Recipe for a heatwave…
When I was 13 or so, I travelled to Italy for the first time with my family, and, as you would expect, all of the food we had made a disproportionately large impression on me. Before journeying on to Sardinia for bath water-warm swims in the sea, cracklingly crisp shepherd’s bread, handmade pasta from the local shop and charcoal grilled seafood, we stopped in Rome for a few days to visit one of my mother’s best friends, arriving into the city in the midst of a record-breaking heatwave.
Never a natural in the heat, I struggled with sunburn; mosquito bites; dressing for summer in the city; having to share a room with my brothers and, most challengingly of all, suddenly being an awkward, bad-tempered teenager in a very hot country. But despite there being no air conditioning in the apartment we were staying in, our host, a beautiful English woman who had moved to Rome decades previously, remained unruffled by the climbing temperatures; gliding around the flat in crisp, oatmeal-hued linen shift dresses entirely unfazed by the angry glare of the hot afternoon sun.
As well as offering us fridge-cold nectarines, she also had several very Roman-style tricks up her sleeve to keep her overheated Irish guests cool & calm in the heat of the city. Dinner was eaten late, either on the marbled balcony of the flat or at the terrace of an outdoor pizzeria in the hills that may or may not have been in Parco Degli Acquedotti (history – that is, my mother – no long records). Glass bottles of drinking water were kept in the fridge, with a teaspoon of cream of tartar or some other raising agent added just before serving for some reason that we never completely got to the bottom of.
Lastly, most importantly, we only ate cold food in her flat and the oven was left off to keep the kitchen cool. Most of our lunches were comprised of some fruit and a plateful of her wonderful insalata di riso; an exceptionally good, more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts combination of rice, egg, tuna, lightly cooked vegetables and gherkins, that has become a summertime staple for hot days & heatwaves in our family ever since that Roman holiday.
ROMAN-STYLE RICE SALAD WITH TUNA or insalata di riso al tonno sott’olio
Makes 12 servings
400g brown or long-grain white rice
2 x 120g cans of tuna steak in oil
Selection of raw & cooked vegetables – use a mix of chopped celery, carrots, garden peas, baby courgettes, sweetcorn, chopped green beans etc depending on what you have
5 marinated artichokes, roughly chopped
Handful of fresh basil & parsley
Half a jar of gherkins, sliced & some of the pickling liquid
15 olives & some of the brine
Juice & zest of half a lemon
Handful of salad tomatoes, cut into eighths
Small tin of chickpeas, drained
1 tablespoon of vinegar
Salt & pepper
Hard boil the eggs by starting them in cold water over a medium high heat and then cooking for a further ten minutes once the water has come to the boil. Once hard boiled, drain and cover the eggs with cold water. Leave to cool for 10 minutes before peeling and quartering then set aside. Cook the rice with double the volume of cold water & some salt at a medium temperature until the grains are tender but still separated. Transfer to a large bowl and add the chickpeas, olives, herbs, gherkins, tomatoes, artichokes, vegetables, tuna and hard boiled eggs. Mix together some olive brine, gherkin pickling liquid, olive oil, vinegar, lemon juice & zest, saly & pepper to taste and stir into the salad. The quantities for the dressing are not exact – you will need to taste as you make the salad to see what it needs, and to decide how much dressing it requires as every iteration of this salad is different. If you think it needs something else, I would suggest starting by adding more sliced gherkins & pickling juice, as this flavour is so key to the overall balance of the salad. Some people like a little mayonnaise stirred in at the end, but I prefer it without so I haven’t included it in the ingredients. If you think it needs it, start with a tablespoon or so and work upwards from there, tasting all the while. Leave the salad in the fridge for a little while before serving to allow the flavours to come together. Note: health & safety sources advise against eating leftover cooked rice, so I would suggest eating this salad only on the first and second day, rather than keeping it all week as they do in Rome. Also, keep it refrigerated at all times if possible.