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      Tutti a tavola! The Queen of Italian Summers

      Aug. 15, 2012

      L’insalata di riso (rice salad) – the Queen of Italian summers – is without any doubt one of the most traditional summer dishes of Italy. It might not be the most sophisticated dish of the Italian cuisine, but it is certainly one of the most refreshing, satisfying and easy to prepare, especially during the hot and sticky Italian summers.

      Rice salad is hard to find on restaurant menus, as it is mostly a family recipe. You can make a huge bowl of it in the earlier hours of the day, when the temperature is still bearable, place it in the fridge for a few hours and enjoy it for a few good meals. If stored properly in the fridge, right after it is made, l’insalata di riso can last up to four days. The recipe is quite simple and there are hundreds and hundreds of local and personal variations. Indeed, it would be more correct to write about insalate instead of insalata di riso; one family can have a different recipe from the one their neighbours use and this makes it even more special because there are no set rules. Even rice is not a constant requirement. In the 1990s one of the major pasta producers in Italy launched a line of pasta specifically created for l’insalata di pasta, which would never overcook or turn sticky.

      Some pasta shapes are particularly indicated for this dish, such as farfalle (bowties), fusilli, conchiglie (shells) and ruote (wheels). These latter, in particular, but the same could be said for the conchiglie, are ideal for the insalata di pasta. Thanks to their specific shape, designed in the 1950s in celebration of mechanics, le ruote, with their empty and filled spaces, catch ingredients and blend flavours.

      No one knows exactly when l’insalata di riso first appeared on Italian tables. It is however a dish that shares similar characteristics with other dishes of the Mediterranean cuisines: the paella in Spain, the couscous in Maghreb and the tabouleh in Lebanon. All these dishes have one main ingredient (rice or pasta in the case of Italy) to which regional, seasonal and personal favourite ingredients are added.

      As written earlier the recipe is quite simple and varies greatly. In Italy there are also pre-made jars of ingredients specifically prepared for the rice/pasta salads. One just needs to open a jar or two, drain the liquid and add the ingredients to the rice or pasta. It is however much better, and certainly healthier, to choose fresh and in season produces, as these jars have a quite high content of preservatives.

      Below is an example of a recipe for l’insalata di riso or pasta, which can be easily adjusted to everyone’s personal taste. A note needs to be made here as in Italy, especially for family recipes, measurements are often taken a occhio (by the eye) which means that no measurement tools or scales are used. With time, expertise and familiarity, preparing this and other traditional Italian dishes becomes an art; the art of seeing and feeling the ingredients, of knowing their right balance and combination. In the case of l’insalata di riso or pasta, accurate measurements are not very important as this is a dish that can be prepared in big quantities to share during a picnic or to consume as a main dish or as an appetizers with other summer dishes following. In a North American context it is ideal for a potluck.

      It is true that this is a family recipe and it is thus hard to find on restaurant menus. However, in the Veneto region, in northern Italy, there exists the tradition of finger foods served in bars, coffee places and osterie. These small bites are called cicchetti and are served in cicchetterie, called in Venice in bacari. Traditional cicchetti are for example, olive ascolane (deep fried olives stuffed with ground meat), polenta e musetto, panini con la porchetta, tramezzini, slices of frittata and so on… all ingredients of the cucina povera. Sometimes l’insalata di riso is a choice among these cicchetti. Their prices are usually quite affordable and one can have a full meal by sampling a few of these cicchetti, sipping at the same time a spritz or a glass of local wine.

      How to Make Insalata di Riso (or Pasta)

      Choose between rice or pasta. Bring to a boil a pot of water. Once the water boils, add some coarse salt and add the rice or pasta. Cook as much rice or pasta as it would fill the bowl, keeping in mind the ingredients and the fact that it could be used for more than one meal. While the rice/pasta cooks, get all the ingredients ready and add them to the bowl.

      Drain a can or two of tuna; slice some green and black olives; slice some capers (leaving some whole); cut in cubes some mozzarella cheese, some cheddar, and some Emmental; add some sliced hard boiled eggs; some cubed ham or mortadella or both; some sliced hot dogs; add some chopped artichokes and some small white cocktails onions.

      When the rice/pasta is ready, drain and let it cool down. Once ready add it to the bowl and mix well. Add some salt and pepper and dress with very good quality extra virgin olive oil. Keep in the fridge until time to serve.

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