Everyone should live in Italy for at least a little while. I lived there for a couple of years in my twenties and it was transformative for all those reasons you might expect: fresh seasonal food, friendly people, beautiful surroundings. It was transformative for other reasons as well, but let’s stick to food.
My first job there was picking grapes and apples in the Trentino part of Trentino-Alto Adige, a semi-autonomous region just south of Innsbruck, Austria, at the foot of the Italian Alps, within sight of the Dolomites…crispy cold at 7 a.m., warming Schiava dry rosé wine and ham and cheese panini at 9 a.m. The church bells echoing around the valley at noon made us drop everything and run for la pasta asciutta laborers’ lunch with more schiava and café corretto (“corrected” with sambuca or grappa)…singing opera in the trees…big Sunday family meals, ridiculously everything you might expect, including the hard work seven days a week all season.
One of the things that astonished me was how differently they treated vegetables – not just as an overcooked side to the more important meat dish — but with respect and zest and creativity. They were complex flavor and texture experiences, enhanced by often being straight from the farm. Who knew? I certainly didn’t.
I reluctantly close the window on that memory (before I kick myself for the many things I didn’t learn when I was there, when I should remain rapturous about the things I did and before I bore the hell out of you with my nostalgic ramblings) and turn to the present.
Domenica Marchetti, a classmate of mine from Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, is genetically predisposed to channel those Italian flavors I remember. Her mother is from Abruzzo and her father from an Italian-Rhode Island family and she spent her summers in Italy in the embrace of a flurry of aunts and their kitchens. After several years of covering the gore and complications that reporters regularly cover and running home to spend all her free Domenica-time elbow deep in cookery books and pots and pans, she put due più due insieme and started writing about food instead.
Domenica’s latest cookbook (they now number five!) is The Glorious Vegetables of Italy and it is big and gorgeous and glorious indeed (In case you don’t believe me, it is a New York Times Notable Cookbook).
You might need one for the coffee table and another to dog-ear and stain and love up in the kitchen, because the images, by Sang An are delicious and you won’t want to get them messed up when you cook! My Sunday cooking companion, Marianne (herself no slouch in the Italian kitchen) immediately decided we had to make the Winter Cauliflower Salad. And we did and it was so robust and delicious and just the perfect way to end this frigid winter to end all winters.
Domenica was very happy to hear that we started our exploration of her book with cauliflower, such an unassuming vegetable, and before I give you the recipe (which is adapted…I just didn’t have everything available and anyway, for the original — especially notable for the slow-roasted tomato recipe which you won’t find here — you need to get her book!), she wanted you to know why this is one of her favorites and emailed this message just for you:
“Here’s why I love the cauliflower salad: It’s crunchy and refreshing, and it has lots of assertive flavors that somehow magically work together: olives, onion, garlic, lemon zest, gorgonzola. It’s a welcome change from all the heavy winter foods that we tend to eat at this time of year. I think of it as a sort of ‘wake up’ salad; it helps to shake off the winter doldrums, which is something we all need after the winter we’ve had. And I love that cauliflower is the star of the show because it’s one of nature’s more neglected vegetables and it deserves more respect!”
So there you have it. And here you have my slightly-adapted version! Here’s hoping I get to see Domenica in person soon to exchange more kitchen tales! In the meantime, you can also follow her blog, which takes you deeper into the everyday kitchen of an excellent Italian cook!
Winter Cauliflower Salad (adapted from The Glorious Vegetables of Italy)
1 medium head cauliflower, trimmed and chopped to your liking
1 large rib celery, sliced thin on the bias
¾ Cup coarsely chopped pitted olives (I used nondescript black olives from my pantry, but Domenica recommends a mix of green and purple)
1 Tbsp coarsely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 ½ tsp minced garlic
¼ Cup diced red onion
¼ Cup coarsely chopped sundried tomatoes not in oil (this is my pantry substitution – Domenica includes a recipe for slow-roasted tomatoes that sounds fab)
¼-1/2 tsp hot red chili pepper flakes (Domenica uses a fresh chile pepper)
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon, plus 2 Tbsp lemon juice
¼ to ½ Cup good extra virgin olive oil
½ to 1 tsp fine sea salt
3 to 4 oz gorgonzola piccante, crumbled (I may very well try feta the next time because I think that would work too!)
Place a steamer basket in a large saucepan and fill the pan with water up to but not touching the bottom of the basket. Bring the water to a boil over high heat. Arrange the cauliflower in the basket, cover and steam covered until just tender, about five minutes. Remove the pan from heat and let the cauliflower steam a bit more if desired. (Note: we did rather large florets and then, once they were steamed, chopped them a bit more. That gave us just the right tenderness and bite)
Transfer the cauliflower to a large bowl and add the celery, olives, parsley, garlic, onion, tomatoes and pepper flakes and toss gently but thoroughly. Sprinkle lemon juice, zest and salt and mix again. Drizzle in the olive oil, then cover and marinate at room temperature for 30 minutes or refrigerate until chilled. Fold in the cheese just before serving.