An Italian guest recently remarked that Italians don’t really do salads; they’re often borrowed from other countries. I wondered if that were the case and reached for my Oxford Companion to Italian Food written by Gillian Riley (it must have taken her years and years of research) and she has a lot to say about Italians’ love of mixed green salad, misticanza, through the centuries.
Some of the descriptions sound like the herbaceous border has been plundered: besides rocket and lettuce, also in the salad bowl were the young leaves of mint, basil, lemon balm, borage, fennel shoots, rosemary flowers and sweet violets. These flowers make this a recipe for a very early spring salad. Gillian says the harvest of pungent, varied, newly sprouting herbs and flowers at the end of winter is a reflection of women being responsible for both cooking and the health of their families in the days when most people couldn’t afford a doctor.
I think what my guest was referring to are those big composite salads that are meals in their right. And these must surely have their roots (radice in Italian) in the vegetarian movement. Which brings me to Deborah Madison’s Greens cookery book – a must have for meat eaters and vegetarians alike. For this Brit, her restaurant in San Francisco was the epitome of vegetarian hipness in the late 80s. This is one of her salads that I make regularly and the one my Italian pal was tucking into at the time he made his remark.
For 6-8 people:
3 plump fennel bulbs
1 garlic clove, peeled
½ teaspoon sea salt
Extra virgin olive oil
Juice of 1 lime or lemon
Hunk of good quality Parmesan cheese
Fennel fronds, chopped
Remove the outer leaves of the fennel. Keep them for use in a stock if you’re planning to make one. Slice the bulbs crossways as thinly as possible – if you have a mandolin, so much the better. If not, make sure your knife is sharpened before you start. Pile the fennel slices into a large salad bowl.
Use a damp cloth to clean the mushrooms then slice them thinly. Crush the garlic clove with the salt in a pestle and mortar to make a paste. Scrape this paste into the fennel, pour in a generous slug of oil and the lemon or lime juice, and mix thoroughly. Then fold in the mushrooms. You could mix everything the same time, but you’ll break up the mushrooms – it’s a question of aesthetics and whether you can be bothered.
Ideally, leave this salad at room temperature for an hour or so for the flavours to mingle a bit.
Just before serving, use a potato peeler to shave liberal quantities of Parmesan over the salad. Fold them in and scatter the chopped fennel fronds over everything.