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!

Some New Thoughts about Cold Pasta Salads

Years ago when my eldest son Alex asked for a cold pasta salad, I thought it was a sacrilege to even consider a dish of pasta served cold like a salad. I would never admit it to my mother or my Italian relatives that I should even consider making such a dish. Stealthy, secretly, I followed Alex’s instructions as to what he wanted in it and made him a dish made with raw carrots cut in matchsticks, black olives, some cubed cheddar cheese and chopped broccoli. Pretty good, I decided for a first try, and so did he.

Since then, however, things have changed and the Italian magazines I read today all offer various recipes of cold pasta salads, lauding the freshness and simplicity of the dishes. I’m astounded by the variety. They are tasty additions to summer buffets, barbecues, and picnics. Above all, during the summer I like to keep some handy in the fridge for a quick lunch or a side dish for dinner. As I experimented lately with different recipes and ideas, I have found some simple truths to avoid common pitfalls which may render the pasta too cloy or inedible the next day.

1. The Type of Pasta

  • The type of pasta you choose does make a difference. Size and shape matters. Avoid a large size such as rigatoni, for example. It requires more sauce with bold flavors. The half-size (if you can find it) is preferable. Regular-sized penne may  work well if the sauce has a kick to it. Any small pasta such as orzo will absorb the flavors more readily. Smaller-sized penne with grilled vegetables such as eggplant, zucchini, and red peppers allow the flavors to meld  and complement each other. Dice the vegetables finely, add julienned basil, maybe some chopped Kalamata olives and a light drizzle of olive oil (see photo below).
  • Choose a good quality pasta. Cheap brands ultimately taste funny and fall apart. Find the best quality possible because you want to taste the grain and the pasta will not become gummy.
  •  Use spaghetti cautiously. Thin spaghettini or linguine become mushy and and have a tendency to either float in the dressing or become too dry. It is often difficult to eat  buffet style or as a side.
  • When thinking about the type of pasta, think of what ingredients you will use with it. Shell pasta, for example, works well with tuna or other seafood. Rotini with slivers of zucchini complement each other.

2.Condiments Matter

What you add to your pasta salad is important, making sure that all the elements work together. Included should be one element (for example, vegetables – even multiple ones) that gives the cold salad its identity and appeals to the palate in a distinct manner. The most flavorful are raw or grilled/roasted vegetables,

Here I grilled thin slices of one zucchini, a yellow squash, a red pepper, and  eggplant on the barbecue. I brushed them with a mixture of olive oil, crushed garlic, parsley and basil. I chopped all the vegetables together after they had cooled (a good way to use leftover grilled vegetables). I tossed them in the pasta with some cubed mozzarella, a little more basil and a little drizzle of more olive oil.

cubed ham, diced chicken, slivers of salmon, tuna, anchovies in olive oil, hard-boiled eggs, mozzarella, gentle dollops of ricotta, Kalamata olives, marinated artichokes….it’s up to your imagination! I always limit to three elements and I pay attention to how they interact with each other. The idea is to enhance the flavors so they dance well together. I also pay attention to freshness, especially when using raw ingredients.

3. Dressing the Salad

It is a salad after all, so what it is dressed with also matters greatly. Bottled dressings kill pasta salads. They don’t have the correct balance of acidity, salt, spice, and fat that only you can create with simple ingredients. Bottled dressings have too much sugar and other favors that disturb  the interaction of flavors imparted by the other ingredients. Good olive oil, lemon, occasionally vinegar, are usually the best. Beware of mayonnaise, use sparingly,  as it is usually too heavy and masks other flavors. Lastly, always taste to make sure the balance of flavors is correct. Sometimes you have to add a little bit of this or a little bit if that!

4. Fruit?

Yes, fruit works well….as long as it pairs with the other ingredients. Mango with shrimp, blueberries with goat cheese and chopped arugola, finely diced apple and a hard sharp cheese. Dried fruit like chopped apricots or white raisins may give a hint of sweetness where you want it. I’m not nuts about nuts in pasta salads. Too much competition with the pasta. Again, the idea is to enhance the flavors, being careful not to overwhelm the palate. Dressing the pasta salads that have fruit in them should be light and refreshing with lemon and one other herb such as mint or basil.

5. Yes, Herbs!

But only one at a time. In all the recipes I have read in Italian cooking magazines and books, only one herb is used. Of course basil reigns supreme. Its aroma lifts the palate and soars. Parsley is also commonly used. I like it chopped finely with garlic, a little lemon peel and basil (I know I said only one – but this acts as one!). This combination becomes rather potent if used too liberally. Thyme, mint, sometimes origano or even rosemary can enhance a salad and bring it to new heights. Generally speaking though….only one at a time and finely chopped.

