You might think he's doing something else. But in reality, he's learning how to sit/stay, and not doing a very good job of it (he eventually learned how to do so beautifully ... sort of ).

domenica 23 maggio 2010

Salad Days?

Yesterday was, culinarily speaking, a big day for us. We ate salad whose greens, for the time this year, were gathered entirely from our water-logged garden. It comprised young red lettuce, just-about-ready-to-bolt arugula, valerian, and cress. Tasty. Dressing: sort of a Caesar, without the Worcestershire and Parmesan and perhaps the raw egg; with the addition of mustard and mayonnaise. Whirled in a great blender; bliss.

Many culinary differences exist between Italians and us. Italians rarely say, “I think I’ll just have a salad.” (They don’t much jog, either.) If you order a salad in most trattorie here, you’ll get – almost always – some green lettuce, perhaps some shredded radicchio, slivered carrots, and tomatoes, even in February. Restaurant salad arrives on the table undressed, and the waiter/ess then brings olive oil and vinegar (sometimes balsamic, sometimes not) to your table. You dress and toss it yourself, and wonder about the sameness of it all.

From Maestro Davidson: Salad is a “term derived from the Latin sal (salt), which yielded the form salata, ‘salted things’ such as the raw vegetables eaten in classical times with a dressing of oil, vinegar, or salt.”[1] Salad's been around a long time, but it seems that Italy – with its phenomenal food history – has contributed but one significant salad: the Caprese (tomatoes, mozzarella di bufala, basil).[2]

Father of the Church of Italian Cuisine, Pellegrino Artusi (1820-1911) only has three salad recipes in his La Scienza in cucina e l’Arte di mangiar bene: “insalata russa/Russian salad,” “insalata di patate/potato salad,” and “insalata maionese/mayonnaise salad.” In this last case, you make a basic mayonnaise with egg yolk, olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and then, instead of adding white pepper, add some mustard and a drop of vinegar. In the case of potato salad, he warns that this is "non è per tutti gli stomachi" (it’s not for every stomach). Unclear why: perhaps the idea of eating room-temperature potatoes was a novelty in 1896? Or perhaps the acidity of some of the ingredients (capers, cocktail onions, gherkins) could upset?

The real wonder is insalata russa. If you see it in salumerie (delicatessens) and grocery stores, it looks, usually, like a sodden mass of cubed peeled cooked potatoes, and cubed peeled cooked carrots, and peas (which inevitably must be frozen). It’s a horror. Marina, a Moscovite friend, assures me that what you find in Italy bears no resemblance to the real thing.

Insalata russa, according to both the English and Italian sites of, is a cold dish with diced cold vegetables (mostly potatoes) mixed with mayonnaise. The Italian text says it was born in the mid-19th century; the English is far more specific, and says it was created in the 1860s. The original version contained tongue, sausage, crayfish tails, prosciutto, hard-boiled eggs, and truffles; it was decorated with capers and anchovies, and then gelled in aspic (Italian).

The English version contends that it had grouse, veal tongue, crayfish tails, caviar, lettuce, and the highly inexplicable soy bean.

Both versions agree that Lucien Olivier, chef at the Hermitage (not the museum in St. Petersburg, but the restaurant in Moscow) invented it, and kept the recipe a closely-guarded secret. Or they sort of do, as the Italian text suggests that it might have been invented at the end of the 19th century in the Piedmont in honor of a visiting VIP from Russia. OR Bona Sforza (1494-1557) took the dish with her when she went to Poland to become queen.[3] (Why women are always credited with taking dishes some place rather than creating them is a subject for a future blog. (Let’s not forget the Urban Myth of Catherine de’Medici taking her chefs with her to France, thereby giving birth to (Italianate) French Cuisine.))

