The proper dressing of a salad has got to be one of the most overlooked techniques in all of cookery. For many people, a salad is something so common that it hardly merits thinking about. But there is actually a kind of art to this everyday task that can really transform your salads from the pedestrian to—dare I say it?—the sublime. Perhaps nothing else demonstrates so well the importance of technique in the act of cooking.
The Golden Rule: The Italians also have their own particular way of dressing a salad, which can be nicely summed up by the following proverb:
A ben condire l’insalata, ci vuole un avaro per l’aceto, un giusto per il sale e uno strambo per l’olio.
Which, loosely translated, means: “to properly dress a salad, you need a miser to add the vinegar, a judge to add the salt and a spendthrift to add the oil.” In other words, there are only three ingredients for dressing the salad and the proportions are as indicated—very little vinegar, the ‘right’ amount of salt (not too much, not too little) and a generous amount of oil.
The taste of the oil, in fact, should dominate, not—as is usually the case for oil-and-vinegar dressings in the States but also (albeit to a lesser extent) in a French vinaigrette—the vinegar. Of course, this means that a fruity extra-virgin olive oil is essential. (See my post on The Italian Pantry for details.)
Despite the popular misconceptions, everyday Italian dressing does not contain garlic or oregano or grated cheese or indeed anything else—not even, depending on who you ask, pepper.
The vinegar should be wine vinegar (of course!) but both white and red wine vinegars are perfectly fine, according to your preference. Personally, I like white wine vinegar as it is milder (or so it seems to me) and its light color does not ‘stain’ the salad. One common variation is to use freshly squeezed lemon juice in place of the vinegar. It is especially nice as part of a fish dinner, of course. But be very careful: lemon juice tends to be very sour, so use even less of it than you would vinegar. (Some varieties of lemon, like the lovely Meyer lemon, are milder in flavor and can be used with less restraint.)
On the order for adding oil, vinegar and salt: I usually start with the oil, then the vinegar and then finally the salt, but not everyone does it this way. A reader named Giulia, now a scholar in Scotland, recently sent me this wonderful story about her experience making salad while visiting her native town in Treviso:Dressing is a verb, not a noun: The other thing that sets the Italian approach apart is that the dressing does not exist separately from the salad itself. You don’t mix the dressing in a bowl and then add it to the salad, as for a vinaigrette; you add the three ingredients, one at a time, to the greens, tossing quickly and very gently after each addition. Taste and adjust for balance, toss again if need be, and serve the salad right away, as the greens will begin to wilt almost immediately. The dressing should just coat the leaves so they glisten. A proper salad is never ‘swimming’ in dressing.
Last time I was home visiting my family and friends (I come from a small village, south of Treviso), I went to a fundraiser lunch with a friend of mine. The kitchen was full of ladies, every one of them having her own task(s). But there was one lady in particular that seemed in charge and she looked like she knew what to do. I thought she was a bit grumpy, but maybe it was just the stress of the situation. When time came to dress a saeada, the salad, my friend took the bottle of olive oil in an attempt to help, since it was getting hectic in there. E ociáde, the looks, she got! Like flying knives! That one lady almost yelled at her and my friend froze with the bottle of oil of olive in mid air. That same one lady asked my friend: ‘Situ sposada?’ Are you married? My friend isn’t and the lady replied ‘Of course you aren’t. Because if you were, you would know that sale, pepe, olio, aceto, otherwise is not as good as mom (of the husband) makes it.’ Of course the answer revealed the traditional tension between wives and mother in laws. This incident got me thinking about the order of the ingredients. I never really thought about it until that day.
Giulia’s story got me to thinking and I did a little research. It seems that none other than Il cucchiaio d’argento, an authoritative cookbook, endorses that bossy lady’s position: salt first, then the vinegar and the olive oil last. No pepper mentioned. (They are specific about the order but don’t give reasons.) On the other hand, Ada Boni’s Talismano has a recipe for insalata di lattuga alla casalinga (“Housewife-Style Lettuce Salad) that tells you to do it ‘my’ way, starting with the oil, then vinegar, then salt and pepper. And then there are yet other methods: the doyenne of Italian cookery in the US, Marcella Hazan, tells you to start with salt, then the oil and the vinegar only at the last, saying that the vinegar wilts the lettuce, so it needs the oil as protection first. Another well-known cookbook author from Florence, Giuliano Bugialli, makes the same point about the vinegar but recommends mixing the salt into the vinegar in a large spoon before adding it to the salad and tossing.
