A loosely interpreted Italian salad

When I spent a year in England, I lived with thirteen flatmates. It was my third year of university, and I was a lucky duck who got to sail across the pond to study an obscure intersection of linguistics and society that my sending school didn’t offer. Best year of my life, yet.

I got to try the original fish and chips (which really is original – there is a scant amount of seasoning and no pretense of embellishment behind the battered cod), take impromptu trips into London, take silly pictures in front of Trafalgar Square, buy lots of shoes, and find out that raincoats are much more practical than carrying an umbrella if it’s going to rain every other day anyway. But the best part about England was living with my flatmates. Because when you live with someone – anyone, you learn their habits. There was one Italian flatmate I quickly befriended over a last-minute trip to Dublin. (Which is another story I’ll have to save for another time.)

Marzena is a tall and colourful and taught me how to take life by the horns. She knows what she wants, but won’t slam the door on you if you’re asking otherwise – she’ll chit chat at the doorway, throw her head back in her ho-ha laugh, and probably make a cappuccino for you just before you exit her place. Instead of being blunt about her reasons, she flourishes a social twitter that I thought only existed in birds. Not in a flippant butterfly way though – she simply knew how to appreciate life, in all its varieties and colours. Marzena modelled what it means to give people the benefit of the doubt. Because in life, as I so often forget, we are all looking to do better than last time.

Often I’d find Marzena making salad in the kitchen. Actually, she was on a strict diet for a few months where she ate mostly vegetables, but even so, they were simple and flavourful. It was how I learned to make caprese salad – round short piles of tomato and fresh mozzarella, finished with a generous drizzle of olive oil. Normally they are also made with fresh basil leaves, but I don’t think Marzena ever bothered. (That’s the other Italian trait I learned from her – if cooking becomes a set of rules and instructions, it’s not very enjoyable, is it.) She added a lot of salt though. Seeing Marzena make caprese salad was pretty revolutionary to my idea of salad. You mean you don’t even have to toss it? I don’t need a refrigerated bottle of prepared salad dressing? You can actually use olive oil to flavour it? Olive oil has flavour? And the cheese. I always liked cheese, but my North American standards were ousted by what fresh cheeses Marzena would use. Mmmozzarella .. saying the word rolls around on my tongue like how the soft cheese wobbles in the brine.

That year in England was like a year of international cooking. And I learned first-hand, from people just like me who are on a budget, want to stay healthy, and are convinced that tasty food doesn’t have to compromise either of those.

It is with that conviction that I came across this deconstructed Italian salad from Dana McCauley’s blog. It has the simple ingredients of a salad, but made flavourful with a drizzle of this and that. And best of all, it capitalizes on bread. So versatile, this chewy carb. For lunch, I started with Dana’s idea of using bread as a plate, threw together some sliced tomatoes, carrots, and baby spinach, and then took out a tub of bocconcini cheese that Marzena would be proud of.

Salad and bread. That’s what’s for lunch. And it’s what I’d serve to Marzena if we were still in the same country.

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