Department of Salad: Official Bulletin #4

Salad might save us. Let's all make some every single week.

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CHEF SALAD: Domenica Marchetti

I CAN’T REMEMBER HOW I KNOW DOMENICA MARCHETTI—the author of seven Italian cookbooks, a culinary tour guide, and an Italian cooking teacher (these days she teaches on Zoom). But I’ve had a crush on her Instagram feed for a long time.

Lately, she’s been drawing me in with alluring photos and videos in which she makes beautiful pastas by hand. But we bonded over a love of salads.

I grew up in the American South, so when it comes to Italian salads my mind contains mostly restaurant menu items. The insalata mista, the automatic caprese, some chicories, maybe a seafood salad, or the American-invented Sopranos-stereotype: filled with salami and cheese (which I love, so shut up).

Marchetti, on the other hand, spent summers as a kid on the Adriatic Coast, with her mother’s family. (Her mom arrived in the US in the 1950s, and married the son of Italian immigrants in Rhode Island.) “We would land in Rome, spend a few days, and then drive out to the beach. Back in those days, you had to go through the mountains, so it took about 4 hours. We’d spend the entire summer there, come back to Rome at the end of the summer for a few days, then go home.” Dreamy.

(My family went to the beach exactly once. My mom forgot her suitcase and had to wear the same white pants for a week and my father got so sunburned he turned maroon and I thought we were going to have to take him to the hospital. But this isn’t about me.)

When she grew up and became a newspaper reporter, Marchetti spent six months on an Associated Press internship in Rome, where she lived with her mother’s three sisters, from those long summer vacations. They all loved to be in the kitchen. She remembers rolling pasta and making ravioli with her mother, a great cook who’d learned at her own mother’s side—of course.

“It’s hard to be Italian and not learn to cook,” she said.

Another thing she said (after I admitted I’d never given the idea of an Italian salad tradition any concentrated thought before now) was: “I keep a running list of crimes against Italian food.”

So I tried to get on her good side.

“The U.S. is a nation of bad salads,” I crowed (even though I couldn’t really compare the two countries; I don’t recall eating a single salad during trips to Italy. Why would I, when so many restaurants have tables overflowing with room-temperature antipasti and splendid vegetable contorni on the menu?)

WEllll,” she replied. “It is and it isn’t. Italy doesn’t have salads like we have salad. I mean, I love a chef salad—and a Cobb salad.”

We both practically yelled: “I love Cobb salad!”

“But in Italy,” she continued, “when I was growing up, if you asked for a simple salad you’d get greens with pale pink tomatoes. I don’t know why, but that’s the way they did it until recently. Today there’s a chance you’ll get red tomatoes. And it was basically oil and vinegar at the table. Balsamic wasn’t a thing unless you were in Modena.”

This seemed weird to me, considering how much Italians seem to respect and love vegetables.

Marchetti, who has visited almost every region of Italy many times to research her cookbooks, agreed. “Italians really know vegetables—we think of Italian food as pizza, pasta, gelato, tiramisu blah blah blah,” she said. “But Italy has so many microclimates that everything grows there, from the bitter chicories of the north that are my favorite to tomatoes, and from artichokes to zucchini. Everything from A to Z grows there. And Italians are not wasteful people. There are so many ways that they preserve their vegetables and other foods.”

When it comes to making salad, Marchetti’s enthusiasm tends toward the serious Italian chicories. “Oh! Puntarella! With the long white stalks and serrated green leaves. The stalks are hollow. You cut off the green part and slice the white part into thin strips then plunge them into ice water and they curl up. You have that with an anchovy dressing.

“The chicories are so welcome! They’re available from late fall through early spring, when you’re eating these heavy roasts and stews—what is better than a bracing bitter chicory salad? Nothing!”

In spite of how welcome chicory salads are (I love that expression so much), it’s the memory of her Italian summers—not wasting a bit of anything delicious, preserving food—that has influenced Marchetti’s dearest salad dish.

“I think my affection is tied most of all to the insalata di riso,” she said, before telling me the story of her very favorite. And when she offered me the luscious sounding recipe, it was so welcome.

Photo by Domenica Marchetti

Domenica Marchetti’s Aunt Gilda’s Insalata di Riso

THIS SALAD COMES TO YOU by way of my Zia Gilda, the oldest of my mom’s three older sisters.