6. Cooking the Pasta

Cook the pasta according to package instructions, not “al dente” which will make the pasta chewy, or,  overcooked which will render it mushy. When you drain the pasta, dash with cold water to stop the cooking, then lay the pasta out on a clean towel to cool, allowing it to dry out a bit..

Place in a bowl and drizzle with olive oil. It is now ready for the other ingredients!

Here is one recipe I developed last month as I was looking for something refreshing, yet satisfying.

Raw Vegetable Pasta Salad

2 cups ditalini (uncooked) (you can use an entire box, just augment the other ingredients)

1 zucchini

1/2 yellow squash

1/2 sweet red pepper

1/2 red onion

1/2 cup  of olive oil + more for dressing as needed

First dice the raw vegetables finely about the same size as the pasta (or smaller). Place in a large bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Add 1/2 cup of olive oil and let the vegetables macerate for half an hour to an hour. This way they will give out a bit of their own liquid.

In the meantime, finely chop 5 basil leaves and a small handful of parsley and combine with the zest of one lemon.

Make the dressing by mixing 1/2 cup of olive oil, one pressed garlic clove, 1/2 teaspoon of anchovy paste and the juice of one lemon.

Cook the pasta as described above, drain, and give it a quick splash of cold water. Lay the pasta on a clean towel to dry a bit, then add it to the vegetable mixture in the bowl. Add the dressing very slowly while you mix the pasta. You may not need it all and can reserve some of it for later if the pasta dries out too much or for another salad. Add the herb mixture, then salt and pepper to taste.

This salad is versatile as you can add different vegetables, such as finely cut string beans. If you are diabetic or have other dietary restrictions, add more vegetables and cut down on the pasta. Or you can add small shrimp or tuna….It holds up well on a buffet table. It gets better the next day! Pasta salads have indeed changed since my first foray in making them years ago and that’s a good addition to our kitchen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What do I do with this? Romano Beans

“What do I do with this?” is a common question I hear shoppers ask when I circulate among the stalls at the Davis Farmers Market.I hear it especially when it is directed towards produce that is exotic or unfamiliar. I often ask the question myself as I eye some of the vegetables used in Asian cooking. Vendors generously offer tips and advice about prepping and cooking. Sometimes, when a question comes up regarding vegetables commonly used in Italian cooking, I like to offer my own tips and recipes. Market-goers are open to new ideas; it is so much fun to see their expressions of surprise and gratitude. So I’m starting a series in which I will focus on my findings at the market, usually about produce whose preparations are not commonly known, but come from the heart of my background growing up in Italy with a mother who is a fabulous cook.

This week I finally found Romano beans, you know – those flat, green beans with a gnarly look!
I love these beans and I wait for them all year long! This year they have taken a while to come to market. When I asked one of favorite vendors why the wait, she said the rabbits kept nibbling away at them. So much for competition! So what do you do with them?

A number of different preparations are possible, mostly simple, from a salad with red onions, cranberry beans, and vinaigrette to a minestrone. Let me show you one of my favorite ways – one preparation my mother used to make when I was a girl. It reminds me of lazy summer luncheons under the olive tree at our beachfront summer villa in Terracina.
Ingredients:

1 – 1 1/2 lbs. green beans ( you could really use any – even the asparagus beans)
1 Cup onion – or one small onion – diced
1 8 oz. can diced tomatoes or 3 fresh and peeled tomatoes
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 Tablespoon butter
8 oz. pancetta or guanciale (optional)
1 7 oz. can tuna, preferably the Italian bran, drained (optional)
salt and pepper to taste

Wash the beans and cut them into 1 inch pieces. In a saucepan or skillet with a one inch border, add the oil and the butter. Once it sizzles, add the onion and saute’ until tender and slightly golden. If you are choosing to put pancetta or guanciale, add it at this time and stir until fragrant. Add the beans and stir again until blended. Cook for about a minute or two, then add the tomatoes. Salt and pepper to taste.

Add approximately a cup of water so that the beans remain slightly submerged as in the photo below.

Simmer for about 30 minutes or until the beans are tender. You have to add more water if the mixture looks a bit dry and the beans aren’t quite cooked through. Cook a little longer if necessary. At this point, it’s done!

But here’s the twist! Add a can of tuna (make sure you drain it!) into the mixture while it is still warm. This is the part of the dish I like so much. The tuna makes it tangy and oh so yummy!

I usually make this dish without the pancetta; I either like it with tuna or simply vegetarian. Experiment with whatever option – all are excellent! We usually serve this as a side dish or as a salad, cold on a hot summer day (my favorite). The favors blend and get better the next day or the next if there is any left! It keeps well for about a week. Serves 5-6

Summer Farro Salad

One of my favorite grains is farro, thought to be the most ancient going back 5,000 years. The Roman legions consumed it in their journeys as it is nutritious and satisfying. It was considered virtually sacred among the Latins, the Umbrians, and other regional people of ancient times. Italians commonly use farro in soups, salads, even desserts. It is nutty, sturdy, wholesome, and utterly delicious! Try this summer salad either as a side dish or part of a buffet.

