Warm Summer Green Bean Salad

Here’s another  vacation-conjuring dish, one we had during our trip to Italy last year.

This salad is an example of one of those simple dishes that, when each element is full of flavor, needs no embellishments to sparkle on the taste buds.

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During our stay at La Tavola Marche last year, the farm had just passed its tipping point from summer to fall. The inn was close to the end of its season, the yard-thick stone walls too expensive to heat for guests through the Appenine winter. Jason and Ashley were stripping their gardens of the last of the summery produce, stacking crates of tomatoes to can, drying the stalks of onions and garlic. The days in the valley were warm in late September, but frost was closing in.

Our meals were shoulder-season fare too- warm braised and roasted meats and pastas interspersed with fresh vegetables and salads. Our last evening, Jason pulled the last of the green beans from the vines and made us a delicious warm salad.

As soon as we got settled in our apartment in Siena and found the market, I recreated his lovely combination of crisp, sweet, and piquant so I wouldn’t forget it. I’ve made it  lots of time since then, and I can say unequivocally that getting the best tomatoes, green beans, and red sweet peppers is the key to its success. Gardeners, you’re way ahead of the game here.

Market basket: Siena Tuscany Italy

Market basket: Siena Tuscany Italy

If you’re like me and suffer from garden envy, my tip for finding good tomatoes and peppers elsewhere is to sniff them. Color and texture can be misleading, but a good tomato actually has a fragrance. Green beans are easier, just look for slim, bright pods without discoloration, no lumps from seeds forming inside (these will be too tough for this quickly cooked salad). Although they can be expensive, the little French haricot verts are usually very toothsome and tender.

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We had this salad at the end of the season but it is just as, if not more delicious now at the beginning of green bean season.

Warm Summer Green Bean Salad

1 pound slim green beans, stems removed

1 red bell pepper

1 ripe tomato

1/4-1/2 sweet red onion (depending on the size)

red wine vinegar

olive oil

salt

fresh ground black pepper

Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil

Meanwhile, slice the pepper and onion into slivers about the same thickness as the green beans. Cut the tomato into thick wedges. Toss together in a serving bowl.

Once the water has reached a boil, plunge the green beans into the water and return to the boil. Cook the beans briefly, for about 1 minute after the water boils. Remove the pot from the heat and quickly drain the beans in a colander. Allow them to cool enough to handle.

Pour the green beans over the peppers, onion, and tomato and gently toss them all together with your hands. The heat from the beans will slightly warm the other vegetables. Drizzle with a tablespoon of vinegar and a couple of glugs of olive oil, sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Toss to coat everything in the dressing. Serve at room temperature.

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Italian Inspiration: Farro Arugula Salad

No one is going to be surprised to hear that our trip to Italy last September was inspirational to my cooking. After living in the city for a couple of years, we opted to go country to start our vacation way off the beaten path. We drove from Rome’s Fiumicino Airport up through Umbria on the back roads and across the spine of the Appenines into Le Marche, to Piobbico specifically, down a dusty road through the hills to La Tavola Marche, an agritourismo owned by hosts extraordinaire Ashley and Jason Bartner.

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Driving in, we passed a few cars parked in the grass on the sides of the road, saw a man disappearing into the trees with a stick and a basket: mushroom hunters! With the cooler weather and fall rain, the mushrooms were starting to pop up on the hillsides. Ashley and a friend of the farm, a local cardiologist and mycologist took a few guests on a mushroom hunt one afternoon. We were lucky to find a couple basketfuls of mushrooms during our scramble through the trees and underbrush.

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Our visit being during the shoulder season (not dissimilar to the cool wet Spring we’re having here this year), dinners were a mix of the last of the garden produce and heartier cool weather fare. Everything Jason cooked was incredibly delicious, simple but beautiful ingredients prepared in interesting ways, unpretentious but as good as any white tablecloth meal I’ve ever tasted. We ended up eating every dinner there, unable to resist the nightly feasts.

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I love the intimacy with which Italians (born and adopted) dealt with their food: the mushroom hunts, the seat in the sun with a glass of beer to clean each mushroom by hand, the well-attended weekly markets in each town, the cheerful and lengthy discussions about gelato flavors, the long family lunches we saw on the Adriatic in Fano, the resourcefulness of “eating up the garden” before the weather turned. It’s a characteristic of that culture that places a high value on the fellowship of the table as well as the food that is placed on it, a congenial community feel to the act of eating.

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This was a salad we were served as part of a prima course, but so immensely satisfying that I’ve adapted it to be a really delicious main course salad. A couple of the ingredients, farro and porcini, might be a little exotic, but are two of my favorite pantry staples. Farro is the grain that fueled the Roman’s armies, an ancient grain that is similar to spelt. It is chewy but not sticky with a hearty flavor ( a bit like wild rice). Porcini – I very occasionally see fresh porcini for sale, but they are usually pretty expensive and a bit battered and bruised so I use dried porcini instead. Porcini (which means “little pigs”, isn’t that awesome!) have a rich earthy meaty flavor that I love. I use them crumbled in my meatballs and meat sauces and to flavor risottos. I’ve also added fresh crimini mushrooms to this recipe for substance, flavor and texture in lieu of foraged mushrooms. The nuts and arugula add crunch and a peppery bite and the salty tangy pecorino cheese rounds out the flavor chord.

I’ve adapted this recipe from my memory of the meal we had in Italy and have posted it with the Bartner’s permission.

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Farro Arugula Salad

the farro method:

1 cup whole grain farro

4 cups water

¼ cup dried porcini pieces, crumbled

sea or Kosher salt

Rinse the farro under running water to remove any dust or husks. Add the dried porcini, cover the grain with the water and let it soak for a couple of hours or overnight in the fridge.

Add salt as if you were salting pasta water. Cook the grain in the soaking water for 20-25 minutes until the farro is chewy but not mushy. Drain thoroughly in a sieve to remove any remaining cooking liquid.

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the salad:

1 lb crimini mushrooms, cleaned and quartered

olive oil

1 sprig fresh rosemary, roughly chopped

sea salt

1/3 cup raw walnuts, pecans, or almonds, coarsely chopped or broken into pieces
fresh ground black pepper

12 ounces arugula

pecorino romano cheese

Heat a generous glug of olive oil in a large skillet or sauté pan over high heat. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally until they become bronzed and golden. Add a pinch of salt and the rosemary, lower the heat and stir in the chopped nuts, Stir together over medium heat until the nuts are lightly toasted. Remove the pan from the heat and add the farro. Toss in the arugula and another drizzle of olive oil, allowing the arugula to wilt a bit in the residual heat. Serve at room temperature with pecorino romano shaved over the top.

A note about dried porcini: you may notice that your dried porcini look very unprocessed, maybe some bits of straw or grit on them. If so, give them a toss in s bowl of water before adding them to a recipe. Some producers sell a very clean product but others are a little rawer and earthier. It’s simple to clean them so don’t worry if yours look a little dirty

Can you guess where I am?

This panorama was from the wall of Volterra, Tuscany. Just below was an excavated Roman theater.

We are visiting Italy for the first time. When I get home, I can’t wait to tell you all about it!

Until then, a few pictures of our adventures.

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Cosi e vongole at Trattoria la Quinta in Fano, Le Marche

The dining room at La Tavola Marche, Piobbico, Le Marche

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Shopping for produce at the street market in Siena. Tuscany

View of Via la Citta’ from our apartment in Siena, Tuscany