Although she was the oldest, Gilda was also the most unassuming. She loved fine things, like Bruno Magli shoes and Luisa Spagnoli dresses, but she was also modest, and the styles she chose were classic. It was the same with her cooking; she prepared simple, unfussy home fare with high-quality ingredients. This salad is a good example. She would make it for lunch during the summer when we were at the beach in Italy, and my sister and I loved it: the comforting rice, the chunks of egg and tuna, the confetti of diced vegetables and all the piquant flavors from the giardiniera, anchovies, olives, and capers. It was just the dish to set out when the heat was at its most oppressive and even the idea of sitting down to a meal was too much. "Ti fa venire l'appetito," as my aunt used to say. It gives you an appetite.

Happily, I’ve found that insalata di riso is just as appetizing in fall. Gilda never wrote down her recipe, and of course she never made it quite the same way twice. She used what was in season and what was in the pantry. So that’s what I do.

Here are some things to keep in mind. Let’s start with the rice, which should be a short-grain risotto rice such as arborio or Carnaroli. Except you don’t cook it as you would risotto. Instead, you boil it in salted water and then drain it. I won’t say that hard-boiled eggs and tuna are mandatory, but they kind of are, and as for the tuna it should be good-quality and packed in olive oil, not the water-packed stuff that feels like sawdust in your mouth. Some versions of this salad call for cut-up cocktail wieners in place of tuna—Italians use the German word “wurstel,” but I will always and forever reject this version. On the other hand, canned (wild) baby shrimp? Sure.

There’s a lot of room for improvisation when it comes to the vegetables in insalata di riso, but you should include some sort of veg pickle to give it that vinegar kick that works so well against the richness of the tuna and egg. I keep a lot of pickled vegetables in my fridge and in my pantry, some homemade, some store-bought. I adore them. At the moment, my stash includes sweet and sour roasted peppers, oil-preserved zucchini, giardiniera, sweet and sour pickled winter squash, and cocktail onions. All of those made it into my most recent salad. If you are even a little ambitious, you should try making some of these yourself (see the accompanying recipe for my Sweet and Sour Winter Squash Preserved in Oil*). But store-bought bottled peppers and giardiniera will work fine; just use a brand you like.

Like Gilda, I supplement the pickled vegetables in the salad with fresh or frozen ones—frozen (thawed) peas, sliced steamed string beans, maybe a diced up boiled potato. The dressing is nothing more than a few tablespoons of good olive oil, a spritz of lemon juice and a dollop of mayo to lightly bind the rice and vegetables (Duke’s or Hellmann’s please; if you use Miracle Whip you are dead to me). I like to add a little of the canned tuna oil and a splash of giardiniera brine, too.

GILDA’S INSALATA DI RISO (Rice Salad)
Makes 6 generous main-course servings

  • 1 1/2 cups arborio or other short-grain risotto rice

  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

  • One (7-ounce) can good tuna in olive oil, drained or not; your choice

  • One (4-ounce) can wild baby shrimp, drained (optional)

  • 3 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and quartered lengthwise, then halved crosswise

  • 2 to 4 best-quality oil-packed anchovy fillets

  • 1 cup diced giardiniera (Italian pickled vegetables)

  • 1/2 cup frozen peas, thawed

  • 1 boiled yellow potato, diced

  • 1/2 cup diced roasted peppers, homemade or bottled

  • 1/2 cup diced sweet & sour winter squash (optional; see accompanying recipe below*)

  • 1/2 cup olives (purple or green or a mix)

  • 2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

  • 1 tablespoon non-pareil capers, drained

  • Juice of 1 small lemon

  • 1/4 cup mayonnaise

  • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

    1. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil and salt it generously. Stir in the rice. When the water returns to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and cook at a gentle simmer for 17 to 20 minutes, or until the rice is al dente (tender but still a bit firm and not at all mushy). Drain the rice in a colander set in the sink; then transfer it to a large bowl. Toss the rice with the olive oil.

    2. Add the tuna, baby shrimp (if using) eggs, anchovies, giardiniera, peas, potato, peppers, winter squash (if using), olives, parsley, and capers. Gently fold everything together. Fold in the lemon juice and mayonnaise; taste and season with salt and pepper.

