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.
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
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 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.
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.
- 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
- 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.