My mom had three older sisters, none of whom ever married. They shared an apartment in Rome, near Villa Ada, and each managed to forge for herself a respectable career in an era where most Italian women stayed home and raised children.
Gilda was the oldest, and the most unassuming. Elsa, the second-oldest, was the bossiest, a well-respected professoressa di liceo and a take-charge sort who loved a good debate. Adriana, closest to my mom in age, had wavy black hair and sparkling dark eyes and was the funniest.
All my aunts are gone now, and have been for many years. But they often visit me in the kitchen. The other day it was Zia Gilda, while I made her insalata di riso (rice salad).
Gilda could knit and crochet like a no one else I know. In summer, when we were at the beach, you were likely to find her in the afternoon lull after lunch, stretched out on one of the lounge chairs on the terrace, smoking an unfiltered cigarette and embellishing a tablecloth with an crocheted border.
She loved fine things, like Bruno Magli shoes and Luisa Spagnoli dresses, but she was also modest, and the styles she chose were classic. It was the same with her cooking; she prepared simple, unfussy home fare. But she went to the open-air markets every day to buy fresh fruit, vegetables and bread.
At least once every summer she made insalata di riso for my sister and me. From the time we were kids we loved it ~ the chilled rice, the chunks of egg and tuna, the confetti of diced vegetables. It is just the dish to set out when the heat is at its most oppressive and even the idea of sitting down to a meal is too much. “Ti fa venire l’appetito,” as my aunt used to say. It gives you an appetite.
Of course Zia Gilda never wrote down her recipe ~ she wouldn’t have thought it worthy ~ and of course she never made it quite the same way twice. She used what was in season and what was in the pantry. It took me more than a decade after she passed away to even think about trying to recreate it from memory. I know mine’s not quite the same as hers but it’s close. As close as I’ll get.
Make this early in the day, before the heat gets the better of you, and let it chill in the fridge. Take it out 30 to 45 minutes before serving ~ you want it chilled but not stone cold. Feel free to change the recipe to suit your own tastes. I sometimes add blanched asparagus tips or green beans. Pickled eggplant is delicious if you happen to have some on hand, and many Italians put a sliced-up hot dog, of all things, in their insalata. Here's my most recent version.
- 1 1/2 cups arborio or other short-grain risotto rice
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- One (4-ounce) can good tuna in olive oil
- One (4-ounce) can wild baby shrimp (available at Trader Joe's)
- 3 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and quartered lengthwise or sliced crosswise
- 2 best-quality anchovy fillets
- 1 cup diced giardiniera (Italian pickled vegetables)
- 1/2 cup frozen peas, thawed
- 1/2 cup diced celery
- 1/2 cup diced bottled roasted peppers
- 1/2 cup olives (purple or green or a mix)
- 2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
- 1 tablespoon capers, rinsed, drained and coarsely chopped
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 1/4 cup mayonnaise
- Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil and pour in the rice. When the water returns to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and cook at a gentle simmer for 20 minutes, or until the rice is al dente (tender but still a bit firm and not at all mushy). Drain the rice in a colander set in the sink and rinse under cold water. Drain thoroughly and transfer to a large bowl. Toss the rice with the olive oil.
Add the tuna, baby shrimp, two of the eggs, anchovies, giardiniera, peas, celery, peppers, olives, parsley and capers. Gently fold everything together. Carefully mix in the lemon juice and mayonnaise and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Spoon the rice salad into a serving bowl. Arrange the remaining egg slices on top in a decorative pattern, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled.
NOTE: You don't have to chill the salad; it's really good warm or at room temperature. Just cover and let it sit for 30 minutes or so, to give the flavors a chance to mingle.
To make a molded rice salad, pack the mixture into a deep round bowl and chill. At serving time, unmold the salad onto a platter and garnish with egg slices (or whatever strikes your fancy).