are the first of our season's crop. 
Snow White: This small tomato turns ivory when ripe, which makes for an elegant presentation. They have a very sweet flavor.
Black Prince Tomato: This heirloom was actually first cultivated in Siberia, not exactly the place you associate with tomatoes.  It has an incredibly rich, juicy flavor. I'm presuming it would do well in colder climates and I hear it grows well on the patio, so my NYC/Boston readers, check this one out!
Heirloom Caprese Salad
Author: Rachael Hartley, RD, LD, CDE
Serves: 4
Feel free to use this recipe as a template. Try capers instead of olives or balsamic and olive oil instead of pesto. You could also make this vegan by substituting white beans or cubed tofu for the mozzarella. Instead of serving it with the baguette on the side, use the baguette to make croutons and turn it into panzanella.
  • 1 1/2 lb mixed heirloom tomatoes of choice
  • 1/3 cup kalamata olives, pitted and chopped
  • 1/4 cup basil leaves, slivered
  • 8 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese
  • 2 tablespoons pesto
  • 6 cups arugula
  • 1/2 good baguette
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1-2 tablespoon olive oil
  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Slice the baguette. Mix olive oil with garlic in a small bowl. Lay the baguette slices evenly on a baking sheet. Using a pastry brush, brush the tops of each slice with the garlic oil. Toast in the oven for 5-7 minutes until toasted. Remove from oven, sprinkle with sea salt and cracked black pepper.
  3. Cut the large and medium tomatoes in wedges, then cut each wedge in half. Half the small tomatoes. Place in a large bowl. Add olives, basil, mozzarella and pesto. Toss together. Season with salt and black pepper.
  4. Divide arugula evenly among 4 bowls. Top with 1/4th of the salad. Serve with baguette slices.