    3. Spoon the rice salad into a serving bowl. Cover and let it sit at room temperature for 30 to 60 minutes before serving; otherwise refrigerate it. Be sure to let it sit out at room temperature a bit before serving.

    Photo by Lauren Volo

*Recipe: SWEET AND SOUR WINTER SQUASH PRESERVED IN OIL

from Preserving Italy

In Sicily, winter squash is sliced and fried in olive oil, then seasoned with vinegar, sugar, salt and mint. This oil preserve pays tribute to those southern Italian flavors. Use a squash that is easy to peel, like butternut.

Makes 1 1/2 to 2 pints

  • 1 butternut squash (1 1/2 to 2 pounds)

  • 2 cups white wine vinegar

  • 1 1/2 cups sugar

  • 1 fresh chile pepper, sliced crosswise; or a pinch of crushed dried chile pepper

  • 1 teaspoon dried mint

  • 1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons fine salt

  • Good sunflower oil or olive oil

Equipment: 3 or 4 sterilized 1/2-pint jars with their lids

  1. Slice the squash in half lengthwise. Scoop out the seeds and any stringy pulp and discard (or reserve the seeds for another use). Peel off the rind with a sharp paring knife and cut the squash halves into wedges or thinnish pieces. Put them in a large heatproof bowl.

  2. Combine the vinegar, sugar, chile pepper, mint, and salt in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Stir once or twice to dissolve the sugar. Pour the boiling brine over the squash. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and let steep overnight.

  3. Drain the squash, reserving the brine. Return the brine to the saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Boil vigorously for 2 minutes, then carefully tip in the squash. Return to a boil and boil until the squash is just beginning to soften, about 2 minutes—it should still be a little crunchy. Drain the squash and spread it out on clean kitchen towels to dry for a couple of hours.

  4. Pack the squash tightly into the prepared jars, leaving about 1-inch headspace. Pour enough oil over the squash to cover the pieces completely. Cover tightly with the lids and let stand at room temperature for 24 to 48 hours. Store in the refrigerator for up to 3 months.

  5. To serve, remove as much as you plan to use from a jar and let it come to room temperature (the oil congeals in the fridge). Top off what’s left in the jar with a little more oil to keep the remaining squash submerged.

TEST KITCHEN

RECIPES

*Emily's Purloined Beet and Lentil Salad

WHEN DOMENICA AND I WERE TALKING about some of our favorite salads, I realized that even though I love cool, refreshing leafy green salads any time of the year and any time of day, when it gets a little colder I start to unconsciously focus on salads with no lettuce at all. I hadn’t noticed that my body is still attuned to the plan the planet and its seasons made for us. Which is not to say that I’m not going to stuff myself with as much green salad as possible this winter. But if leafy salad is like a drug, or one of those SAD lamps, my super-easy beet and lentil salad is like a heavy Irish wool sweater and a rocking chair on a breezy porch in the fall: both cozy and bracing. I’ve been making this dish since I lived in NYC in the 90s. I think I found it in a copy of the sadly defunct Metropolitan Home magazine (I am pretty sure?), but I didn’t write it down and this recipe is what I cobbled together. So it’s purloined. Every time I have a recipe whose provenance I can’t recall, I credit it to Metropolitan Home, because the food coverage was excellent. I am certain, though, that it was served by an extremely attractive young couple at their homespun, outdoor, boho wedding. If you do not like beets, like my friend Mary Norris (whose Greek Salad was in Issue #2 of DOS), possibly because your mother served you canned ones and called them “nice beets” (also like my friend Mary Norris), try this recipe, please. Canned and oven-roasted are not even in the same universe.

Serves 6

  • 6 medium beets, unpeeled, scrubbed, trimmed

  • 1 medium onion (red or yellow), quartered lengthwise, sliced into 1/3 inch slices

  • 20 basil leaves, 18 or so torn, 2 or so thinly sliced (chiffonade) for serving

  • 4 cloves garlic, crushed

  • 1/3 cup olive oil

  • 1/2 cup water

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

  • freshly ground black pepper

  • 2 cups lentils (I like a mix of belugas and French greens), picked over and rinsed (you can use more if you like a higher lentil-to-beet ratio, but increase the stock by another cup to start)

  • 5 cups chicken stock

  • My Usual Mustard Vinaigrette (below)*

    1. Preheat oven to 425. Place whole beets into a 13x9x2-inch baking dish; strew with onion slices, basil leaves, crushed garlic. Drizzle with olive oil; salt, pepper. Add water to pan.

