Salads are no longer the bowls of lettuce and tomatoes of yesterday. Today’s modern salads are full of zest and flavor and are often served as meals in and of themselves. Some of the most diverse salads are those that come from Italy. Authentic Italian spring salad recipes provide light, flavorful alternatives to heavier meals and bring a little taste of Old World Italy to your dining table, often with ingredients that are already in your kitchen.

A classic insalata mista (salad of mixed greens) often combines a variety of whatever salad ingredients are freshest and in season. Romaine and other Italian lettuces, Belgian endive, arugula, radicchio, dandelion greens, very young radish tops, sorrel leaves, chive flowers or fresh young herb leaves (oregano, basil or thyme) are a few of the possibilities.

Italian Salad Making Basics

Greens should be loosely wrapped in damp paper or cotton towels and refrigerated until shortly before the salad is to be prepared. Using wooden utensils will help avoid bruising tender greens.

Extra virgin olive oil is always the most essential ingredient and that is usually simply combined with white or balsamic vinegar or lemon, which is especially common in the central southern region of Italy. Only in the last generation or so have Italians begun to explore more elaborate vinaigrettes and dressings.

In any discussion of salad dressings, there are just a couple of things to keep in mind: Always apply the dressing just minutes before serving it, otherwise, the vinegar or lemon will wilt the lettuce leaves. Only dress the amount of salad you intend to eat. You can store the rest in the refrigerator with a wet kitchen towel on top of it. (Tupperware is perfect for storing salad; just be sure the lettuce is thoroughly dry.) If you have any leftover salad dressing, most can be stored in the refrigerator for a few days or more.

Another very important thing to remember before applying whatever dressing you choose, is that it is crucial that you thoroughly dry the lettuce after you’ve washed it; there is nothing worse than a salad with soggy lettuce. If you use a spinner-which is a really great invention-after the first spin, be sure to stop and turn the lettuce. Sometimes the leaves act as a kind of a screen, impeding the water from actually being expelled. If you spin and turn the lettuce a couple of times, you can be sure to enjoy a crisp salad later.

For most green salads, the serving bowl and individual salad plates should be chilled slightly, while the dressing should be at room temperature.

Lemon Dressing

Classic Italian Vinaigrette

Yield: About 1 1/2 cups

Make this dressing up to a week ahead. Add it sparingly to greens along with cracked black pepper.

Ingredients:

  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 4 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • Coarse salt to taste
  • 3/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground cracked pepper

Directions:

Combine lemon juice, vinegar and salt in small bowl or jar. Stir to dissolve salt. Whisk in olive oil. Let stand 10 minutes. Add pepper add additional salt, if desired.

Spring Salads

One of the most flavorful of traditional Italian spring salads is also one of the easiest to prepare. Insalata Caprese is a light, savory salad made from tomatoes, fresh mozzarella cheese, basil leaves, olive oil and seasonings. To prepare: slice four large, ripe tomatoes into slices 1/4 inch thick. Slice 1 pound of fresh mozzarella cheese into 1/4-inch thick slices. On a large platter, place tomato and mozzarella slices along with fresh basil leaves in intermittent layers. Drizzle with 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Before serving, sprinkle with cracked black pepper and sea salt to taste. Serve cold.

The most classic version of Italian spring salad contains fresh ingredients such as grated Parmesan cheese, fresh garlic and black olives. To prepare: in a medium-size bowl whisk together 2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar, 1 tablespoon of water, one clove of roasted and finely minced garlic and 1/2 teaspoon of dried, crushed oregano. As you whisk the combination, slowly add 4 teaspoons of olive oil. Set the mixture aside. In a large, separate bowl, combine 4 cups of mixed spring salad, one medium yellow bell pepper cut into thin strips, one fresh red onion cut into rings and 1/4 cup of fresh black olives. Toss salad until well mixed and then top with dressing mixture. Before serving, season with fresh ground black pepper and 2 tablespoons of grated Parmesan cheese. Serve cold.

Insalata Primavera is a light, but hearty salad that will easily substitute for heavier dishes for warmer weather lunches or suppers. To prepare: in a large bowl, combine 18 cooked, yet still firm, asparagus spears that have been chopped into 2-inch pieces, 1/2 pound of fresh green beans that have been cooked and cut in half, six cooked and sliced artichoke hearts, three large peeled and diced tomatoes and 1 thinly sliced peeled cucumber. In a medium-size glass jar, combine 2/3 cup of extra virgin olive oil, 1/3 cup of your favorite white wine vinegar, 2 tablespoons of fresh chopped basil and salt and pepper to taste. Place a lid on the glass jar and shake vigorously until mixed well. Drizzle the dressing over the salad before serving. Serve cold.

Arugula Salad with Salami and Pecorino Cheese

Serves 4

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 clove garlic, pounded to a paste with a pinch of salt
  • 1-1/2 tablespoons red-wine vinegar or freshly squeezed lemon juice; more as needed
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 bulb fennel, trimmed
  • 4 large handfuls arugula, about 5 oz, washed and dried
  • Kosher salt
  • 4 oz piece of stick salami, cut into 1/8- to 1/4-inch dice
  • 3 oz aged Tuscan Pecorino cheese, cut into 1/8- to 1/4-inch dice

Directions:

Combine the garlic and vinegar or lemon juice in a small bowl. Let sit for 10 minutes. Whisk in the oil. Taste and add more salt or vinegar, if necessary.