Artusi’s recipe contains beets, potatoes, fagiuolini in erba (string beans?), potatoes, capers, gherkins, and anchovies. And then the whole thing’s encased in aspic. No meats, no soybeans. Janet Ross’s, written at the turn of two centuries ago, includes asparagus, green beans, peas, carrots, capers, shrimp, anchovies, and a dressing made with olive oil and vinegar, topped with Danish caviar.[4] Though it sounds terrific, it bears zero relation to the aforementioned insalate russe. Larousse Gastronomique’s includes string beans, along with carrots and turnips, and stresses that equal quantities of the vegetables should be mixed together.[5]

None of the recipes calls for the addition of dill; it’s in this one because ours is just about ready to bolt. All call for the inclusion of peas, though Marina’s doesn’t, and I honor her recipe by excluding them. Artusi and Larousse Gastronomique call for green beans, and here they are. Next year: fresh fava beans as substitute for that highly suspect soybean. Ignored is the dictum of equal vegetable ratio. The green beans would have swamped the potatoes.

Below is homage to Marina’s insalata russa. The vegetables should not be swimming in a sea of mayonnaise, nor should they be dipping, as we Yanks often make our potato salad. They should be wading … we can sort of see part of them, but part of them are submerged.
(Most recipes suggest serving this salad on lettuce, usually as a starter. We had it as a side to roast chicken, without lettuce.)

Insalata russa di Marina

1 lb. potatoes, peeled
¼ lb. green beans, tailed
2 hard boiled eggs, crumbled (particularly pleasurable if you hold them in your hand and then squeeze)
3 T. capers
3 anchovies, finely chopped
1 c. best-quality mayonnaise (like Hellman’s)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Handful of fresh dill, chopped

Steam the potatoes and green beans together ‘til cooked through but still crisp (about 5 minutes). (All recipes consulted suggested boiling the potatoes; this one doesn’t.)

In a deep mixing bowl, combine the crumbled eggs, capers, chopped anchovies. Chop the dill, and add to the bowl.

Drain the vegetables, run under cold water, and let cool. When easy enough to handle, cut the potato into small dice, cut the beans in thirds on the diagonal, and add to the bowl. Add the mayonnaise, and stir gently to combine. Taste for salt and pepper, and serve.

It’s possible to find divine plates of salad, meals in themselves, in Florence, but this is a fairly recent trend. Two places where you can feel free to say, “I think I’ll just have a salad”:

Coquinarius, via dell’Oca 15/r, Florence, 055/2302153, has a whole menu page teeming with delicious combinations (like the Scozzese (Scottish) with mixed lettuces, cold poached chicken (which they must dab lightly in flour before cooking, as it is so moist), avocado, and bacon - kind of like a deluxe BLT on a plate, only topped with balsamic vinegar).

Baldovino, via San Giuseppe 22/r, Florence, 055/241773. They’ve been doing terrific salads here for well over a decade. Pair it with focaccia from their wood-burning oven, and heaven awaits you.

[1] Alan Davidson, The Oxford Companion to Food, New York, 1999.
[2] One could, I suppose, argue that carpacci, besides being an Italian creation, are a form of salad. The original contained very thinly sliced pieces of raw beef with arugula and shavings of Parmesan. Giuseppe Cipriano invented this dish at Harry’s Bar in 1950. reports that the dish was named after Venetian artist Vittore Carpaccio (1460-1526) who used a lot of red. Actually, a whole lot of Venetians used a whole lot of red … the dish could’ve been called “Tiziano” or “Giorgione” or, indeed, “Bellini.” But that would create confusion with the apertivo of the same name. Now all sorts of versions abound: we could surely call un carpaccio di carciofi e zucchini (artichoke and zucchini carpaccio) a salad of some sort, as it does fit the meaning explained by Davidson.
[3] Bona Sforza had a very colorful life whose cause of death may have been poisoning (perhaps from a badly made insalata russa?). Her children Sigismondo and Anna commissioned a monumental tomb for her at the basilica of San Nicola in Bari, where it remains today.
[4] Janet Ross and Michael Waterfield, Leaves from Our Tuscan Kitchen, New York, 1977; originally published in 1899.
[5] Larousse Gastronomique, ed. Jenifer Harvey Lang, New York, 1988.

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