Salads al Fresco

It is that time of the summer when we have gone through our usual repertoire of salads, maybe even a few times over, and now it feels right to try something new – even if it is just a twist on an old theme. It seems so luxurious to dine “al fresco” with a varied parade of different salads to highlight the evening. There are myriads of salad recipes one can draw from, but the most fun thing about salads is you can experiment, swap out, substitute, elaborate to your heart’s content…or rather the possibilities your refrigerator or garden may yield.

Whenever I come across beautiful green beans at the market, I can’t resist buying them because I can just taste the classic Roman salad with green beans and potatoes. Boil two or three potatoes in their jackets until tender. Allow to cool, then peel. In the meantime, clean the green beans (I like to snip both ends and make sure there are no tough threads running through the beans). I cook them in boiling salted water until tender, drain, and then allow to cool. Slice the potatoes, slice some red onion and add to the green beans. Make a light vinaigrette with vinegar, olive oil, (dijon mustard if you like), salt and pepper. This salad is good cold the next day…and the next day (if there is any left!).

Another salad I have been toying around with is a “clean -up-your pantry” type in which almost anything goes. Have some canned garbanzo beans you bought during the quarantine hanging around in the back of your pantry? Any bean would matter, but the garbanzo bean beckoned to me mostly. This has been particularly delicious and again, quite versatile.

As you can see, I slice some fabulous cherry tomatoes from the garden, some tender cucumbers, and red onions. I dressed it with a quick vinaigrette of olive oil, balsamic vinegar or a splash of lemon, salt, pepper, and a sprinkling of fresh parsley. I have made this without cucumbers and tomatoes and added roasted and peeled red pepper strips instead. You will welcome leftovers the next day which you can add to a green salad. It is a refreshing and cool alternative on these hot days.

Lastly, I have a favorite salad I have been making most of the summer, a spinach-peach-almond green salad that goes well with barbecued meats.

Here I have a mix of spinach and Bibb lettuce, but any kind will do. I peeled and sliced fresh ripe peaches and threw on top a handful of toasted sliced almonds. I added the usual dressing of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, freshly ground pepper…and a tablespoon or two of Amaretto liquor. The Amaretto is barely there to give the peaches a lift. I think if the spirit moved you, you could add some feta cheese or grilled shrimp to make this a one stop dinner on a hot day.

Today is Ferragosto, or Assumption Day, a major holiday in Italy that marks, not only the religious holiday of Mary ascending into heaven, but also the highlight of summer. The feast hails back from Feriae Augusti, the festival of emperor Augustus. Dare not get on the road before this holiday or get sick…..everything stops and beach resorts are packed! I wistfully think of past celebrations, of my family on holiday in Elba or other beach places. I sign off with my own greeting to you of a “Buon Ferragosto” and happy eating!

Marinated Fire-Roasted Peppers

A joyful sight!
A joyful sight!

Nothing speaks more to me of summer in the kitchen than marinated roasted peppers.  With their robust and rounded shape, they look like brilliantly dressed ballerinas dancing on fire. image_19090041022_o

I usually work with three peppers of each color, but that’s not really necessary. Find sturdy peppers that will not fold or lose water that easily. Yellow peppers are the most delicate, so watch them closely. As soon as they blister, take them off the fire. Red peppers take the charring well as long as they are not too burnt. Green peppers are the toughest and usually take the longest to soften. Put them on a low fire and let them sit there until they char. Keep turning them so they are evenly blackened on all sides and ends.

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The acrid smell of charring permeates the kitchen and lets everyone know…roasted peppers are on the way. As they turn black,  I keep turning them over the fire and  I’m reminded of the early days of summer with the family watching Formula One races, boys playing in the living room, and the heat of the stove flaring up in my face. Once the peppers are mostly blackened all over, remove them one by one from the fire and place them in a brown bag (close the lid tightly) where they will continue to steam until cooled.

Martha Stewart had a great hint for peeling roasted peppers. Hold the pepper in one hand and take a paper towel in the other. Carefully brush the blistered skin off, then pull the stem gently. The inner core and seeds will come away with the stem. I split the pepper in half and gently clean the rest of the seeds and peel. Never wash the peppers under the faucet! It washes away the flavors! my aunt used to say to us young cooks. So of course, the process becomes much more laborious and tedious. I place the sections of pepper on a paper towel to drain. I stack them between layers or towel paper so they will be relatively free of moisture. When I’m ready to cut the sections, I dry them one more time. You don’t want watery peppers! I slice them into slivers about 1/4 to 1/2 inch wide and place them in a 5 cup pyrex dish or other container.image_18475029023_o

With each layer, I salt lightly, then place some slivers of raw garlic and whole basil leaves here and there on the peppers. I keep doing this until all the peppers are sliced. Then I use a good quality olive oil and I fill the bowl until the peppers are covered completely. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. These are best after a day of resting….but usually don’t make it that far! They get better and better as they marinate. When you want to use them, take them out of the refrigerator to warm up to room temperature. After use, pack the peppers down and make sure they are covered by the oil before you store them again. Don’t throw the oil out! It’s excellent in salads or even thrown into hot spaghetti  and parmesan cheese.

Ways to use these peppers…

  • As an appetizer with crackers, assorted cheeses, and mixed olives
  • As a side dish to grilled meats such as steak, marinated chicken breasts, or pork loin
  • As a salad or in a salad with mozzarella
  • In sandwiches, of course…but try grilled panini!
  • In a pasta, especially spaghetti, with grated parmigiano and lots of black pepper.
  • In a warm potato salad with red onions
  • In a quesadilla with Monterey Jack and slivered white onions
  • Fan wide slices of the peppers on a platter, top with zest of lemon and capers, sprinkle with lemon juice
  • Drizzled over crusty bread and joined by a slice of salamiimage_18473192044_o