Russell Norman: How To Cook Insalata Caprese

Russell Norman’s caprese requires superior tomatoes (but no flash)

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You know how it is. You’re in a restaurant, enjoying yourself with friends, family or loved ones, the food is great, the wine is flowing, the joint is jumping, and the conversation is scintillating. Then someone at the next table gets a camera out (invariably an enormous hi-tech SLR with a long lens and a flash) and before you know it, there’s a full-blown photo session going on as each new dish is placed on the table.

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There are now officially more food bloggers in the UK than there are men with beards, and it seems compulsory for anyone under 40 to have an Instagram or Twitter account peppered with photographs of food. But what is the etiquette for photographing food in restaurants? Why do so many people do it? Is it ever acceptable to use a flash? And should we be sharing our lunch with the rest of the world on social media?

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I think the first question is simple. It is always bad manners to interrupt or disturb other diners and if your photography is in any way obtrusive, then you have failed.

The second question is much more interesting. Why do we do it? Often people are so thrilled by the look of a dish, or so chuffed to be dining in a hot new restaurant, that they want to say, “Hey, look at me! Here’s what I’m about to eat and this is where I’m about to eat it.” Often it really is for that ubiquitous food blog (everyone’s a blogger these days).

Sometimes (and this is when I occasionally, discreetly and subtly take photographs myself in restaurants), it is for personal reference and cataloguing. The restaurant nerd in me likes to be reminded of the dishes I’ve eaten and what they looked like.

It is never, ever acceptable to use a flash, by the way.

Should we be posting snaps of our tea on Twitter? Probably not. Generally speaking, no one else is really interested in seeing photographs of your food. (Be honest: are you ever that interested in looking at pictures of theirs?) And the real problem is that unless it is beautifully stage-managed, expertly lit and cleverly shot, amateur food photography is rubbish. A dish has to be a real looker to stand out. Brown food always looks terrible, meat just looks dead, and anything covered in sauce looks disgusting.

But there are some exceptions, and if you really must photograph food, choose the simplest dishes with the brightest colours and loveliest shapes. The recipe that follows is as pretty as a picture and really is incredibly easy to prepare.

It is a beautiful summer salad from the Italian island of Capri and requires excellent ripe tomatoes. Do not skimp on cheap ones. They are simply not the same.

Additionally, resist the temptation to slice the ingredients and layer them neatly. This is a common arrangement in mediocre Italian restaurants and it looks awful. You need this salad to be fully incorporated and to appear as though it has been lovingly thrown together in a rural kitchen by a southern Italian grandmother with sun-baked skin, twinkly eyes – and a moustache. 

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Insalata caprese (above)

Serves 4

I’m not exaggerating when I say I could eat this dish every other day throughout the summer. In fact, I often do. Please make sure the ingredients are at room temperature before you start; the fridge inhibits flavour. Don’t forget to photograph your finished efforts and post on Twitter. If you hashtag #TheReluctantCook, I’ll be watching... yyyy

Ingredients:

20 ripe tomatoes, San Marzano and other expensive varieties
Flaky sea salt
4 x 125g balls buffalo mozzarella
20 basil leaves
Extra virgin olive oil
Focaccia to serve

Method:

1 | Cut the tomatoes into halves or bite-sized chunks and place into a mixing bowl. Crunch a few generous pinches of sea salt onto the cut sides of the tomatoes and leave to stand for five minutes.

2 | Cut or tear the mozzarella balls into sixths and add them to the bowl.

3 | Tear the basil leaves roughly and scatter over the tomatoes and cheese.

4 | Add a few glugs of olive oil and, using your hands, carefully turn all the ingredients over a few times until fully coated. Distribute equally into four large bowls and serve with a chilled white wine (Soave or Gavi di Gavi will do nicely) and a few thick slices of focaccia. The bread is essential for mopping up the juices from the bowl when you have finished.

Russell Norman runs a number of restaurants in London. Visit russellnorman.co; @RussellNorman

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MORE FOOD:

Russell Norman's Risotto Primavera
Simple Lamb Kebabs By Mark Hix
The Best Cheese Toasties In London
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