    2. Cover pan tightly with foil, bake without uncovering, for 1 hour and 15 minutes.

    3. While beets are roasting, place lentils in another 13x9x2-inch pan with 5 cups of the stock, tightly covered with foil. After the beets have cooked for 45 minutes, place lentils in oven. Check lentils after 30 minutes. (Be careful! Hot stock may slosh out). If stock has been absorbed and lentils are tender, remove with beets. Otherwise, continue to cook another 15 minutes or so, adding more stock if necessary to prevent lentils from burning.

    4. Meanwhile, make My Usual Mustard Vinaigrette (below)*

    5. Allow beets and lentils to cool, uncovered. (Drain any excess broth from lentils if necessary.) Remove beets from pan, reserving remaining beet-juice-onion-basil mixture. Peel, cut into 1-inch chunks; combine with lentils and juice-onion-basil mixture in a large bowl. Toss with about half jar of My Usual Mustard Vinaigrette,* more or less to taste. Adjust salt and pepper. I go very easy on extra salt. Serve at room temperature, topped with fresh basil chiffonade.

Before:

After:

*RECIPE: My Usual Mustard Vinaigrette

1. In a jar, stir together 8 tablespoons olive oil, 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard, 3 tablespoons of red wine vinegar, 1/2 teaspoon salt, freshly ground black pepper. Place the lid on the jar, and shake vigorously, until emulsified.

*RECIPE: A Green Salad with Grapefruit and Avocado

HERE’S ANOTHER SALAD I’VE BEEN MAKING FOREVER from my book “The Comfort Food Diaries.” (You haven’t read it? Why not?) I give it to you here not just because it’s absolutely freaking delicious, but because I know that some of you don’t think you’ve been given salad ideas unless leaves are involved. Plus: when are you not hankering for something green and tonic? Which is exactly what this is.

Tip: if you’ve never “supremed” citrus fruit, learning to do so will change your life. This Williams-Sonoma video will teach you exactly the way I learned. Do this over a bowl to catch the juice, which is good mixed with seltzer.

Serves 2-4 depending on how much everyone likes salad

  • 1 cup or so torn herbs (a combination of mint and basil is my favorite), washed and dried, tough stems removed

  • 1 or 2 pink grapefruits, depending on size, peeled and sectioned (or supremed)

  • 1/3 small red onion, cut into very thin slivers, or finely chopped (reserve 1 tablespoon)

  • Several big handfuls of thoroughly washed and dried greens—I use an assortment of mostly bitter (choose from watercress, arugula, radicchio, endive, even slivers of kale) but also soft (Boston, Bibb, or even tender red leaf lettuce)

  • 1 or 2 avocados (alligator, not the giant shiny ones), peeled and cubed (do this last)

  • My Usual Mustard Vinaigrette (above)*

    1. Place the grapefruit sections and onion in a small bowl, and pour a good bit of the dressing (My Usual Mustard Vinaigrette, above*) over it; toss gently and let it sit at room temperature while you tear the greens into bite-size pieces if they need it and make a chiffonade of the herbs; reserve a few shreds for garnish.

    2. Once you’re ready to serve, place the greens and herbs in a large serving bowl, arrange the fruit mixture attractively in the middle, sprinkle on the freshly cut avocado, and decorate it all with the reserved herbs and a little of the red onion. When you get it to the table, and everyone has seen how pretty it looks, fold it all together gently.

    NOTE: The dressing on the grapefruit and onions should be enough, but taste it after tossing and adjust. You can always bring extra dressing to the table in a little crystal cruet. Or in the drippy jar.

TASTE TEST: Pre-mades and Kits

BEING THE SELF-PROCLAIMED DIRECTOR OF THE DEPARTMENT OF SALAD is a huge responsibility. You’re welcome.

