Monday, November 21, 2011

Cooking to Save the Planet: Fall and Winter Marinated Salad

Coolmom, a much-esteemed reader of Bilgrimage, asked me a number of days ago to keep the gay recipes coming.  (And I love the thought that someone cares about this dabbing around with cooking ideas--because I love writing about this topic.)  So here's a recipe for a fall-winter salad that Steve and I make over and over again after fresh salad items, especially tomatoes, are no longer seasonally available in our area.  

I freely admit that this recipe owes a great deal to the gorgeous Italian marinated salads we used to see (and eat) at some of the old-time southern Italian grocery stores in New Orleans, in our years living there.  They were always displayed on the ancient scarred wooden counters of the stores in huge glass jars displaying their mix of brilliantly colored vegetables and on hand for the person behind the counter to use in sandwich making.  They added eye appeal to the dark, cool interiors of the stores redolent of garlic, salamis, cheeses, and oregano, with their boxes of salt dried cod on the floor at the foot of the counter, and bins of chickpeas and barrels of pasta.

The point of this salad is to keep on hand a mix of fall-winter vegetables marinated in a mild vinaigrette dressing, to spoon out and eat over lettuce as a salad with meals during the fall and winter, or to chop fine and add to sandwiches as a dressing--a common practice with many of the sandwiches in New Orleans that are said to have their roots in southern Italy or to be inspired by the southern Italian cuisine that many Italian immigrants brought to New Orleans around the turn of the 20th century.

Here's what you need to make this salad: take a head of cauliflower and one of broccoli, and steam both until just tender.  With the broccoli, I save the woody stems to make cream of broccoli soup, though you can peel these and add to the salad if you wish.  As you steam the cauliflower and broccoli heads, take about three peeled carrots, slice them across, and either steam them as well, or cook them quickly until just tender in a small amount of boiling water.  You may wish to save the water from the steaming or boiling of all these vegetables--I'll explain why in a moment.

As these vegetables are steaming, in a separate saucepan, heat vinegar and water together in a two-to-one proportion: water in about twice the amount of vinegar.  For the amount of vegetables I'm suggesting here, you may find yourself using about a third cup of vinegar and about two-thirds cup of water.  But the amount of vinegar you will want to use will depend on your taste, as well as the acidity of your vinegar.  Not all vinegars are equally acid, as I learned to my chagrin when Steve and I visited friends in Scotland several years ago and I made a salad for them, using their vinegar--which was much tarter than American varieties.

You do want enough vinegar to help your salad keep well for the week or more you will want to store and use it.  Diminishing the amount of vinegar will increase the possibility of quicker spoilage, if the salad mixture isn't kept scrupulously cold.  And I think you should let your taste be the guide for the kind of vinegar you choose.  I tend almost always to use a red wine vinegar for this dish.

And this is where the bit about saving the  cooking water from the vegetables comes into the recipe.  If you wish, you can wait on the heating and infusing of your vinegar mix until you have steamed your vegetables, and then use the water in which you steamed the vegetables as part of the water for the vinegar-water mix, keeping in mind that both cauliflower and broccoli can produce a pungent broth.

To the vinegar-water mix, add about two teaspoons of salt, a good bit of freshly ground black pepper, two or three bay leaves, and a sprinkling of Italian herbs (oregano, rosemary, and, if you wish, dried basil, which to my taste tastes like nothing at all, so I rarely use basil except in its fresh form).  Let this mixture reach a boil and then turn down to a simmer and let simmer at very low heat for five minutes or so.  If you feel you need something other than the carrots' natural sweetness to cut the vinegar's sharpness, you may add a spoon of sugar at this point, too.

When the broccoli and cauliflower and carrots are just tender, break or cut the first two vegetables into bite-sized bits and then mix all three vegetables in a large, heavy bowl or crock--non-metal.  We have a set of nesting crocks I use for this salad.  There's one that's a perfect size to fill with the salad and then put on a refrigerator shelf, covered, as long as we keep a mix of the salad on hand.

To the previous vegetables add a medium salad (sweet) onion cut into strips, two stalks of celery coarsely chopped, several large toes of garlic finely diced, and a handful of parsley leaves chopped.  Add a good handful of olives, as well--we prefer oil-cured black olives, but go with your own taste.  If I have on hand some button mushrooms, I often add them to this salad mix as well.  When the vegetable mix is ready, pour over the hot vinegar-water solution, mix very well, and add about a half cup of good olive oil.

Mix again and let cool, then cover the salad and store it for use during the coming week or so.  During fall and winter, we eat this salad mix over lettuce as a dinner salad many evenings, and we often use the mix as a topping for a cold dish like the poached salmon we'll have tonight on a bed of shredded escarole.  It's also wonderful, as I say, chopped very fine and spread on a sandwich.  Or as a relish with meat.

I'm well aware that an increasing number of grocery stores in many places now have salad bars and deli counters at which one can buy similar mixes of marinated salad vegetables.  But I encourage you to try making your own, for the following reasons.

First, you'll know absolutely what goes into your salad, as you usually can't know with the prepared ones on sale in stores.  Second, you'll save money.  But third and best of all, you'll have the wonderful experience of handling beautiful vegetables, of smelling the pungent vinegar-herb mix simmering on the stove, of breathing in the aroma of good olive oil laced with the chopped garlic as you stir the salad.

These simple, earthy, sensual experiences that connect us to the planet from which we draw our sustenance are good for both body and soul.  As is this simple, zesty salad full of vitamins and warm colors, during the cold months of late fall and winter.

The graphic is a market sign from Shivaji Market in the Pune district of India, from Jyotsna Shahane's The Cook's Cottage blog.

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