A fresh look at Italian salads

Times Staff Writers

THERE'S no better way to spend a languid early-summer evening than by gathering with family or friends on the patio for a supper drawn from a table filled with colorful plates of delicious antipasti.

It's a bit like eating at a trattoria in Italy: first your aperitivo and a small bowl of olives, maybe some salumi — and then a parade of fantastic little dishes, often prepared simply with fresh vegetables and herbs. Dishes such as farro salad, or quick-grilled romaine with favas and pecorino, or Romano beans sautéed with fresh oregano. They're basic and light but also pretty and tasty, cooked and dressed just right — with a little vinegar, lemon juice, good olive oil or fresh herbs. They're not meaty or heavy.

Nothing has to be baked or fried or stuffed or wrapped. Everything can be served room temperature.

These fresh-tasting salads aren't just your garden-variety leafy greens, they're an inviting start to a meal. Offer one as a first course, or serve a few at a time to be enjoyed by the spoonful in combination with other antipasti.

At Fraîche restaurant in Culver City, chef-owner Jason Travi serves an appetizer salad made with farro, the barley-like grain that's firm and hearty and nutty.

He cooks the farro with a bouquet garni of bay leaf and a sprig of thyme, adds diced roasted red pepper and blanched English peas, then tosses the grain and vegetables with tarragon, basil, mint and parsley. The whole thing gets a light dressing of olive oil and lemon juice and is sprinkled with pecorino or ricotta salata, the Italian sheep's milk cheese that's perfect for summer dishes, mild, slightly nutty-sweet and a little crumbly.

Or sauté flat, wide Romano beans with shallots, garlic and fresh oregano until the beans are tender but still have an edge of crispness. Cook them for a couple minutes more with some cherry tomatoes, then drizzle over a tiny bit of balsamic vinegar.

Take advantage of fresh favas while you still can; they're great with a splash of citrus and olive oil and some chunks of pecorino. Match the creamy beans with crisp charred romaine that gets brushed with a little garlic-infused olive oil before being grilled.

Along with sips of a grassy Verdicchio or an herby Arneis, these charming first courses turn that eternal wait for dinner into a magic hour of anticipation.

betty.hallock@latimes.comdonna.deane@latimes.com--Grilled romaine with fava beans and pecorinoTotal time: About 45 minutesServings: 4Note: From Times test kitchen director Donna Deane1 pound fresh fava beans, shelled2 tablespoons cubed pecorino Romano ( 1/4 -inch cubes)4 1/2 tablespoons best-quality olive oil, divided2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice1 teaspoon chopped parsley 1/8 teaspoon saltCracked black pepper1 small clove garlic, minced1 small head (about 1/2 pound) romaine lettuce, quartered lengthwise1. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil, then add the fava beans and cook 30 seconds to 1 minute. Drain and rinse under cold running water. Break the outer skin of the bean and squeeze the bean out of its skin.2. In a small bowl, toss the beans with the cubes of pecorino Romano. Stir in 3 tablespoons olive oil, lemon juice, chopped parsley, salt and cracked black pepper (about 4 grinds). Set aside and allow the beans to marinate while you grill the romaine. 3. In a cup or small bowl, combine the remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil and the minced garlic. Brush the quartered romaine with the garlic olive oil and place on an oiled grill over medium-high heat until the lettuce is lightly charred on all sides but still crisp in the center, about 4 to 5 minutes.4. Place a grilled romaine quarter on each of four serving plates. Spoon an equal amount of the fava bean and pecorino mixture over the top of each and season with a few more grinds of black pepper.

Each serving: 271 calories; 12 grams protein; 22 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 18 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 7 mg. cholesterol; 226 mg. sodium.--Farro saladTotal time: About 1 hourServings: 4 to 6Note: From Fraîche chef-owner Jason Travi. To blanch the peas, place them in boiling water until just tender, about 1 minute, then immediately place them in an ice bath and drain.1 1/4 cups uncooked farro1 bay leaf and sprig of thyme tied together with kitchen stringSalt1 small red pepper 1/2 cup shelled English peas, blanched2 tablespoons mixed chopped tarragon, basil, mint and parsley1 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice1 tablespoon olive oil4 to 6 tablespoons grated fresh pecorino cheese or ricotta salata1. Wash and drain the farro. In a medium saucepan, cover the farro with 4 cups cold water, then add the sachet of bay leaf and thyme. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer. Season with one-half teaspoon salt. Cook until the farro is tender, about 25 to 30 minutes, then drain. Let cool. You should have about 3 cups cooked farro.2. While the farro is cooking, roast the red pepper on a rack over a gas burner over high heat, turning until all sides are blackened, about 10 minutes. Let the pepper stand in a covered bowl until cool, then peel and seed. Cut into medium dice. You will need 6 tablespoons diced pepper. Leftover pepper can be reserved for another use.3. In a medium bowl, toss together the farro, roasted pepper, the peas and the mixed herbs. Add the lemon juice and olive oil and toss. Add three-fourths teaspoon salt, or to taste.4. Let the salad stand 10 minutes for the flavors to blend. Divide equally onto four to six plates and sprinkle with the freshly grated pecorino cheese or ricotta salata.
Each serving: 211 calories; 9 grams protein; 30 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams fiber; 8 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 15 mg. cholesterol; 176 mg. sodium.--Romano beans sautéed with oreganoTotal time: About 45 minutesServings: 4Note: From Donna Deane. This dish was inspired by a recipe from "Chez Panisse Vegetables." Romano beans can be special ordered at Whole Foods stores, or substitute Italian flat beans available at farmers markets (cut the flat beans in half crosswise as they are usually long).1 pound Romano beans3 tablespoons olive oil, divided2 tablespoons minced shallots2 cloves garlic, minced 1/4 cup loosely packed fresh oregano leaves 3/4 teaspoon saltFreshly ground black pepper 1/2 cup cherry or grape tomatoes 1/2 teaspoon balsamic vinegar1. Rinse the beans under cold running water. Drain, leaving any water clinging to the beans. Trim the ends and set aside. 2. In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Add the shallots and sauté over medium heat about 1 minute. Add the garlic and continue to sauté for 30 to 45 seconds, until tender and fragrant but not browned. Remove the sautéed shallots and garlic from the pan with a slotted spoon, pressing any excess oil back into the skillet. Set aside.3. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon oil to the skillet. Once the oil is hot, add the beans, oregano leaves, salt and pepper to taste. Sauté over medium heat, stirring frequently until the beans are browned in spots and tender but retain some crispness, about 10 to 12 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes and cook 2 minutes. Stir in the sautéed shallots and garlic. Cook just until aromatic, about 30 seconds.4. Remove the pan from heat and let the beans cool slightly. Stir in the balsamic vinegar and allow contents to cool to room temperature. Remove the salad from the pan to a serving platter.
Each serving: 135 calories; 2 grams protein; 10 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams fiber; 10 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 445 mg. sodium.

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