Insalata pantesca

Frankcontorno, Sicilia24 Comments

Insalata pantesca

When temperatures reach astronomical highs as they have done lately, I often turn to salads for sustenance. To me, they’re the ideal hot weather food. Not only do you general serve them chilled or at room temperature, but they’re generally quickly thrown together and don’t involve turning on an oven or stove. And they’re generally light eating too.

Insalata pantesca, a lovely salad from the island of Pantelleria off the coast of Sicily, fits the bill perfectly. It combines potatoes with seasonal tomatoes, red onions, olives and, of course, the capers for which the island is justly famous, all napped with an oregano scented oil and vinegar dressing. It’s light yet substantial enough to be a light lunch or dinner, especially if you add, as many do, some tuna or mackerel to the mix. And while it’s not entirely no-cook, it is lo-cook: the only cooking involved is boiling or steaming the potatoes.

You may see a vague resemblance between this icon of Sicilian cuisine and its better known French cousin, the salade niçoise. I can’t actually say whether there’s any common parentage, but the insalata pantesca is one of the relatively rare examples of a composed salad in Italian cookery—a salad where you arrange the ingredients on a platter and nap them in their dressing, rather than tossing everything together. It’s a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach.

Ingredients

Serves 3 as a light main course or 4-6 as a side dish

  • 300g (10-1/2 oz) medium-sized yellow fleshed potatoes
  • 150g (5 oz) small or medium sized tomatoes (see Notes), cut into wedges or halves depending on size
  • 1/2 small red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
  • A handful of green or black olives
  • A handful of capers
  • A few basil leaves (optional)

For the dressing:

  • 75ml (2-1/2 fl oz) best quality extra virgin olive oil
  • 25ml (1-2 Tb) white wine vinegar, or to taste
  • A pinch of oregano
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Directions

Steam or boil the potatoes in well salt water until fully tender but not mushy. Remove from the pot and let them cool off. At this point peel them or, if their skins are thin, leave them on if you like. Cut the potatoes into wedges and lay out on a serving dish.

While the potatoes are cooking, soak the onion slices in water, to which you can add a pinch of salt and a drizzle of white wine vinegar. Soak the capers, too, in water only. Drain and pat both dry when you’re ready for the next step.

Arrange the tomatoes, olives, capers and onion slices in a decorative pattern over and between the potatoes.

Whisk or process together the dressing ingredients until emulsified. Drizzle over the vegetables and let the salad macerate for about 30 minutes (or longer in the fridge).

Drizzle some more olive oil over the salad, top with the basil leaves if using, and serve at room temperature.

Insalata pantesca

Notes

Insalata pantesca is a salad from Pantelleria, a volcanic island lying between western tip of Sicily and Tunisia. As mentioned above, Pantelleria is perhaps best known as the source of the marvelous capers that bear the island’s name. If you want a truly DOC version of the salad, you can buy Pantelleria capers online—but they don’t come cheap, around $40 a pound. If that’s too dear for your pocket book, any good quality caper will do, if possible packed in salt. But again, if all you can find are brined capers, don’t let that stop you from enjoying this lovely dish.

A wide variety of tomatoes can go into an insalata pantesca. Some, like datterini (similar to our grape tomatoes) and pachini (a kind of cherry tomato from Sicily) have equivalents abroad. Another, the San Marzano, is quintessentially Italian but now being cultivated outside Italy. Other options, such as the Camone, Piccadilly and Perini, are only grown in the Bel Paese. So I’d simply opt for whatever looks best to you at the market. Besides cherry or grape tomatoes, you could opt for other small or medium sized varieties like plums or a reliable hydroponic like Camparis. Avoid larger tomatoes like beefsteaks. Whichever kind of tomato you opt for, although atypical for Italian salads, they should be fully ripe. Many recipes recommend a mix of two or more types.

There is less fuss about the potatoes, although recipes vary as to whether to use large or medium sized ones. They should be firm fleshed, however, not the floury kind you’d use for gnocchi or mashed potatoes. In traditional recipes you always peel the potatoes, but if you’re using a thin skinned variety you can always skip that step if you prefer.

“Quanto basta” is key

As for the dressing ingredients, most Italian recipes simply specify q.b. or quanto basta, that quintessentially Italian culinary phrase literally meaning “as much as is enough”. The closest English equivalent might be “to taste”, although that doesn’t quite capture it. Q.b. is not really about your subjective personal preference, for which you’d more likely say “a piacere“. Quanto basta is more objective, closer to “as much as you need” or “as much as works”. Even so, you’re still the judge of what you need or what works. If like me you like a dressing that’s not too acidic, go light on the vinegar. If you like the taste of oregano, add a big pinch, or even two.

In fact, the same goes for every ingredient in the recipe. Want a bit more tomatoes or fewer potatoes? Go right ahead. If you love olives, add more. And so on. Truth be told, I was sorely tempted to omit measurements altogether from this post, but I know from experience many readers find that unnerving. Take the measurements I do give as mere guideposts. You do want a final result that’s balanced, with no single ingredient overwhelming the others. But here again you’re the judge of what counts as balance.

Variations

Although some recipes have you simply toss the ingredients together with the dressing, personally I like to serve insalata pantesca as a composed salad, with the ingredients arranged in a decorative pattern on a serving dish, napped with the dressing. A bit like that other Italian composed salad so popular in the summer months, the caprese. As I said, it’s a true feast for the eyes. Those who like can always toss the ingredients when serving, of course.

