Jody Williams and Rita Sodi wanted to solve the insalata mista. You know the one: the sad, wilted pile of vegetables, with maybe a cherry tomato or two, that’s a perfunctory addition to a table of riches just because you have to say you’ve eaten your veggies. Williams knew it could be better, and she and Sodi felt like they were on a mission to create a salad diners really crave, one that could save the reputation of the depressing salad. “Like, dear Insalata Mista, let’s take care of you. Welcome to our table,” she says.
The result is the Insalata Verde served at Via Carota, the couple’s ode to the fresh, seasonal and no-nonsense flavors of Tuscany and beyond. Everyone who has eaten it raves about it; it is now so popular that it could start its own restaurant. “We are committed to this salad,” Sodi and Williams write in their new cookbook, Via Carota. “We eat it every day.” And the recipe is deceptively simple. Essentially, it’s just a pile of vegetables with a simple vinaigrette. But it is in the selection of the greens, the attention to textures and the balance of the vinaigrette that Williams and Sodi’s brilliance shines.
In their “vegetable forward” cookbook, it’s also the rare dish that they say works in any season, with a little finagling. “You could gravitate toward the hearts of escarole, or more endive, or you’ll get rich on frize,” Williams says. “Whatever your bounty, you can… put together an Insalata Verde.” The key to the vinaigrette is a kiss of water, which keeps the taste of the vinegar in check. “Using water, cooking with water is important to us and makes it simple and pure,” Williams says. “And that’s part of this salad dressing, that touch of water, balancing it so that it’s smooth on the palate and allows all the flavors to balance out better.”
And like all good condiments, the vinaigrette can be applied to anything. Williams and Sodi say they spoon over hard-boiled eggs, cold chicken breast, and leftover bolito misto. “It’s a fresh touch and flavor that doesn’t interrupt or take away from the flavor of the dish,” says Sodi. “It gives life to everything.” It’s a nice salad. And as Williams and Sodi write, “it’s okay to eat with your hands.”
Insalata Verde Recipe (Leaf Vegetables with Via Carota Vinaigrette)
For the leafy vegetables:
1 head butter lettuce, such as Bibb or Boston
A few pieces of frisée (about 6)
2 handfuls of little gem lettuce leaves, or other crunchy lettuce
A small handful of pepper or watercress
1/4 cup/60 ml Via Carota Vinaigrette (recipe below)
3 stalks of chicory
For the Via Carota vinaigrette:
(makes about 240 ml, enough for 8 salads)
1 shallot, very finely chopped (1⁄4 cups)
1 garlic clove, finely grated (about 1/2 teaspoon)
3/4 teaspoon/2 gram sugar
1/2 teaspoon/1.5 grams salt
6 stalks fresh thyme
1/4 cup/60ml aged sherry vinegar
2 teaspoons/10 ml warm water
3/4 cup/180 ml extra virgin olive oil
For the leafy vegetables:
Step 1: Pull any wilted or bruised outer leaves from the lettuce. Set the limp, dark green leaves aside for another use; you only use the crispy, pale inner crop. Wash the leaves in twice water: first fill a container with lukewarm water and soak the lettuce in it, swishing your hands. Remove the leaves and let them drain in a colander. Second, wash the leaves in cold water, rinse them again with your hands and lift them out. Rinse the leaves well. Cut the frisée leaves into smaller pieces and separate the little gem leaves and remove the tough stems from the cress; she was the same way.
Step 2: Spin all leaves dry in a salad spinner, then place on a large, lint-free tea towel. In total you will have about six handfuls of mixed leaves. Gently press on them with another towel and roll them all the way up.
Step 3: Put all the leaves in the largest bowl you can find. Season them with a good pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Drizzle with most of the vinaigrette and shake with your hands to coat the leaves thoroughly.
Step 4: Gradually place the leaves on a plate so that they can be piled high without falling. Tuck the endive spears around the sides and drizzle with a little more vinaigrette.
For the vinaigrette:
Place the shallots in a fine sieve and rinse with cold water. Drain and place in a small bowl with the garlic, sugar and salt. Remove the thyme leaves from the stems and finely chop the leaves (makes about 1 teaspoon of thyme); stir in the bowl. Stir in the vinegar and water. Pour the olive oil into the bowl in a slow stream, whisking all the while until emulsified.
The vinaigrette can be kept in the refrigerator for up to three days.
Reprinted with permission from Via Carota: A Celebration of Seasonal Cooking from the Beloved Greenwich Village Restaurant: An Italian Cookbook by Jody Williams and Rita Sodi with Anna Kovel, copyright © 2022. Published by Alfred A. Knopf.
Photography by Gentl & Hyers, copyright © 2022.