Yesterday was Liberation Day in Italy, so we packed a picnic, grabbed our bikes and set out to celebrate liberation of a very different kind. What’s different about it? For us, liberation is all about what happened when we decided to change our lives and move to Italy.
On April 25th each year, Italy celebrates the Festa della Liberazione. It marks the fall of Mussolini’s Italian Social Republic and the end of the Nazi occupation of Italy in 1945. Today, Italians commemorate the national holiday with memorial services honoring the fallen, remembrances by partisans still living and long, lovely lunches in the country. Although our own reflections have little to do with the sacrifice of so many Italians over 70 years ago, we entered into the spirit in our own way, rejoicing in a different, personal freedom. A little less than a year ago, we made the decision to leave our jobs, move to Italy and start a new business. We liberated ourselves from increasingly unfullfilling professional lives, choosing the unknown over the familiar to start a new business far away from home.
Our more recent experience doesn’t trivialize our respect for the solemnity and deeply felt joy experienced by Italians as their war came to a close more than half a century ago. But the end of war also brought an uncertain future just as our own personal liberation has revealed to us. We are exhilarated, hopeful, anxious, reflective and, most of all, buoyant as we define a new way of thinking about the rest of our lives. We’re a little bruised by the experiences that helped form our decision, but grateful to have had them. After all, we wouldn’t be here without significant motivation. And we’ve plunged head first into our own new world order. Much like post-War Italy, we’re renewing a mutual commitment to our values and our hopes for the future.
So I pulled together a commemorative salad to mark the occasion. Yesterday’s sunny skies and balmy temperatures favored time spent out of doors, so we needed something portable that could withstand time in a bicycle pannier and emerge fresh at our destination. And I wanted to make sure to incorporate elements of our life in the U.S with traditional food of southern Italy on this perfect spring day. This salad is imminently flexible, too, just like we have become. Change the grain, the protein, the vegetables and the vinaigrette to celebrate your own liberation.
Insalata Primaverile—Spring Salad
1 cup quinoa
2 cups water
1 lb. fava beans in their pods
1 lb. English peas in their pods
1/2 lb. haricots verts
1 yellow or red pepper
6 oz. fresh mozzarella (substitute with another relatively firm, flavorful cheese of your choice if you can’t find fresh mozzarella)
1/2 cup finely chopped Italian parsley
1/2 cup toasted pumpkin seeds
4 Tbsp. sherry vinegar
1 cup best quality extra virgin olive oil
Kosher or sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
In a fine mesh strainer, rinse the quinoa thoroughly under cold running water to remove any residual bitterness. Place the quinoa, water and a pinch of Kosher or sea salt in a saucepan. Cover and place over medium heat until boiling, then reduce the heat so that that water simmers. Cook for about 20 minutes or until all of the water has been absorbed. Pour the cooked quinoa onto a cookie sheet or another flat pan to cool.
Remove the fava beans from their fuzzy pods. Bring a pot of water to the boil, then drop the fava beans (still in their pale green outer shells) into the water for about 3-4 minutes. Drain the fava beans into a colander and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking. With your thumbnail, make a little slit in each fava bean and pop out the bright green fava bean inside; compost the shells. Place the bright green little fava beans in a salad bowl. Note: If you have especially young, tender and small fava beans, skip the blanching step and just steam the favas for a few minutes along with the peas and other vegetables.
Peel and cut the carrots into small dice; place in the bottom of a strainer. Cut the pepper into small dice (1/2” square); add the dice to the strainer with the carrots. Remove the stem end of the green beans and chop into pieces (1/2 inch long); add them to the strainer on top of the peppers. Remove the peas from their pods and set aside. In the pot of water you used for the fava beans, add a few inches of water and place the strainer into the pot. When the water comes to the boil, steam the carrots and peppers for five minutes, then add the peas. Steam for another few minutes, then drain. Spread the vegetables out on a tea towel to dry thoroughly.
Toast the pumpkin seeds in a sauté pan over low heat. Don’t let them brown; they’re done when you can smell their toasty aroma. Chop the mozzarella into 1/2 inch cubes and reserve. Cut the cherry tomatoes into halves if small and quarters if a little bigger and reserve.
Make the vinaigrette: Peel and mince the shallot. Put it in a jar; add the vinegar and salt (perhaps a half a teaspoon). Put the lid on the jar, shake it well and let it stand. When you are ready to add the vinaigrette to the salad, add the extra virgin olive oil and shake well.
Assemble the salad by adding the quinoa, steamed vegetables, pumpkin seeds and parsley to the fava beans, tomatoes and mozzarella in the salad bowl. Toss lightly with wooden spoons. Add the vinaigrette (perhaps half the jar) and toss again. Taste, add Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper as needed. Add more vinaigrette as the quinoa absorbs any liquid. Pack the salad to go and enjoy it somewhere beautiful.
Makes 6 portions
Note: As mentioned earlier, this recipe is merely a suggestion. You can make the salad with couscous, wild and brown rice or other grains, adding any combination of vegetables you choose. A particularly lovely combination involves whole-wheat couscous, leftover roasted chicken, steamed asparagus, diced zucchini and julienned arugula. Or go in another direction with bulgur wheat, tomatoes, black olives, capers, cucumbers, red peppers, julienned spinach and feta. Make it vegetarian, vegan and/or gluten free. It’s a perfect vehicle for leftovers and small quantities of vegetables you can’t quite figure out what do to with, a little like a metaphor for life.