Too hot to cook? Here are three of my favorite Italian dishes that will make a wonderful light summer meal or a perfect side for your next picnic.
1. Insalata di Riso
I lived with a wonderful family one summer in Florence. I was their English tutor and in exchange for my services I received a small stipend as well as room and board. The Scansetti family actually took me in as one of their own and while the experience was fabulous, it was not without its challenges. I shared a room with a 13 year old girl, was the object of affection of a 15 year old and experienced true Tuscan cuisine in a way that I would not have otherwise. Some days I struggled. Breakfast and tea time were fine. It was cookies and caffe latte - can’t go wrong. But the chicken head in the soup gave me pause as did the entire skinned lamb that was carried into the house by the Neapolitan cousins when they came to visit. I didn’t love eating rabbit when the kids, with their limited grasp of the English language (maybe I didn’t really earn my keep as a tutor) called it “Bugs Bunny”. Every time I was called to the table, it was a mystery. My host mother was equally puzzled by her American tutor and wondered what would appeal. On one very hot day in July, she nailed it. I sat down to lunch and rather than the usual plate of pasta, Francesca placed a bowl of insalata di riso in front of me. It was gorgeous, colorful, cold and delicious! It was filled with fresh ingredients - tomatoes, basil, capers, tuna and earthy olive oil. I devoured it to Francesca’s delight and before I could put my fork into the empty bowl, she had filled it again. She was beaming with pride, so relieved that I was finally eating something with gusto. Here is a recipe that reminds me of sweet Francesca’s. As you will read, rice salad is one of those “kitchen sink” dishes - throw in whatever you have and like. It is a perfect summer lunch.
I know panzanella is all the rage here in the US but you have to believe me when I tell you, there is nothing like the real authentic Italian panzanella. Bread salad has been reinvented here and has become any sort of salad lettuce and with big, glorified croutons. The recipe for the true Italian panzanella may sound off putting at first but the flavor screams summer and makes for a wonderful meal when it is too hot to cook. Panzanella utilizes stale bread that is reconstituted by soaking the loaf in water and then squeezing the water out. There are no recipes that I have found that utilize this method anymore but Marcella Hazan’s recipe comes the closest to the real thing. Hers includes anchovy and capers which you can easily leave out. The star of this show is tomato which are perfectly in season right now. Add basil, onion, cucumbers, olive oil, vinegar and salt - dinner is served.
3. Insalata di Farro
I love bringing unfamiliar products to the attention of my friends. I love when they try something new and enjoy it immensely. Years ago I credited myself with spreading the good word of prosecco to all my friends here in the States (yay me!). At the time, it was virtually unknown stateside and I would carry bottles home to share and convert all of them to disciples of the bubbly. Now prosecco is as common as Chardonnay so I needed to find another novelty to share at parties. Enter FARRO, or spelt in English. What a wonderful grain. It is nutty and has a great texture that is a perfect substitute for pasta in a salad. Here is a great recipe from Giada. (I get a lot of my recipes from her - despite the unnecessary exposure of her cleavage on every show, I think she really offers great insight into Italian cooking here in the US). Again, use your imagination with farro. Add what you want. As long as olive oil, vinegar and salt are included, you can’t go wrong.