A Neapolitan Christmas: Insalata di rinforzo (Cauliflower and Pickled Vegetable Salad)

Insalata di rinforzo

This zesty cauliflower salad is a fixture on family tables in Naples during the Christmas season.  The salad is called rinforzo—’reinforcement’—is because it was customary in the old days to make a first batch as an antipasto on Christmas Eve and to keep on ‘reinforcing’ it with more cauliflower and condiments over the course of the holiday season, so there would always be some of it on hand up until New Years. And the flavor only gets better as the days go by!

Insalata di rinforzo couldn’t be simpler to make. Cauliflower flowerets are steamed or boiled; their rather bland flavor is complemented with olives, pickled peppers (called papacelle in Naples) and a variety of other pickled vegetables, together other strongly flavored condiments like capers and anchovies, then bathed in fruity olive oil and vinegar in typical Italian style. Every family seems to have its own variation, but here is the most classic recipe:

Ingredients

  • One head of cauliflower, broken up into flowerets
  • 3-4 pickled red peppers, cut into strips or squares
  • A handful each of green and black olives, preferably of the Gaeta or niçoise variety
  • A small can of anchovies
  • A handful of capers
  • White wine vinegar
  • Best-quality fruity extra-virgin olive oil

Optional:

  • Any assortment of sottaceti (pickled vegetables) you like (see Notes)
  • A clove or two of garlic, finely minced

Directions

Boil or, even better, steam a head of cauliflower, trimmed and broken up into flowerets, until it has lost all its rawness but is still al dente. Rinse the flowerets under cold water to stop them cooking and let them drain in a colander until perfectly dry.

Place the flowerets in a large mixing or salad bowl, then add the anchovy fillets, olives and capers, along with the pickled vegetables and/or garlic if you like.

Dress the cauliflower and other ingredients with abundant olive oil, a bit of white wine vinegar and salt to taste as you would a regular salad, mixing well but taking care not to break up the flowerets. (A curved rubber spatula is ideal for this operation.)

Let the salad rest for at least a few hours to develop and meld its flavors. Overnight is better, and the salad will only get tastier as the season goes on!

Insalata di rinforzo (plated)

Notes

Cauliflower, olives, anchovies and capers are the ‘core’ ingredients of this salad, but the other ingredients—as well as the proportions of all of the ingredients—can be varied as suits your taste. (Of course, the one rule is that cauliflower should predominate.) Possible additions include various vegetables pickled in vinegar, known in Italian as sottacetipeperoni sott’aceto (pickled peppers, also known as ‘pimentos’) and cetriolini, those tiny pickled cucumbers known in English as ‘gerkins’ or by their French name cornichons, or baby onions, carrots or celery, also all sott’aceto. Or, if you like, you can use the mixed vegetable preparation called gardiniera, which is lightly pickled and then cured in oil. A jar of giardiniera used to be a fairly common site in US supermarkets, but its popularity seems to have waned. You can even try using other sorts of pickled vegetables if you like. Here in the US, pickled cucumbers or okra would be an interesting choice, I think—but I would avoid those that are sweetened, which would give an ‘off’ taste. 

There are lots of other variations on this basic theme. In her classic cookbook La cucina napoletana, Jeanne Caròla Franscesconi includes a personal recipe for insalata di rinforzo that includes taralli that have been soaked and crumbled, along escarole (an usual choice, as this salad generally does not include leafy vegetables that would wilt over time). And the other day, a friend from the area near Benevento told me about her family’s recipe for insalata di rinforzo made with clementines. So experimenting really is part of the fun of this dish.

Use white wine vinegar if you can, as red wine vinegar will stain the cauliflower. If using pickled vegetables, go especially easy on the vinegar, as they are, of course, already pickled in vinegar. Of course, if you want a vegan version, all you need do is omit the anchovy.

