Here’s the sort of salad I imagined we’d be eating as we rode our bikes through the hills of Tuscany: plates of field greens piled with herbs, fruit, roasted vegetables, cured meats, mozarella di bufala – everything local and in season. Peppery vinaigrettes. New olive oil. Verrry old balsamic.
The reality looked more like this: a glass bowl of green leaf lettuce, wedges of anemic tomato, and perhaps a few rounds of carrot or cucumber. Sometimes, an arugula salad, composed just of arugula. Accompanying the salad was not a vinaigrette – remember, vinaigrette is a french word – or, even ‘italian dressing’ (this may be an american invention), but the same four things that arrive with any contorno: olive oil, ordinary vinegar, salt, and pepper.
If you hail from the U.S., where the number of words a server uses to describe your entree seems directly proportional to the ‘fineness’ of the restaurant, the food of Tuscany requires a mental shift. Tuscan food is defined by a simplicity that verges on ascetic: antipasto is a plate of thinly shaved prosciutto, the primo piatto, a plate of hand-rolled pasta with olive oil, pecorino and black pepper, the secondo piatto, a perfectly grilled pork chop.
And this is where the salad comes in. Contorni are side dishes, and salad is a contorno. They appear nearly last on the menu, after the antipasti, primi, and secondi piatti. They are meant to accompany the secondo, such as your pork chop, and are therefore eaten toward the end of the meal. Sometimes you will find roasted onions or farro salad, but generally you will choose from cooked white beans, sauteed spinach or chicory, grilled vegetables, roasted potatoes, or salad.
Anything more involved than a lightly dressed bowl of arugula would detract from the superb pair of lamb chops that came to your table still smoking from the grill. And when you order bistecca fiorentina, the famously simple T-bone steak that wants no more adornment than a squeeze of lemon, you do not want the gorgonzola on your salad running off and stealing the show.
Tagliata – grilled meat, sliced and served on a bed of arugula – is the exception that proves the rule. And in pizzerias and bars you will sometimes find the insalatón: the big salad. This is basically an insalata with the addition of canned things – sliced black olives, water-packed tuna, tough little kernels of corn – and a modest amount of fresh mozzarella. That’s it. That’s the ‘big’ salad.
Needless to say, we didn’t eat a lot of salad in Italy. After some initial angst about missing our greens, we realized: if you want greens, order the cicoria. But really, skip the insalata. There are not enough euros in your wallet and there is not enough space in your stomach to fritter away the grand opportunity that is a Tuscan lunch on lettuce and hot house tomatoes.
You know that old saw, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead”? Well, I’ll eat lettuce and tomato salad when I’m dead.
Greens with roasted winter squash, pomegranate, and feta
We came home from Italy craving big salad. Here’s my winter insalatón. It is a jewel box of local fall produce, shining with oranges and reds. I used sweet dumpling and delicata squash, but butternut or any similar winter variety would work. Peeling and cubing the squash before roasting is a little labor-intensive, but resist the temptation to roast the squash in halves and then dice it once it’s cooked: it won’t caramelize or have the right texture if you shortcut this step. I chose feta because it was local, but if you have access to a nice blue, I think that might be even better. And finally, I used lemon vinaigrette, based on my favorite recipe from the Macrina Bakery Cookbook, but I think a drizzle of really old balsamic vinegar and olive oil would do you just as well.
four handfuls of mixed field greens
2 to 3 pounds winter squash, such as delicata, butternut, or sweet dumpling
1 pomegranate’s worth of seeds
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
1/2 cup toasted walnuts, or pepitas
lemon vinaigrette, or olive oil and good quality aged balsamic vinegar
Peel and seed the squash and cut it into a 3/4 inch dice. Toss it with olive oil, salt and pepper, and roast on a baking sheet in a 400 degree oven until tender and browning on some sides, about 30 minutes. Stir it once or twice while roasting to give all sides a chance to caramelize.
Toss the greens with vinaigrette, season with salt and pepper, and divide among four plates. Divide the warm squash and the remaining ingredients among the plates and drizzle with a little more vinaigrette.
Serves four locavores.