Not all recipes call for macerating ingredients in the dressing either, but I think it makes for a more flavorful salad. The potatoes in particular are much tastier if they have time to absorb the dressing. If you put the salad in the fridge, take it out in advance of eating so it returns to room temperature.

The potatoes give this dish some heft to begin with, but if you want an even more substantial salad, one that could serve as a complete meal in itself, you can add crumbled canned tuna or mackerel fillets. If you prefer to keep things (lacto-ovo) vegetarian, some ricotta salata or a similar cheese like feta wouldn’t be amiss.

Insalata pantesca

A summery salad from the island of Pantelleria
Total Time30 mins
Course: Antipasto, Main Course
Cuisine: Sicilia
Keyword: salad, vegan, vegetarian

Ingredients

  • 300g 10-1/2 oz medium-sized firm fleshed potatoes
  • 150g 5 oz small or medium sized tomatoes cut into wedges or halves
  • 1/2 small red onion peeled and thinly sliced
  • A handful of green or black olives
  • A handful of capers
  • A few basil leaves optional

For the dressing

  • 75ml 2-1/2 fl oz best quality extra virgin olive oil
  • 25ml 1-2 Tbs white wine vinegar or to taste
  • A pinch of oregano
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

  • Steam or boil the potatoes in well salt water until fully tender but not mushy. Remove from the pot and let them cool off. At this point peel them or, if their skins are thin, leave them on if you like. Cut the potatoes into wedges and lay out on a serving dish. 
  • While the potatoes are cooking, soak the onion slices in water, to which you can add a pinch of salt and a drizzle of white wine vinegar. Soak the capers, too, in water only. Drain and pat both dry when you're ready for the next step. 
  • Arrange the tomatoes, olives, capers and onion slices in a decorative pattern over and between the potatoes. 
  • Whisk or process together the dressing ingredients until emulsified. Drizzle over the vegetables and let the salad macerate for about 30 minutes (or longer in the fridge). 
  • Drizzle some more olive oil over the salad, top with the basil leaves if using, and serve at room temperature.

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24 Comments on “Insalata pantesca”

  1. This looks delicious, a good side to a nice grilled meat, apart from that no need for anything else, that salad has everything on it. Love the recipe

  2. It is such a beautiful salad, Frank! We are trying to eat salads most evenings for supper, not so much for the heat but because we sleep better if we eat our main meal at noon.

    1. That’s also a good point! As I slip into retirement and will have a more flexible schedule, I also am thinking about making the midday meal the main one of the day.

  3. Oh yes! With you all the way! Horrible heat and water reductions make us eat fruits and vegetables filled with liquids….. this is such a wonderful lunch or dinner! Thank you so much!!!!!!

    1. No, thank *you* so much, for the kinds words! Mercifully the heat has moderated (a bit) around here. Not sure for how long, though…

  4. You know how much we love Italy and Italian cuisine in our house – so I’m ashamed to admit that this is the first I’ve heard of Pantelleria. I’m going to have to go check this island out now! This salad sounds fantastic, and I like the potato addition. Oh, and the whole ‘quanto basta’ makes me laugh. This is exactly how Laura cooks, but I always have to write down exact amounts. She’s the Italian in our family though, so that makes sense! 🙂

    1. Hehe, that reminds me of the old Italian saying: “il buon sangue non mente” or “Good blood doesn’t lie”. That may explain why Laura cooks the way she does…

  5. Oh, Down Under salads are so common as the main meal I quite forget not to prepare them during the colder months tho’ this year we are having an actual winter !!! Well, up to mid-twenties next week – so this may be a very good idea ! The olives and capers and oregano naturally are the ingredients which make the difference . . .

    1. Indeed they are! It’s always a challenge with us living in different hemispheres with the seasons reversed. But happily I still do have quite a few readers from “Down Under” and very glad that I do.

  6. This is delicious! We took a little drive to our favorite farm stand this morning (Susie’s in Belvedere IL) and found everything I needed. Perfect for our dinner. Frank, thank you for everything you do. I feel like I’ve been given a second chance to learn cooking techniques from my grandma. I had no idea I’d be wanting to prepare her recipes 70 years later. At the time I just sat down to my pastina with a sigh, a smile and lots of cheek pinches.

    1. What a lovely comment, Marilyn! I really appreciate it. I’m delighted you’re getting good use out of the blog. And yes, this salad really is a winner. 🙂 It must have been especially delicious with farm fresh ingredients!

  7. Quanto basta is a new term for me, and I do get it. I think. 🙂 You’re right, though — “to taste” doesn’t quite cover it. Anyway, really nice salad. Terrific dressing. Thanks!

    1. Thanks, John! I bet even if you don’t know the term, you’ve instinctively been cooking that way like a lot of cooks.

  8. quanto basta! Love it. And it describes how I cook. I have some “recipes” on my blog that just list ingredients, no measurements. Which astounds me when I see super precisely measured or weighed ingredients. I didn’t know about the capers – thanks. I’ll try to find some!

    1. I think “quanto basta” is the way most accomplished cooks cook, even if they don’t know the term. At some point, measurements become intuitive and we no longer need them. Except maybe for baking. But of course a lot of folks aren’t there yet. Remembering to measure (for the sake of readers who need them) might just be the hardest part of blogging for me… But I agree, those super-precise measurements you see in some recipes are just ridiculous. And very misleading.

  9. We just had salad Niçoise last night, it’s definitely a hot weather favourite. I usually add sautéed mushrooms too, even though it’s not a traditional ingredient. Your version looks wonderful. I’m particularly intrigued with the dressing.

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