A Neapolitan Christmas: Insalata di rinforzo (Cauliflower and Pickled Vegetable Salad)

Rating: 51

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 30 minutes

A Neapolitan Christmas: Insalata di rinforzo (Cauliflower and Pickled Vegetable Salad)

Ingredients

  • One head of cauliflower, broken up into flowerets
  • 3-4 pickled red peppers, cut into strips or squares
  • A handful each of green and black olives, preferably of the Gaeta or niçoise variety
  • A small can of anchovies
  • A handful of capers
  • White wine vinegar
  • Best-quality fruity extra-virgin olive oil
  • Optional:
  • Any assortment of sottaceti (pickled vegetables) you like (see Notes)
  • A clove or two of garlic, finely minced

Directions

  1. Boil or, even better, steam a head of cauliflower, trimmed and broken up into flowerets, until it has lost all its rawness but is still al dente. Rinse the flowerets under cold water to stop them cooking and let them drain in a colander until perfectly dry.
  2. Place the flowerets in a large mixing or salad bowl, then add the anchovy fillets, olives and capers, along with the pickled vegetables and/or garlic if you like.
  3. Dress the cauliflower and other ingredients with abundant olive oil, a bit of white wine vinegar and salt to taste as you would a regular salad, mixing well but taking care not to break up the flowerets. (A curved rubber spatula is ideal for this operation.)
  4. Let the salad rest for at least a few hours to develop and meld its flavors. Overnight is better, and the salad will only get tastier as the season goes on!
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13 Responses to “A Neapolitan Christmas: Insalata di rinforzo (Cauliflower and Pickled Vegetable Salad)”

  1. 30 December 2013 at 05:07 #

    Very nice! Cauliflower was one of the few vegetables I liked as a child and that preference has stayed with me. I have never had it dressed this way, but I am sure I would like it. Happy New Year!

    • 2 January 2014 at 13:43 #

      Happy New Year to you, too, Simona!

  2. 28 December 2013 at 02:33 #

    I take this salad to Christmas events – it’s one of the few salads Midwesterners actually eat! I’ve never done it with the pickled vegetables though (oh how American I am) but shall change that. After all the festivities, I cannot believe I am lusting after vegetables. Happy New Year, Frank. May it bring magic.

    • 2 January 2014 at 13:44 #

      Many thanks, Claudia. And Happy New Year to you as well!

  3. Steve
    24 December 2013 at 02:09 #

    Looks great, I don’t see the anchovies in the ingredient list.

    • 2 January 2014 at 13:46 #

      Thanks for the catch, Steve! I’ve corrected the omission.

  4. 23 December 2013 at 13:48 #

    non l’ho mai mangiata, dovrò provvedere presto anche perchè , amando il cavolfiore, l’amerò sicuramente ! Approfitto per farti tantissimi auguri per un Felice Natale, un abbraccio caro Frank !

    • 2 January 2014 at 13:46 #

      Tante grazie, Chiara!

  5. 23 December 2013 at 05:47 #

    insalata di rinforzo has always been a part of our XMAS dinners…our cousins, father from Torre del Greco, always brought it to us…your version is less rich but I will definitely enjoy! They always added tons of extra veggies. Ciaochow – why don’t you just make them yourself like we do here in the boot-shaped peninsula! They are so beautiful in the jar and absolutely delish in the tummy…P

    • 2 January 2014 at 13:47 #

      Thanks for your comment, Paula!

  6. 23 December 2013 at 05:03 #

    Whoops. I actually spelled it amico, not amoco, but the darn spell-check changed it on it before I noticed!

  7. 23 December 2013 at 05:02 #

    This insalata di rinforzo is a great palate cleanser after all the rich foods at Christmas time. I remember having those jars of giardiniera at our home when I was a kid. They have fallen by the wayside, but I’m sure I can still find them at my local Italian grocery shop. Buon Natale amoco.

    • 2 January 2014 at 13:48 #

      They’re becoming more and more difficult to find, for some reason. Changing times! But it’s true that they’re not all that hard to make at home. Perhaps I should do a post one day on that…

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