Summer Farro Salad

  • Servings: 8-10
  • Difficulty: easy
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Ingredients

-1 1/2 cups farro

-2 cups cherry tomatoes

-1 cup pitted kalamata olives

-1 cup crumbled feta (or less if you prefer)

-1/2/cup finely chopped red onion

-1 cup very finely chopped curly kale

-1/2 cup raisins

-1/2 cup olive oil

-1/2 lemon

Directions

1.Cook the farro. You can either cook it the traditional way by adding 4-6 cups of water in a pot. Let it come to a boil, then add a teaspoon of salt. Add the farro and cook it for about 25 minutes or until soft and the consistency you prefer. You can also cook it in the Instant Pot (especially nice to do on a hot day!). The ratio of farro to water is about 1:2. I prefer a bit more water to avoid the farro becoming too sticky. Add a teaspoon of salt , close the lid and set it on Manual for 10 minutes. Allow a natural pressure release of 5-6 minutes, then   a quick release. Drain the farro in a colander and allow to cool. 43162670411_17e3f4bd08_o 2.While the farro is cooling, prep the other ingredients. Slice the cherry tomatoes in half. If they are particularly small, leave them whole. 28293328167_b8dafbddca_o Slice the kalamata olives and set aside. Prepare the red onions and kale by chopping them finely. Once the the farro has cooled, add all the ingredients including the raisins. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Dress it with olive oil and the juice of 1/2 lemon. Start with this amount and then increase to suit your taste. Cover and refrigerate.

-This salad is best made the day before. You may want to adjust the seasoning and the dressing after letting it sit for a bit and the flavors will meld.

-Instead of the “summer” option with tomatoes, try an autumnal option with cubed roasted butternut squash.

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Fruity Salads

With the weather turned on to extreme temperatures, a cool salad with fresh ingredients seems to be the ticket. Italians are not overly fond of mixing fruit with savory notes, but here is a salad I came across as I perused some old Cucina Italiana magazines from the 1990s. Green tomatoes are a favorite in Italian kitchens. It is not uncommon to find firm green or barely turned blushed pink tomatoes in the market as their specific purpose is for “insalata.”  If you can’t find green tomatoes, substitute them with cucumber. The cantaloupe should be at the peak of its flavor to counterbalance the crunchy tartness of the tomatoes. This salad is best with ingredients from the garden or farmer’s market (if you can find green tomatoes!).

Cantaloupe and Green Tomato Salad

2-3 Green medium tomatoes (off the vine) diced (1/4-1/2 inch)

1/2 ripe cantaloupe (diced the same as the tomatoes)

3/4 lb. small shrimp

3-4 basil leaves

1/4 cup (or less) olive oil

1/2 tsp.Worcestershire

several dashes Tabasco

salt and pepper to taste

Prepare the tomatoes and the cantaloupe. Set aside. Rinse the shrimp and pat dry, roll in paper towels to remove moisture. In a blender or food processor place the basil, the olive oil, the Worcestershire, the Tabasco, and a pinch or two of salt. Emulsify at high speed until smooth. Add to the salad and let it sit for at least 10 minutes to allow the dressing to blend. Before serving, add a dash of freshly ground pepper. Serve as an unusual antipasto or a main salad for lunch or dinner.

Insalata con melone, pomodoro verde, e gamberetti – Cucina Italiana – Luglio 1999

Here is another quick idea for a refreshing summer salad using fruit. Take a very ripe nectarine and make a delicious vinaigrette with it! Mash it in a bowl just like you would an avocado.  It will look something like this:

Add a teaspoon of honey, a tablespoon of olive oil, and a teaspoon (or more to taste) of wine vinegar.Select the freshest greens (preferably mixed) and place them in a bowl with some finely shaved red onion. Delicately add the vinaigrette (I hold some back to add to individual salads later), some sliced almonds, and a little feta or goat cheese. The nectarine flavor just shines with brightness! Give it a try when you have some overripe nectarines sitting by!

Beautiful summer bounty!

 

 

What to do with a can of tuna?

Yellowfin!
Yellowfin!

The humble can of tuna does not always inspire great culinary adventures, but I am here to tell you that many a delicious dish can result from this common pantry item. How many uses can you come up with at the drop of a hat? Tuna salad sandwich, tuna noodle casserole, next..? Well, I spent some time thinking, researching, and cooking about this very same question. I set some ground rules: the recipes had to have an unusual, creative, or original element (not the usual tomato-stuffed-with-tuna-salad). They had to have wide appeal (children should like it too), relatively easy and quick to make, and didn’t necessarily have to be a main meal. I ruled out tuna as dessert, that was going too far.