Just before serving, use a mandolin to thinly slice the fennel. In a large work bowl, combine the shaved fennel with the arugula, salami and cheese. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Gently toss with just enough vinaigrette to lightly coat the greens.

With a delicate hand, transfer the salad to a platter or individual serving plates, making a fluffy pile of greens. Sprinkle the salami and cheese that have fallen to the bottom of the bowl on top. Serve immediately.

Tortellini Salad Italiana

Ingredients

  • 2-9 oz packages fresh cheese and spinach tortellini (refrigerated, prepared according to package directions)
  • 2 cups yellow bell pepper, thinly sliced
  • 1 cup fresh small mozzarella cheese balls (bocconcini), halved
  • 1 cup tomato vinaigrette dressing, recipe below
  • 1/2 cup prosciutto, thinly sliced
  • 12 cup basil, thinly sliced
  • black pepper, fresh cracked

Directions:

Combine prepared pasta, bell peppers, cheese, vinaigrette, prosciutto, tomatoes and basil in medium bowl. Sprinkle with pepper. Refrigerate for 1 hour

Tomato Vinaigrette

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/4 cups extra virgin olive oil
  • 4 cups fresh tomatoes, seeded and finely diced
  • 4 tablespoons chopped tarragon leaves
  • 4 tablespoons chiffonade basil leaves
  • 2 tablespoons minced parsley leaves
  • 2 minced shallots
  • 6 tablespoons lemon juice

Directions:

In a nonreactive mixing bowl, combine the diced tomatoes, herbs, shallots, lemon juice and 1 1/4 cups olive oil. Mix to combine and season with salt and pepper.

Warm Bean Salad With Fresh Herbs and Olives

An excellent side dish to meat or fish. Also good with shrimp added to the salad.

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups cooked and drained white beans (or canned). If made from dried beans, save about 1/3 cup of cooking liquid.
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil.
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary
  • 1/2 teaspoon finely chopped fresh thyme
  • Scant 1/3 cup bean cooking liquid, water or chicken broth
  • 1/2 cup black olives, pitted and chopped
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 4 large fresh basil leaves, torn into small pieces or chopped
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Directions:

Place the beans in a medium nonstick skillet and set aside.

Prepare herb mixture. Combine olive oil and garlic in a small skillet and cook on low heat until garlic is soft, about 3 minutes.

Increase heat slightly and add rosemary and thyme. Cook until the herbs begin to sizzle- do not let garlic burn.

Add the bean cooking liquid (or other stock) and olives, increase heat and boil for two minutes. Remove from heat.

Scatter the parsley and basil over the beans in the other skillet. Pour the dressing over them and cook over medium-high heat until the liquid is almost all absorbed by the beans.

Remove from heat and add the lemon juice, salt and pepper. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Italian Seafood Salad with String Beans

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3/4 pound shelled and deveined large shrimp
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 pound cleaned squid, bodies cut crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick rings, tentacles halved lengthwise
  • 1/2 pound bay scallops or quartered sea scallops
  • 1 pound mussels, scrubbed and debearded
  • 1 1/2 pounds small clams scrubbed
  • 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1 pound mixed yellow wax and green beans, ends trimmed, beans cut into 2-inch lengths
  • 1 cup cherry tomatoes, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons shredded basil leaves
  • 1 tablespoon minced flat-leaf parsley
  • Cayenne pepper
  • Lemon wedges, for serving

Directions:

In a large skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil until shimmering. Add the shrimp, season with salt and pepper and cook over high heat, stirring occasionally, for 1 minute. Add 1/2 teaspoon of the garlic and cook, stirring, until the shrimp turn a light pink, about 1 minute. Transfer the shrimp to a platter. Add the water to the skillet and cook over high heat, scraping up any browned bits stuck to the bottom of the pan. Pour the pan juices into a bowl and wipe out the skillet.

Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in the skillet. Add the squid and scallops. Season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add 1/2 teaspoon of the garlic and cook just until fragrant, about 1 minute longer. Transfer to the platter.

Pour the reserved pan juices from the bowl into the skillet and cook over high heat, scraping up any browned bits stuck to the bottom of the pan. Add the mussels, clams and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of garlic and bring to a boil. Cover and cook over high heat until the shells open, about 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the mussels and clams to a large bowl; discard any that do not open. When the shells are cool enough to handle, remove the meat and add it to the platter.

Pour any accumulated shellfish juices into the skillet and bring the liquid to a boil. Simmer over moderate heat until reduced to 1/4 cup. Pour the liquid into a large bowl. Add the lemon juice and the remaining olive oil and let cool. Stir in all of the seafood and let marinate in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan of boiling salted water, cook the beans until crisp-tender, about 5 minutes. Drain and cool under running water; pat dry. Add the beans, basil, tomatoes and parsley to the seafood salad. Season with salt and cayenne and serve with lemon wedges.

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