I just want people to eat more salad, even if it means buying them pre-made or in a kit at the grocery store—or getting them at the drive-through window of a fast-food restaurant. Not everything can be homemade. And aside from ordering take-out (which I hope those of you who can afford it will do as often as possible in order to help save restaurants), buying some of these is a decent option. We all do what we can when it comes to feeding ourselves on this soul-annihilating planet. And who am I to object to anything someone else eats? (I do this all the time, but I’m not proud of it.)

So, this week we begin testing some of these convenience versions, in an occasional but ongoing attempt to help you weed through the good and the bad and get more salad into your pie hole.

The first grocery store salad kit I tried was by a company called Eat Smart, and had the words “100 % Clean” stamped on the front. This, of course, is the same kind of ridiculous gobbledygook as “immune boosting” foods. I mean: how can you assert something that is nonsensical to begin with? This company get points for their concern about saving me from “dirty” food. But I took points off when I discovered that Eat Smart is subsidiary of a company called Curation that also distributes guacamole that you squeeze from a tube.

Eat Smart Strawberry Harvest salad kit: very sad.

I should just go right ahead and say that I’m never buying this particular salad, which contained 10 ounces of salad and cost $3.34, again. I should have just said that right off the bat, but it feels unfair not to explain why. First, it was called “Strawberry Harvest,” which implies that someone somewhere picked a few strawberries. And perhaps someone did—but this bag was filled, perversely, with zero strawberries and a shredded jumble of tired but crunchy vegetable shavings (kale, broccoli stems, carrots, cabbages), packets of wan feta, slivered almonds, and crisp quinoa—all to be tossed and topped with a “strawberry” “vinaigrette” that was viscous and super sweet, with a long Lucky Charms finish. I’m assuming the dressing, whose second ingredient was sugar, was supposed to be a stand-in for fruit. I’m fine with sweet dressings, but this bad one was doing most of the work here as far as flavor goes. I’d eat this again only if I had been trapped in the elevator of a high-rise office building over a long weekend and it was the only thing my rescuers thought to bring. Rating: 1 star out of 5, but mainly just for showing up.

Next Week, I’ll tell you about a couple of pretty dang good Trader Joe’s salads I tried, which was a bit of a treat for me. I live an hour and a half from a Trader Joe’s. I love Trader Joe’s. Denigrate it all you want, food snobs. I don’t care. I LOVE it.

Favorite Things

A FEW DAYS AGO on social media, I mentioned the mustard I use for my vinaigrettes, and people seemed to be glad to have that information. So now I’m telling you:

  • My everyday mustard is Trader Joe Dijon with White Wine. It’s really made in Dijon, France, but I don’t care about that. I care about the fact that for everyday use it is just right: mellow, with the sharpness of a touch of horseradish but no truly sharp edges, if that makes sense. I’ll take it over Grey Poupon and not just because it cost $1.69 for 13 ounces. But that helps.

  • My everyday olive oil is California Olive Ranch Extra Virgin Everyday Blend. It tastes great—nice and grassy, slightly floral— but not so great that I don’t want to use it for cooking. You can get it at the grocery store or order it. This is the olive oil that a lot of “foodies” like. But some of you are not “foodies”—I hope. (The California Olive Ranch website has a private sale of limited reserve coming up on November 16, and I may splurge on a bottle.) Someone recently asked me if I use imported olive oil from France or Italy or Greece, and my answer was: absolutely, if someone brings me back a fancy bottle from France or Italy or Greece. And then I treat it like Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. I’d love to upgrade, but until then this is my happy go-to.

YOUR LETTERS! Thanks to everyone for your comments here, and also for the incredibly kind e-mails, all of which I love and plan to answer. I’ll figure out how to do forums/community threads, so you can request specific salad recipes—I’m open to suggestions of all kinds— and chat amongst yourselves. I have other ideas in this arena. More soon.

NEXT WEEK: Our Chef Salad will be from American food expert Gabrielle Langholtz. And isn’t it time we talked about: Green Goddess Dressing? Plus, a bitter green salad with bacon and pecans that will be perfect for America’s Loneliest Thanksgiving Ever. You may have noticed I’ve skipped the BOOKS section again this week, so expect that next week but don’t get your hopes up. I get carried away in the kitchen. See you soon.