This zesty cauliflower salad is a fixture on family tables in Naples during the Christmas season. The salad is called insalata di rinforzo—’reinforcement salad’—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:
- 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
- Any assortment of sottaceti (pickled vegetables) you like (see Notes)
- A clove or two of garlic, finely minced
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!
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 sottaceti: peperoni 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 of insalata di rinforzo, all you need do is omit the anchovy.