I’ve also come across a number of online ‘debates’ among Italian home cooks. It seems there are, indeed, two schools of thought: both agree that the oil coats the lettuce and ‘seals’ it. Some see this as a good thing, others see it as a defect… I would suppose it depends on how prominent you prefer the taste of the vinegar to be. And then there is a minority that says the traditional Italian way is all wrong, and it’s better to mix all the ingredients beforehand, as the French do. And I ever found at least one fan of American-style bottled dressings…!
As for so many things Italian, I guess there is no definitive ‘right’ answer and the debate will no doubt rage on forever. For myself, I’ve tried different methods and still like ‘my’ way the best. I don’t like assertive sour tastes and adding the oil before the vinegar does soften the sourness of the vinegar.
Lettuce is the star: Insalata verde and insalata mista. Although generalizations are always a bit risky, it is fair to say that Italians don’t generally weigh their salads down with lots of different ingredients in the manner of a salad bar. The most common type of salad is an insalata verde, a ‘green salad’ of lettuce, more often than not a mix of different types. The most popular mix in Rome is called a misticanza. It’s actually quite similar to the mixed baby greens you can buy here in States, although a true misticanza, consisting as it does of wild greens picked from the Roman countryside, can only be had in Rome itself. Salads of arugula only (called rughetta in Rome, rucola in standard Italian) are also quite popular. What I never saw was the kind of lettuce sold in the US as ‘Romain’ which, despite the name is very un-Italian in its super-firm texture and near tastelessness. And of iceberg lettuce, well, the less said the better, at least when it comes to making an Italian salad. (I actually have a weakness for a wedge of iceberg with roquefort dressing, but that is a salad from a completely different tradition.)
When you do add things other than lettuce to a green salad, you get an insalata mista, or mixed salad. These other ingredients are used sparingly: a few carrot shavings, a few very thin slices of cucumber, some shredded green onion, a few finely sliced mushrooms, a thin wedge of tomato, etc. (Tomatoes for salads, by the way, are best when still quite green; a fully ripened tomato will make your salad red and soggy.)
When to serve a salad: I’ve heard different things about the proper place for salad in an Italian meal and the answer, as so often is the case, is “it depends”—on the region, on the family, on personal preference. When I was in living in Rome, a green or mixed salad was typically served as a contorno, or side dish, especially for grilled or roasted meats or breaded cutlets. But Angelina served the salad as a separate course following the secondo, the usual habit among Italo-Americans, and I am told this custom is also not unheard of in parts of southern Italy.
Besides its usual role as a side dish to meat, salads can also be an integral part of a dish as a bed for sliced steak (tagliata di manzo) as featured in my Italian cookout post—it’s a fabulous combination. And nice green salad can be wonderful served over a salmon carpaccio, a great meal for times when you want something light to eat.
Other kinds of salad: This post has been about the most typical of salads, those based on lettuce. But there are other kinds of dishes also called ‘salads’ that made with more substantial ingredients. They are traditionally served as antipasti but could pass as a vegetarian main course: insalata caprese, insalata di fagioli e tonno, insalata di rinforzo to name just a few that have been featured on this blog. And I remember a place close to work back in Rome that made a great insalatone, or ‘big salad’, during the summer months. It was a kind of composed salad in the tradition of a salade niçoise that was a meal in and of itself.
Finally, I can’t write a post about salads without mentioning the exception that proves the rule(s): puntarelle, a kind of chicory that is a quintessential part of Roman cookery. It is also unique, as it breaks most of the rules I’ve just outlined for you: for one thing, it is the singular example of a ‘dressing’ that is actually made separately from the salad, and the dressing includes not only the holy trinity of oil, vinegar and salt, but pepper, garlic and anchovy as well. The strong flavors of this dressing are the perfect balance for the assertively bitter taste of this unusual green. It is near impossible to find puntarelle outside Italy (as far as I am aware) but the hearts of curly endive, which is a variety of chicory, makes for a decent substitute. See my post on puntarelle for more details