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A fresh look at Italian salads

Creative combinations of vegetables and herbs turn these first-course salads into beginnings worth lingering over.

June 27, 2007|Betty Hallock and Donna Deane | Times Staff Writers

THERE'S no better way to spend a languid early-summer evening than by gathering with family or friends on the patio for a supper drawn from a table filled with colorful plates of delicious antipasti.

It's a bit like eating at a trattoria in Italy: first your aperitivo and a small bowl of olives, maybe some salumi -- and then a parade of fantastic little dishes, often prepared simply with fresh vegetables and herbs. Dishes such as farro salad, or quick-grilled romaine with favas and pecorino, or Romano beans sauteed with fresh oregano. They're basic and light but also pretty and tasty, cooked and dressed just right -- with a little vinegar, lemon juice, good olive oil or fresh herbs. They're not meaty or heavy.

Nothing has to be baked or fried or stuffed or wrapped. Everything can be served room temperature.

These fresh-tasting salads aren't just your garden-variety leafy greens, they're an inviting start to a meal. Offer one as a first course, or serve a few at a time to be enjoyed by the spoonful in combination with other antipasti.

At Fraiche restaurant in Culver City, chef-owner Jason Travi serves an appetizer salad made with farro, the barley-like grain that's firm and hearty and nutty.

He cooks the farro with a bouquet garni of bay leaf and a sprig of thyme, adds diced roasted red pepper and blanched English peas, then tosses the grain and vegetables with tarragon, basil, mint and parsley. The whole thing gets a light dressing of olive oil and lemon juice and is sprinkled with pecorino or ricotta salata, the Italian sheep's milk cheese that's perfect for summer dishes, mild, slightly nutty-sweet and a little crumbly.

Or saute flat, wide Romano beans with shallots, garlic and fresh oregano until the beans are tender but still have an edge of crispness. Cook them for a couple minutes more with some cherry tomatoes, then drizzle over a tiny bit of balsamic vinegar.

Take advantage of fresh favas while you still can; they're great with a splash of citrus and olive oil and some chunks of pecorino. Match the creamy beans with crisp charred romaine that gets brushed with a little garlic-infused olive oil before being grilled.

Along with sips of a grassy Verdicchio or an herby Arneis, these charming first courses turn that eternal wait for dinner into a magic hour of anticipation.

betty.hallock@latimes.com

donna.deane@latimes.com

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Grilled romaine with fava beans and pecorino

Total time: About 45 minutes

Servings: 4

Note: From Times test kitchen director Donna Deane

1 pound fresh fava beans, shelled

2 tablespoons cubed pecorino Romano ( 1/4 -inch cubes)

4 1/2 tablespoons best-quality olive oil, divided

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon chopped parsley

1/8 teaspoon salt

Cracked black pepper

1 small clove garlic, minced

1 small head (about 1/2 pound) romaine lettuce, quartered lengthwise

1. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil, then add the fava beans and cook 30 seconds to 1 minute. Drain and rinse under cold running water. Break the outer skin of the bean and squeeze the bean out of its skin.

2. In a small bowl, toss the beans with the cubes of pecorino Romano. Stir in 3 tablespoons olive oil, lemon juice, chopped parsley, salt and cracked black pepper (about 4 grinds). Set aside and allow the beans to marinate while you grill the romaine.

3. In a cup or small bowl, combine the remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil and the minced garlic. Brush the quartered romaine with the garlic olive oil and place on an oiled grill over medium-high heat until the lettuce is lightly charred on all sides but still crisp in the center, about

4 to 5 minutes.

4. Place a grilled romaine quarter on each of four serving plates. Spoon an equal amount of the fava bean and pecorino mixture over the top of each and season with a few more grinds of black pepper.

Each serving: 271 calories; 12 grams protein; 22 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 18 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 7 mg. cholesterol; 226 mg. sodium.

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Farro salad

Total time: About 1 hour

Servings: 4 to 6

Note: From Fraiche chef-owner Jason Travi. To blanch the peas, place them in boiling water until just tender, about 1 minute, then immediately place them in an ice bath and drain.

1 1/4 cups uncooked farro

1 bay leaf and sprig of thyme tied together with kitchen string

Salt

1 small red pepper

1/2 cup shelled English peas, blanched

2 tablespoons mixed chopped tarragon, basil, mint and parsley

1 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice

1 tablespoon olive oil

4 to 6 tablespoons grated fresh pecorino cheese or ricotta salata

1. Wash and drain the farro. In a medium saucepan, cover the farro with 4 cups cold water, then add the sachet of bay leaf and thyme. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer. Season with one-half teaspoon salt. Cook until the farro is tender, about 25 to 30 minutes, then drain. Let cool. You should have about 3 cups cooked farro.

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