Without a doubt vibrant fresh salads define the summer season. Baby leaf vegetables brought from the field directly to the table, simply dressed with extra virgin olive oil sprinkled with sea salt, red wine vinegar and sometimes with lemon. In Italy they would call this leafy mix misticanza from an expression for a traditionally field-based dish of mixed greens. Colorful and nutritious tufts of baby lettuces and eye-appealing leafy greens casually combine to make a delicious salad that can be brought to the table with hardly any effort at all. At its peak misticanza is often served as a piatto unico (only dish) with bruschetta but misticanza is also sought-after in the colder weather as a side dish to accompany meat or fish dishes in the winter months.
In Italy the seeds used to plant misticanza can include between 4 to14 lettuce varieties creating a well-balanced mix combined with spicy rocket, baby spinach, endives and radicchio. Sometimes mustard greens, Italian dandelion (chicory greens) or erba stella (star grass) are added for a rustic foraged feel. A traditional misticanza can be slightly assertive so if it tastes too strong-flavored add some additional lettuces to mellow the mix. Most markets carry packages of mixed baby lettuces (mesclun) or misticanza-like salad mixes year around. You can add varieties of greens depending on what's available. Freshness is important in preparing a misticanza so avoid or discard any wilted, discolored or damaged greens.
A popular version to try is Misticanza di Firenze (Florentine Mixed Greens). More than a green salad, depending on the time of year, this misticanza can have as many as sixteen varieties of greens including different varieties of baby lettuce, arugula, celery leaves, chicory, dandelion, chard, escarole, mache, romaine, kale, spinach, watercress and small turnip, beet, and radish tops. Herbs like basil, borage, chives, parsley, lovage, mint and fennel can be added to the mix if desired.
For a first course, use about 2 loosely packed cups of mixed greens per person as seen in this recipe for Florentine Mixed Winter Greens adapted from the Autentico cookbook by Rolando Beramendi. Serves 6.
12 cups loosely packed mixed greens
red wine vinegar
sea salt and crushed black peppercorns
Thoroughly wash and dry greens. Gently tear the greens into bite size pieces and place in a large serving bowl. The traditional way would be to drizzle in red wine vinegar and extra virgin olive oil (in a ratio of 2:3) and season with salt and pepper. However you can mix the oil, vinegar and seasonings separately and add to lightly coat the greens. Toss the salad well and serve.
Some Misticanza also called Insulata Misti are garnished with shavings of hard Italian cheese (sheep's milk pecorino or parmiaggiano). Many chefs and cookbook authors create riffs of this traditional dish adding apples, pears, figs, goat cheese and nuts with various dressings. You can be as creative as you like adding other vegetables like green beans.