This very humble salad is definitely my most popular. Like the chicken & leek pie and guacamole recipes, it is also one of my most requested. It’s the salad that I am always asked to make for parties and perhaps the only salad with greens that Phillipe will eat. As Chrissy is to my guacamole, Phillipe is to my salad. To be frank, I’m sick of making it. The five-year love affair is drawing to a close. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy eating it! I recently had it made for me by the lovely Paola. It’s a strange thing to have one’s dish made for them, I must say. But it was a magnifico rendition. And fitting that it was made by my Italian friend, as it was Italy where I first tasted it. This salad now get’s about town like nothing else. I see it on most menus, sometimes with goat’s or blue cheese instead of parmesan, and usually with a balsamic vinaigrette. I like to think that what sets this one apart is the dressing.
It was in San Gimignano, a small town in Tuscany, that I first tasted this sweet, salty and fruity combinazione. This town also happened to be home to the recently awarded best gelateria in Italy, Gelateria di Piazza. Given how I feel about Italian gelato, this meant that it housed the best gelato in the universe! I had another good reason to love this town, apart from the fact that it was heart-achingly beautiful. This was my second trip to San Gimignano, an easy hour-long bus trip from Florence, so I took great pleasure in showing it off to my travel companion, as though the town and I were old pals. After two gelatos, picking the mosaic table I would house in my fantasy Spanish-Italian courtyard, and wandering up and down towers and around rambling gardens, we decided it was time for mangiare!
Tuscany is known for its hearty fare, but on this lovely warm day, we settled for some of the house salad and porcini pâté with ciabatta at a local osteria, conveniently tucked away down an alley and out of sight from the busloads of tourists.
I’m sure the salad tasted so much better because I was sitting in a restaurant in the middle of Tuscany, but also because each type of produce in that piatti was so true in flavour. These simple ingredients were enhanced by a dressing that brought out the sweetness of the pear, the nuttiness of the parmesan and the peppery goodness of the rocket. I sat through that lunch with what I’m sure was a very strange look on my face, as I tried to analyse the ingredients in the dressing.
When I arrived back home in Melbourne in my usual state of post-travel depression, it was one of the first dishes I made. After a few attempts at getting the dressing close to what I had tasted, I was happy to have created my own little souvenir of that magical place in Tuscany.
1 packet (approx. 120 g) rocket salad mix
1 large, ripe pear
good handful of walnuts
1/3 cup freshly shaved Parmesan
2-3 tablespoons fresh parsley
1/2 cup walnut or macadamia oil
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
juice of half an orange
3 teaspoons brown sugar
sea salt and ground black pepper to taste
Wash and thoroughly dry the rocket, then place in a large salad bowl. Wash and slice the pear lengthways, as thinly as possible. I like to halve some slices lengthways again. Arrange these around the edge of the salad and place some within the rocket. Add the walnuts and parmesan cheese, scattering these around the salad. Please, please don’t use already shaved parmesan – it won’t taste nearly as good. To achieve thin shavings, a peeler is a good way to go. Scatter half of the fresh parsley over the salad. I like to season it a little too.
To make the dressing, combine all ingredients plus the remaining parsley, and whisk together or shake well in a jar. As a general rule, I use 3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar. The orange juice adds a refreshingly sweet flavour and that San Gimignano touch, but the dressing will still taste good without it if you don’t have an orange on hand. The nutty oil is really the key. If omitting the juice, increase the amount of oil and vinegar with the oil/vinegar ratio in mind. I often make the dressing a few hours ahead of serving, allowing for a wonderful parsley flavour infusion. Add the dressing to the salad just before serving and enjoy with a juicy bistecca, Tuscan style!