Tales from an Italian kitchen
Rice salad – insalata di riso
Punto Simply, the small supermarket on the corner of Piazza Testaccio and Via Bodoni, is a peculiar shape. It has several interconnecting rooms made maze-like by the narrow aisles and shelves stacked so snugly that you often have to wriggle items out in a sort of supermarket Jenga. It is airconditioned, but not aggressively – or not enough to smother the ripe, insistent scent of the loose fruit and vegetables in baskets in the corner behind the cereal shelf. The deli counter just off to the left is even fuller than the shelves. Decked with strings of salami bunting, it is as much fairground as supermarket, with pink rounds of cured pork, domes of soft white cheese, Russian salad, olives, tomatoes, prawns and fish-sticks under oil and, next to that, multipacks of mini Campari sodas and aperitivo snacks.
The layout and smells, the pop of the strip lighting, the familiar things – frozen peas, tea, caster sugar – are among things that still, after more than 13 years in Rome, feel foreign to my eyes: the 19 varieties of breakfast toasts, five sorts of cherry jam, a wall of pasta shapes and almost the same of tomatoes, and an entire section of vegetables preserved in vinegar – sott’aceto; or in olive oil – sott’olio; including a ready-mix for rice salad called Condiriso – a diced assortment of pickled carrots, peas, peppers, olives and artichokes.
From June to September there is usually an offer on Condiriso, which, according to family and friends, became popular in the 60s, along with Vereco glassware and Adriano Celentano, and has remained a standard for many ever since.
In her 1969 step-by-step guide to antipasti e salse, Lisa Biondi has six versions of insalata di riso, including flamenco – with chorizo and omelette, del buongustaio – with salted tongue and fontina cheese, and saporita – with asparagus tips and mayonnaise. According to a column in La Cucina Italiana magazine from about the same time, insalata di riso is particularly good with egg, tuna, prosciutto, cheese, peas and – essential – pickled vegetables. My partner’s uncle – a retired chef, who these days would rather be on the beach reading thrillers than simmering rice – says two things are important: that the proportions of rice to other ingredients are 50/50 and that everything is mixed together while the rice is still warm.
Alongside the cooked long-grain rice (80g dry weight per person), my main components, measured by eye, are tuna, white or borlotti beans (tinned as they are reliably tender), anchovy fillets snipped with scissors, capers, olives, vinegary red peppers from a jar, and finely sliced red onion, soaked in half water/half red-wine vinegar for 20 minutes, which gives a nice, vinegary rasp.
If the tuna and vegetables do not provide enough olive oil, add more until you have a united tumble. Black pepper is essential, as is lemon juice and quartered, hard-boiled eggs on top. The effect should be as colourful, busy and as good as the deli counter at Punto Simply.