All about Salads
During the hot, stifling Italian summer months, there are times when it gets just too hot to eat anything except salad. The Italians have a very scientific approach to their digestive systems and they know when it is wise to eat light, cooling food. So
l’insalata, salad, has an important place in the hearts of all the Italians I know. This can mean a simple bowl of fresh green leaves, crisp and tender, dressed with just a sprinkling of sea salt and a light drizzle of extra virgin olive oil of the finest quality, or it can mean something much more elaborate and slightly more complex to prepare.
I must confess to being something of a salad aficionado, it is without question my favorite thing to eat when temperatures rise, as I feel it gives such scope to the joy of combining tastes, textures, and colors together. The worst salad I was ever served was a disgusting combination of Persimmons and mayonnaise. It was even worse than that typically boring combination of limp, undressed lettuce, slumped sadly on a plate next to a pile of egg mayonnaise, which in turn is situated too close to sharp, vinegar-laden beet, which is inevitably bleeding copiously into the mayonnaise. To finish off this altogether dull so-called salad, which always looks as bad as it tastes, a watery sliced tomato or two… How very different from fresh Italian salads that look too beautiful to eat, which contain all kinds of seasonal, intensely flavored ingredients, perfectly dressed and all of which work with each other to create a real taste sensation!
One of the main, most basic and important ingredients when creating an Italian salad is extra virgin olive oil. All the southern regions of Italy grow olive trees for olive oil production and, depending upon the region you choose, the oil will be quite different and unique. In the center of the country the regions of Tuscany, Umbria, Lazio, the Marche, and to a much lesser degree Emilia Romagna, all grow olive trees for oil production, and of these Tuscan oil is perhaps the best known. This is oil which is made from olives that are harvested early, hence the oil is rich in chlorophyll, bright green in color, and very grassy and peppery in taste. To the north of the country, the olive trees struggle for survival in the colder weather, however, the olive oil of the Ligurian coastline is to my mind the most sublime oil produced almost anywhere in the world.
Still in the north, the olive trees on the shores of Lake Garda also produce oil that is light and pure, albeit in much smaller quantities than the more prolific production of regions like Puglia or Calabria.
If you have the right oil, all you need to add is a little fresh lemon juice, a pinch of sea salt, and freshly ground black pepper to create a perfectly delicious Italian salad dressing. Lemon juice is a much loved alternative to red or white wine vinegar, especially when the weather is very hot.
Balsamic vinegar has become increasingly popular in the last couple of decades and seems almost set for culinary world domination. This ancient condiment from the solemn city of Modena in Emilia Romagna actually started out as a laxative, sold in pharmacies in the city and surrounding area. I cannot help but smile to myself whenever I see it splashed so liberally over salads and other dishes, practically everywhere I go in the world!