The rosettes of dark green leaves I was admiring at the Porta Palazzo farmer’s market was valerian salad. Not that I knew that at the time, during my first few months of perusing the stands of fresh produce in the city I suddenly found myself in. I’d grown up in a family that always made a point of serving salads with a variety of greens and raw vegetables at meals. Yet, I’d never come across these attractive, soft-texured leaves before. Instead, after discovering how flavourful they were, my English-language mind just went along with whatever the torinesi seemed to call it. Valeriana. Soncino. Or, better yet, sarsèt, the Piedmontese word local growers often referred to it with. Only when finding myself having to explain what exactly it was to friends and family visiting a few years later, did I think to look up and translate the Italian terms into English.
This month’s edition of Cucina Conversations is dedicated to Italian salads. And, this time round, I had absolutely no hesitation about which ingredient would feature in my contribution to this topic. When I think of Piedmont and the food I’ve discovered here, sarsèt or valerian salad is one of the first things that comes to my mind. It’s also springtime, and even though this lettuce is now cultivated and available year round, it is most traditionally associated with the season of rebirth, as Beppe Lodi evocatively describes in his masterful compendium of recipes from Piedmont’s Langhe, Nonna Genia:
The winter kept the peasants indoors, but when the seasons changed, going out to the sunny hillsides meant direct and delicate contact with nature, just as it does for us today. A sunny day motivated one to rediscover rhythms of the farm and wander through vineyards to check for any winter damage; there was work to be organised and baskets to be filled with young greens such as valerian.
Lodi then goes on to describe a salad that was often prepared with the freshly picked young greens consisting of hardboiled eggs, spring onions, and, budget permitting, oil-packed tuna from the Saturday market in Alba’s Piazza Rossetti. It was, ‘a dish for spring: happy, delicately scented, renewing our contact and friendship with nature’.
Normally, I’m quite happy to eat valerian salad simply tossed with extra virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar and flaky sea salt, a hardboiled egg or two being the occasional concession to a protein component. On several occasions in the past month though, I’ve tried my hand at making something very similar to Lodi’s springtime salad of valerian. The first time, after buying my requiste daily quattro etti (literally, ‘4 hectograms’) of valerian from Corso Brunelleschi, as well as a bunch of spring onions, I suddenly remembered the eggs sitting in my fridge. There were also some salt-packed anchovies and a glut of lemons from our tree in the countryside that I’d forgotten to do something with in the days past. ‘I could use those instead of the tuna and red wine vinegar’, I thought to myself.
Now, I really love anchovies but feel free to omit this addition like Lodi did with the oil packed tuna. If you do end up using the acciughe though, you have two choices; 1. pounding them to a paste and combining them with the olive oil and lemon juice to create an emulsified salad condiment; 2. cutting the fillets in half and simply tossing them into the salad. If going with the former, I’d opt for some freshly squeezed lemon juice. If going with the latter option, stick to Lodi’s red wine vinegar. Also, on a couple of occasions when making this salad recently, I was lucky enough to get my hands on goose eggs, another food symbolic of spring. You may want to hardboil these eggs, which have a wonderfully large yolk and can be up to three times the size of eggs laid by hens, for your insalata instead.
Ingredients (serves 4 as an appetiser or 2 as a piatto unico or one-dish meal)
- 400 g valerian salad
- 2 spring onions, finely sliced
- 1 large salt-packed anchovy (optional)
- 2 hardboiled eggs, peeled and cut in half lengthways
- 30-40 mL extra virgin olive oil
- 5 mL (1 tsp) freshly squeezed lemon juice (or red wine vinegar)
- flaky sea salt, to taste
Wash the valerian salad and spring onions in several changes of water, until all dirt and grit has been removed. Pat dry the onions and spin the valerian salad until dry. Discard any wilted leaves from the valerian salad if necessary. Trim roots off spring onions, as well as their long green tops and slice their bulbs into fine rounds. Set aside green tops for another preparation and discard the roots.
Meanwhile, soak anchovy in a bowl filled with cold water for 20 minutes. Remove and drain on a plate lined with paper towels. Starting from the tail, split the anchovy into two and remove its spine. You now have 2 fillets. Pound the fillets with a mortar and pestle and grind till obtaining a paste. Transfer paste to a large mixing bowl and stir in the lemon juice. Whisk the paste vigorously while adding the olive oil in a slow and steady stream to obtain an perfectly emulsified dressing. Taste for salt (you probably won’t need much due to the salt used to preserve the anchovies). Add the finely sliced rounds of spring onion and the rosettes of valerian salad to the bowl and toss to coat evenly. Serve immediately, accompanied by the hard-boiled egg halves.
Still looking for more Italian-inspired salad ideas? Then, look no further than what my fellow bloggers had to say about this topic:
Carmen of The Heirloom Chronicles has made la cialledda, a tomato and bread salad typical of Puglia and Basilicata. This humble salad was often enrichened in her family and when available, her grandfather Rocco often loved adding wild purslane to the mix.
In Italy, a salad can consist of cooked as well as raw elements and Daniela of La Dani Gourmet has prepared us insalata di mare or seafood salad. Gentilina lettuce, squid, prawns and mussels all feature in this delightful looking plateful.
Lisa of Italian Kiwi is making another springy salad with her insalata primaverile.
Marialuisa from Marmellata di Cipolle shares one of her family’s most loved recipes with another seafood-based salad, polpo con patate e olive nere con olio nuovo. This one is made with octopus, potatoes, olives and freshly harvested olive oil. Yum!