I’ve been playing around this week with a rather wonderful salad traditionally served in Naples throughout the Christmas holidays—which, as you know, actually extend from the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th through Christmas itself and New Year’s all the way up to January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany, when the three kings arrived from the East to the manger in Bethlehem. That’s a jolly month of feasting, partying, visiting friends and family, and, oh yes, going to church now and then too.
With all that socializing there’s a real need for sustaining food, hence this salad. It’s called insalata di rinforzo, which means reinforcing salad, and people say that’s because it reinforces, gives new vigor to, flagging holiday spirits. But the person who gave me the recipe told me a different story. It’s called reinforced salad, he said, because it’s always on the dining room buffet, ready to serve to anyone who stops by, hence it is constantly being used up and constantly needs reinforcing. That’s not hard to do since the ingredients lend themselves to the sort of pickling effect the salad has—it’s quite tart and vinegary compared to most Italian salads—so it lasts and lasts, maybe even from the Madonna (that’s December 8th) to La Befana (the good witch named for epiphany who brings gifts on January 6th). In any case, it’s a terrifically good winter salad and probably just as reinforcing in March as it is in January.
Cauliflower is the key ingredient, with its ivory florets (the proper term for which is curds, like cream). I like to mix with it the gorgeous pale green romanesco cauliflower, the one that looks like a fractal design, but if you can’t find romanesco, simply up the quantity of cauliflower. The remaining components include carrots, other roots (daikon or watermelon radishes, not at all Neapolitan), celery root, and then shallots or some other kind of oniony vegetable (spring onions or sweet red onions would be good). Celery, a sweet red pepper and a hot little red peperoncino (fresh, not dried) are also de rigueur. Sometimes I add a little thinly slivered fennel too. Neapolitan cooks tend to use all sorts of giardiniera vegetables, ones they pickled last summer, but the giardiniera pickles that are commercially available suffer from sameness, so you don’t know whether you’re eating a pepper, a carrot, a green bean or an artichoke heart. I like instead to make a light, quick pickle, cutting the root vegetables in julienne strips and macerating them overnight in vinegar and salt, then combining with the other vegetables. Green and black olives, capers, and anchovies, all so traditional in southern Italian dishes, round out the ingredients.
Hard to say how many this will serve but probably 6 to 8 if it’s offered as an antipasto or first course, more if it’s served as a between-meals snack.
- 2 medium carrots, cut in julienne strips
- Other root vegetables (daikon, celery root, etc.), cut in juliennes
- 1 crisp green celery stalk, sliced about ¼ inch thick
- 2 plump shallots, chopped (or use scallions or sweet red onions)
- 3 tablespoons wine vinegar, plus more to taste
- 1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
- 1 medium cauliflower, weighing about 1 pound
- 1 medium green romanesco, weighing about 1 pound
- 1 sweet red pepper, roasted, peeled and cut in strips
- 1 fresh red chili pepper, seeds and white membranes removed
- 12 large green olives (Castelvetrano are fine), pitted, coarsely chopped
- 12 black olives (Kalamata), pitted, coarsely chopped
- 2 tablespoons salted capers, rinsed, drained, coarsely chopped
- 6 oil-packed anchovy fillets, coarsely chopped
- 1/4 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more to taste
Combine the julienned vegetables and the celery and shallots with the wine vinegar and salt. Toss to mix well and set aside, covered, to macerate several hours or overnight.
Break the cauliflower and romanesco, if you have it, into smaller florets. Bring a saucepan full of lightly salted water to a rolling boil, add the cauliflowers, and cook until just barely tender—about 7 to 10 minutes, just enough to tenderize them without letting them get really soft. Drain thoroughly and combine in a salad bowl with the sweet pepper strips. Slice the fresh chili pepper in thin strips and add to the bowl.
Add the olives, capers, anchovy fillets, and parsley and toss. Now add the olive oil and stir in the macerated vegetables, along with any juices that have accumulated around them. Stir carefully to mix well without breaking things up. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding more salt, more vinegar, or more olive oil if you wish. The salad should be more piquant with vinegar and salt than an ordinary green salad.
Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set aside for at least several hours before serving.
Variation: Finely chop a couple of hard-boiled eggs and sprinkle over the salad just before serving.