It was in an apartment development in Fresh Meadows (Queens) called Meadowlark Gardens, New York City where I began this love affair. It was a one-bedroom apartment. The living room held a black and white TV console complete with rabbit ears. There was a sleep sofa against a long wall (where I was sure a skinny werewolf could hide) and the room was shaped into an "L". The "L" section had the quintessential 1950's formica table where we gathered for dinner every evening. I loved the speckled pattern in the formica and would stare at those speckles (especially if broccoli was being served) until the patterns twinkled back at me and the table morphed into the sky and I was one with the formica. (Zen-formica, anyone?) It was at that table where I fell in love with vinegar.
My mother had a wooden, sturdy salad bowl and served salad at least 4 nights a week. (Thank-you, Mom). I remain a salad fiend because of her and that well-seasoned wooden bowl. She would dress the salad with oil and vinegar just before dinner. My mother, the wooden bowl and the vinegar magically transformed lettuce into food fit for gods.The sounds of her tossing lettuce leaves was my cue to wait while she returned to the kitchen so I could start sneaking lettuce leaves out of the bowl and into my mouth. After dinner, I would drink the remains of the oil and vinegar dressing. Most satisfying.
It wasn't until I was 17 on a date at a fancy-schmancy steakhouse that I learned there were other salad dressings. I didn't even know salad dressings came in a bottle! I had flirtations with blue cheese dressing, then Russian and even a brief crush on Green Goddess (the link brings you to Cinnamon Spice's version) - but in the end, I always returned to oil and vinegar. And oil and vinegar always forgave me. I still don't mind taking a spoon (I've come a long way) and having the last of the sour-puckering fermented liquid. But that's probably too much information.
It's no wonder I took to this Insalata di Rinforzo (Reinforcement Salad). It's so named because it is constantly being "reinforced" with added vegetables, or extra dressing to stretch it to last for the week. The salad is fortified with 1/4 cup white wine vinegar. (My heart thumps just typing this.) And really - couldn't we all use some reinforcements during December? The recipe hails from Campania and is true comfort - from vegetables!
Insalata di Rinforzo Ingredients (from Williams-Sonoma Savoring Italy)
1 head of cauliflower
2 tender, inner celery stalks - thinly sliced
2 carrots, peeled and shredded
1/2 cup roasted red pepper - cut thin (you can do it from a jar)
1 tablespoons capers - chopped (I left them whole - I did rinse them)
2 tablespoons Italian (flat-leaf) parsley - chopped
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
salt and pepper to taste - I didn't think it needed it
Cut the cauliflower into bite-size florets, discard tough stalk. Bring a medium-large pot of water to boil and. add the cauliflower florets and some salt and cook until just tender - 6-7 minutes. Drain and place under cold water to stop the cooking.
In a large bowl combine the cauliflower, celery, carrots, red pepper, capers and parsley. You can add the olive oil and vinegar right into the bowl or whisk them first in a small bowl. Cover and refrigerate one hour or overnight. The salad just gets better and better. Bring to room temperature before serving.
Play with the salad as the Italians do. Think it needs an anchovy or two? Add it. Want to try broccoli? Why not? The beautify of the salad is because it uses solid, firm vegetables - it does not wilt - it just tastes better every day. It's perfect for a buffet - it never gets soggy. And it's winter pretty - glistening white with speckles of color. And it has heft - not every salad can say they have that. I know there's a lot of tasty butter, sugar and eggs floating around blogosphere these days. A salad break can't hurt!
While I wish I could offer you all my formica-zen moments, I understand that not everyone bonds easily with speckles. In its place, find the Drifters below singing "White Christmas." It's winter magic. I have a crush on the tenor-reindeer (don't tell Paul or Vinegar). Play this every time you need a break - I guarantee you'll smile.