So, first…what tuna to use? The good ol’ Chicken of the Sea packed in water works well in all these recipes, but I decided to return to my Italian roots because after all, canned tuna is a popular food choice in Italy and part of a very important industry as well. Moreover, the flavor of the Italian brand tuna is more intense and saporito (“tasty”), better for dishes in which you want an ingredient to stand out. In my quest for the most practical can of tuna to use I came across two brands at my local market:

image_20133011461_o

And another brand, Tonnino, which comes in a can ($4.99) or in a jar at a whopping $7.99. These are all packed in oil…and yes, I understand this may be a drawback (I too use water-packed for most common everyday use), but the olive oil packed tuna is more flavorful.  The olive oil should be drained, but not all of it so that the tuna remains moist. Which do I prefer? Luckily, they are all very good. The Genova brand is my choice for all purpose use. The Coalma is quite delicious, but  more costly at $3.99 for a small can of 5 oz.

And how about this: what is the relationship between tuna and the organization Greenpeace? In my quest to know more about tuna, especially the fishing of yellowtail tuna in Italy which is in crisis, I came across this page on the Greenpeace site which rates various canned tuna products according to the company’s fishing and production practices. Take a look – this is fun: http://www.greenpeace.it/tonnointrappola/rompiscatole/  The term “rompiscatole” means literally to break a box (or can in this case), but colloquially means annoying troublemaker. So Greenpeace is scrutinizing the tuna industry’s sustainable fishing practices and transparency to the public. While none of the brands I listed above appear on the Greenpeace page, they all claim to line fishing and good practices. Phew! Also on the Greenpeace page are recipes for tuna dishes which I thought not only sounded delicious, but also practice “green” methods of cooking. Here is the link to tuna eggplant polpette  (or “meatballs”) resting on a bed of pesto sauce: http://www.greenpeace.it/tonnointrappola/ricette_polpette.html

With that lengthy introduction to canned tuna, here are some ideas you may not have considered, but would like to try.

Here is one of my favorite summer salad or side dish, romano beans cooked in tomato sauce and tuna added at the end.

Romano Beans and Tuna in a Tomato Sauce

Fagiolini al tonno e pomodoro
Fagiolini al tonno e pomodoro

I wrote a post years ago in my other blog. Here is the link:

http://buonatavolaefantasie.blogspot.com/2012_08_01_archive.html

Speaking of green beans, the following is another favorite. This is a wonderful addition to a buffet as a different kind of salad. refreshing and oh so good!

Green Bean Salad with Tuna and Red Onion

Insalata di fagiolini can cipolla rossa.
Insalata di fagiolini can cipolla rossa.

Lightly steam a pound of green beans, cool, and add a can of drained tuna, half  a thinly sliced red onion. Add olive oil and vinegar, salt and pepper to taste.

Here is another favorite, a salad with white cannellini beans. Same idea as the green beans. I was having a little fun with this by putting it in a cocktail glass.

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Insalata di cannellini e tonno

Or maybe a pasta is more to your liking! This was a favorite of my family’s – a good “go-to” meal when the pantry looked spare and many mouths to feed! This dish especially reminds me of my years in Pisa at my aunt’s house, helping her cook noon day dinners. She was a busy professional with a big household, so this dish came in handy, especially on Fridays during Lent.

Spaghetti with Tuna

Spaghetti con Tonno
Spaghetti con Tonno

Put a pot of water to boil. While the water is coming up to a boil, prepare the sauce. In a small saucepan,   place 1-2 cloves (or more if you like) of whole garlic in 1/4 cup of olive oil and 1/2 cup of butter. Drain a can of tuna and place it in the pan with 3-4 anchovy filets (drained from their oil). I like to throw in some red pepper flakes as well. Cook gently for about twenty minutes until the sauce is smooth, almost creamy. Add a little of the pasta water if the sauce appears to be dry. Cook a pound of spaghetti (not the thin kind), drain and add the sauce. Sprinkle with a little parsley and serve.

This recipe can be made with tomato as well. Just add a can of peeled tomatoes (crush them in a food processor so they aren’t too chunky) to the garlic and anchovies, cook for a few minutes, then add the tuna. Add a little water, then cook the sauce down until thick.

I can think of a few more ideas using canned tuna…one is perhaps the most special of all,  vitello tonnato (or veal in tuna sauce). In fact I have the meat cooking on the stove as I write this. But because it is the “king” of all tuna inspired dishes, I will dedicate a separate post just to it…so stay tuned! What ideas using tuna do you have to share? Please don’t hesitate to drop me a note in the comment box!