If the core of Italian cooking is seasonality, then nothing defines it more than fresh greens. Celebrity chef Jonathan Waxman shares his favorite fresh, simple salad ideas from Italian, My Way: More Than 150 Simple and Inspired Recipes That Breathe New Life Into Italian Classics.
Lettuce can be a basic term for all greens; in Italy they grow an amazing variety. In America we tend to stick to the same old standbys; in Italy they have fifty varieties of treviso! I am constantly awed at what I find in the Italian markets when I wander around the countryside. Italians like their greens crisp, bitter and colorful, and this style appeals to me. A classic example is arugula. In Italy, some varieties of arugula are large and soft; others, small, crisp and spicy. I happen to like the wild variety, the small, bitter, almost blue-tinged sylvetta.
With the greening of the American food industry, arugula no longer rests in the hands of the Mediterranean farmers. We produce amazing arugula here. Nothing, absolutely nothing, compares to a freshly made salad of arugula and real Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese tossed with great olive oil and sea salt.
Early on in my career I became impassioned by the world of warm salads, which the Italians have enjoyed for centuries. I am particularly enamored with the classic bagna cauda, which I have adapted to my taste. I often wonder why eggs taste better in the hills of Piedmont than in downtown New York. I think pedigree might have something to do with it. In any case, a perfectly poached egg atop a curly endive salad, mixed with freshly picked herbs, pancetta, crispy torn bread croutons, true balsamic vinegar and, of course, that fantastic walnut oil from Abruzzi, is heaven!
I quite like the idea of a colorful, composed salad. Roasted apples, toasted walnuts and freshly made goat cheese, delicately but firmly tossed with lemon juice, good olive oil and black pepper, is an autumnal treat.
Then there is my absolute favorite: the raw vegetable salad. I was a picky and not at all adventuresome eater as a child. I came late to the game of delicious, freshly picked vegetables. Raw beets, asparagus, summer squash and even Brussels sprouts have all entered my daily menus. The only “trick” with raw vegetables is to choose farm fresh. A Brussels sprout gone past its primeis no one’s friend. My first raw salad came in the guise of a shaved black truffle and mâche (lamb’s tongue lettuce) salad — very decadent, and truly delicious. I have tried to enhance my repertoire along this theme. A trick I employ with raw vegetables is to use a lovely and sharp Japanese mandoline. This amazingly simple and precise tool makes quick work of a raw artichoke, caulifloweror turnip, making delicate, tender shavings. Again, tossed with great olive oil and salt, they are transcendent.