Legend has it that mozzarella (maht-suh-REHL-lah) was born when a clumsy cheese maker dropped curds into hot whey. It's a credible story: Mozzarella belongs to a cheese category known as "stretched-curd." It's made by warming curds in hot whey, then pulling them like taffy to achieve a texture that's slightly elastic.

Mozzarella hails from Southern Italy, where it cozied up to pizza. Originally, it was made from the milk of water buffalo, which has a higher fat content than cow's milk. Mozzarella di Bufala is still favored by gourmets. Mozzarella fior di latte is the more economical cow's milk version. Both of these mild, fresh cheeses are soft and high in moisture, best eaten within days of production. Low-moisture mozzarella, the dense cheese sold in blocks and grated for commercial pizza, was invented in the United States to extend shelf life and accommodate long-distance distribution.

Fresh mozzarella is a feature of insalata caprese, the popular salad of tomatoes, basil and olive oil. Because it melts well, it's a common addition to baked pastas. Fresh mozzarella is now widely available, but a heightened interest in the food arts has many cooks producing it at home. Armed with a gallon of milk, a microwave, a thermometer, and a few cents worth of rennet and citric acid (available online or from cheese-making supply houses), you can participate in a bit of bacterial wizardry. In literally half an hour, you can call yourself a cheese maker.

Roasted peppers and garlic add punch to ripe tomatoes. Serve this salad as part of an antipasto platter with crusty bread, melon and prosciutto.

>Caprese Salad with Peppers

4 large heirloom tomatoes, chopped

1 pound fresh mozzarella, chopped

1/2 cup chopped roasted red peppers

8 to 10 fresh basil leaves, chopped

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 garlic clove, minced

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Coarsely ground black pepper

Combine tomatoes, mozzarella, roasted peppers and basil in a large bowl. Mix olive oil with garlic, salt and pepper; drizzle over tomato mixture and toss gently. Serves 6.

(Recipe by Stacey Morris.)

Per serving: 230 calories, 10g fat, 26g prot., 9g carbs., 4g fiber, 740mg sodium.

Look for Relish magazine the first Thursday of each month in The Buffalo News.