Summer. Heat. Salad.
Summer plus heat equals salad – just as one and one makes two.
I wish. I love sweltering in the heat of July but this year, after a promising start, we had temperatures as low as 18°C in and around Rome! Such inclement weather, however, wasn’t going to be allowed to interfere with our desire to pursue summer foods and so we persevered relentlessly with summer recipes despite northerly winds and grey clouds. And an insalatona was going to be produced and temperatures be damned!
Salads are not what Italian food is famous for, despite the wonderful ingredients that Italy can bestow upon her salad-eating population. A green salad or one topped with sliced tomatoes was what constituted ‘un insalata’ when I was growing up. Maybe with thinly sliced onions. No vinaigrette … just olive oil and vinegar or else just olive oil. Balsamic vinegar (or what passes for balsamic – the real balsamic McCoy would have been too expensive for most households) didn’t become commonplace until the 1990s. Shoot me if I tell a lie.
The joke about salads for my generation was that the purpose they served was one of ‘de-greasing’ one’s tongue (‘per sgrassare’) towards the end of a meal. As if! At a typical wedding lasting several hours, or at a Sunday meal at a restaurant lasting only relatively less, loads of food would be eaten … and salad would be served eventually and last, to ‘refresh’ one’s mouth!
All this to say that ‘interesting’ salads were not really an Italian ‘thing’, pace Italian cuisine. Salad nicoise is French after all (even though Nice was part of Italy until Cavour gave it to the French at the time of Italy’s unification in 1861). I think, possibly, that they might be a North American invention. Putting too many ingredients in one dish is inimical, anyway, to the Italian approach to eating … and that would have obtained for salads too. Vegetable side dishes or ‘contorni’ are served on individual platters too.
Okay, I am getting a little long-winded here and had better get to the point. Which is: some time in the mid 1980s … ‘interesting’ salads that were composed of more than the staple 1 or 2 or 3 ingredients starting popping up here and there in trattorie, cafeterias, gastronomie and eateries in and round Rome. And the name for them was “insalatona”, i.e. big salad, with variations on the theme, to distinguish them from ‘insalata verde’ or ‘insalata mista’.
The mix included: mozzarella, tinned maize/corn, tinned tuna, boiled eggs and maybe anchovies. Served with olive oil of course and, for those who like it, so-called balsamic vinegar. Very fresh. Lovely to eat whenever hungry and the weather is hot. Very filling with the feel-good bonus of most ingredients being uncooked and all of them health-promoting in the extreme.
Here is an insalatona we made just last week for lunch. We added olive oil (and no balsamic for me!) after the pictures were taken.