Most folks think of mozzarella as pizza’s best friend, but cooks in the know realize there is so much more to it than a gooey, cheesy topping. Mozzarella is a soft cheese that isn’t aged as most cheeses are. Originally, mozzarella was made from the milk of water buffalos; some cheese makers still use their milk for mozzarella, but most make the cheese from cow’s milk because it is both more affordable and more available. Marinated mozzarella, whether store bought or homemade, is typically bathed in high-quality olive oil in combination with herbs, spices, or other flavorings.
The wise cook keeps a jar or two of marinated mozzarella on hand to transform into an instant appetizer together with crackers or hearty peasant bread for unexpected guests. This cheese platter rises to rustic elegance with the addition of oil-cured or stuffed olives and some cured, dried sausage. Halving sun-warmed patio or cherry tomatoes and drizzling a little of the olive oil marinade over them make the platter complete.
Mozzarella is considered a soft cheese, but it isn’t spreadable in the same way that brie or Camembert cheeses are. Most marinated mozzarella that is available on supermarket shelves is baby cheese, also called bocconcini. This doesn’t refer to the age of the cheese, because all mozzarella is fresh, or unaged, but to the size of the rounds, which are about the size of a thumb tip.
Fans of marinated mozzarella have found other uses for it as well. Adding it to salad veggies, such as baby spinach or romaine, carrots, and cucumbers, transforms an ordinary salad into a satisfying meal. An equally simple entrée requires only cooked pasta in addition to the cheese. Adding the contents of the jar, including the olive oil, to a pot of hot pasta or a bowl of cold, leftover pasta makes an instant gourmet feast, especially with fresh basil tossed in.
It’s easy to create homemade marinated mozzarella, but it is important to use the highest-quality cheese and olive oil available. A traditional marinade typically includes a couple of cloves of garlic, either minced or whole, a shake or two of dried red pepper, fresh ground black pepper, and either a squeeze of a lemon or a bit of lemon peel. Creative cooks can experiment with other herbs, such as thyme, rosemary, or even lavender, and other seasonings, such as curry, or other ingredients, like capers.