An insalata di rinforzo is a staple of the holiday table in Naples. Italian-Americans with roots in Campania may also keep the tradition for Christmas Eve and know that what translates to "reinforcement salad" can be added to over several days of feasting. Steamed cauliflower is the main ingredient accompanied by pickled vegetables like peppers, capers, black olives and carrots.
When Ann Goldstein was translating The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante, she told me that she puzzled over how to translate insalata di rinforzo.
“There, after another long walk, she would arrive in the neighborhood, and start polishing and cooking, she would cut up the eel and prepare the insalata di rinforzo, and the chicken broth and the struffoli, without resting for a moment, filled with rage, but consoling herself by saying, “Lenuccia is better than Gigliola, than Carmen, than Ada, than Lina, than all of them.”
Goldstein searched for the dish online and ultimately chose to leave it in Italian. She was delighted when I served it as last year's Ferrante Feast at Science House in her honor, but not surprisingly, the gattó, a savory cake made with mashed potatoes and ham was far more popular.
Recently I decided to change the recipe to make insalata di rinforzo a more enticing winter salad. Instead of steamed cauliflower, this version uses florets that have been drizzled in red wine vinegar and then roasted until brown and crispy. But like the Neapolitan classic, this is a salad that keeps in a tupperware for at least a week, something you can make once and then return to, even adding more peppers or olives along the way. Feel free to add other roasted or preserved vegetables as well. (See Domenica Marchetti's Preserving Italy for ideas.)
Insalata di Rinforzo
Dressing the cauliflower with red wine vinegar before roasted will deepen the flavor and intensify the flavor. This method works on all roasted vegetables and white wine vinegar works just as well. Use your less expensive vinegars for roasting and save the good balsamic ones for dressings.
1 head of cauliflower, cleaned
4 tbs red wine vinegar
3/4 cup cured black olives
1/2 cup of oil cured roasted red peppers. (My favorite come from Calandra's on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx's Little Italy)
Preheat oven to 350º F. (A toaster oven works great.)
Cut the stem off of the cauliflower and then break apart the florets into small pieces. I like to remove as much of the stems as possible. Place the florets in a colander and rinse with cool water. Pat dry with a dish cloth or paper towel.
Lay the florets on a baking sheet and drizzle with the vinegar. Bake for 45 minutes or until the florets are golden brown and slightly crispy on the pan facing side.
Remove and let cool for 15 minutes. Add all the ingredients to a large bowl and mix them all together.
Serve at room temperature. This stores well in the refrigerator for at least a week and can be reinforced (hence the name) with additional olives and peppers if those get eaten before the cauliflower.