When I was growing up, a version of this salad always made an appearance at our dinner table during Colorado's long, hot summers. My paternal grandmother wasn't actually Italian, but when she married my grandfather, she learned how to cook all of the Italian dishes that he loved. My grandmother would make this salad from vine-ripened tomatoes that my grandfather grew in his vegetable garden. What tomatoes were not used in salads and antipastos were canned to make pasta sauces during the cold winter months. My grandmother would always throw a few torn mint leaves from the garden into the salad, imbuing the simple red wine and olive oil vinaigrette with a lovely herbal flavor. When I was young, the thing that I liked best about this salad was the way the sweet juices of the fresh tomatoes melded with the red wine vinegar and olive oil. After the bowl was empty, I loved dipping crusty Italian bread (preferably the heel) into the last drops of vinagrette remaining in the bowl and eating the moistened bread. Indeed, my father and I used to fight about who got to eat the last serviing of salad from the salad bowl because that person was the lucky one who got to sop up any vinaigrette remaining in the bowl.
When I decided to replicate this dish, I opted to keep things simple as my grandmother and my mother used to do, but I played around with the idea of the bread. So that everyone could enjoy the fun of sopping, I use garlic rubbed croutons here. They are thoroughly mixed with the salad before serving, so that the bread soaks up some of the salad juices but the texture still remains a little crispy, not soggy. It is sort of a deconstructed panzanella. The garlic salt in the vinaigrette seem at first to be an odd ingredient, but my grandmother and mother always used it, and I have found that it does give the salad a distinctive flavor that I have found difficult to replicate. —cookinginvictoria
slices crusty day-old Italian, French or artisan bread
plus 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
medium garlic cloves, peeled
small baby cucumbers
cherry tomatoes (different colors, if possible, make for a prettier salad), halved if small in size, quartered if larger
First make the garlic croutons: Heat a large cast iron pan over medium-low heat. When it starts to warm, add 1/4 cup olive oil and rotate pan until oil is covering the entire bottom surface of the pan. After a minute or two, when oil is hot, add slices of bread to pan. Cook on each side for a minute or two until bread is colored a lovely golden brown. Remove bread from pan and while it is still warm, rub both sides of bread with garlic cloves. Let bread cool on a plate or cutting board. When cool, slice bread into bite sized pieces. You should have roughly 12 croutons. Set aside.
Next do your chopping. I usually peel cucumbers so that a few thin stripes of skin remain. Cut each cucumber in half length-wise, then cut cucumbers into very thin half-moon slices. Add cucumber and quartered or halved tomatoes to salad bowl. Tear each mint leaf into 3-4 small pieces. Add mint to bowl. Do the same with the basil, tearing each leaf into tiny pieces. Add basil to bowl.
Make vinaigrette: I like to mix vinaigrette in a jar. There is no risk of oil splashing and using a jar makes the vinaigrette easy to emulsify. I use the Alice Waters method of making a vinaigrette. First, add vinegars to a small jar. Then add a three-finger pinch of sea salt to jar. Put lid on jar and shake thoroughly to dissolve salt. (Adding the salt at this point rather than later, helps tame the astringency of the vinegars.) Remove lid and add honey, remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil, garlic salt, and a grind of freshly ground black pepper to jar. Top with lid again. Shake jar, then taste vinaigrette and adjust seasonings, if flavors do not seem balanced. Add small amounts of salt, honey, olive oil or vinegar, if needed. Pour dressing over tomatoes, cucumbers and herbs.
Add bread to bowl, then gently mix salad. I like to use my hands, but you can also use a pair of serving tongs. Take one more taste and correct seasonings, if necessary. Let salad sit for about ten minutes to allow flavors to meld, then serve.
Enjoy this lovely taste of summer-- buon appetito!
In 2009, after living more than twenty years in NYC, my husband, young daughter and I packed up our lives and embarked on a grand adventure, moving to Victoria, B.C. There are many things that we miss about New York (among them ripe, vine-ripened tomatoes, fresh ravioli and New York bagels), but, I have to admit, that living in the Pacific Northwest has been pretty amazing food-wise. Now we have a yard with plum and apple trees, a raspberry and strawberry patch and a Concord grape arbor. I have a vegetable and herb garden, so I can grow at least some of our food. And we have an amazing farmer's market a block from our house.
I love cooking (and eating) seasonally and locally. And it's been very rewarding introducing my daughter to cooking and eating, and teaching her where our food comes from.