Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Cosmi's Antipasto Salad

This is terrain I love to navigate. Just ask my mom.

As a kid, my brother loved meat and chocolate. I think that's fairly acceptable for a growing lad. I, on the other hand, was a mother's dream because of my obsession with vegetables. When we would return home from school, fresh out of our two hour minivan ride from the other side of Bangkok, Ahmad would request pretty normal fair, while my craving was for any combination of veggies in a strong, vinegar-heavy dressing that I later tweaked to perfection and still make to this day (expect to see Granddad Abdullah's Old Fashioned Vinaigrette in stores soon). At first, I would simply accept whatever combination of vegetables my mom or our maid Sony (yup) would put together for me. Soon, I was making requests. Isolating each vegetable was one fad. I was the only kid on the block who came home and asked for a huge bowl of string beans floating in sour acid.

When I came to America at 13, I discovered two things in the salad realm. The first was the infamous ranch dressing. I don't hate ranch, but I don't trust it. At first, I marveled at this wonder condiment that could complement the flavor of any vegetable. Slowly, I realized that it simply masked any other flavor I combined it with. You could slather that shit on a Snickers bar and it would just taste like ranch dressing. It's a good thing my compassion grew with my devious thoughts or I would totally have been feeding my little cousins dog turds under the guise of mighty ranch.

The other, later discovery was not a supermarket staple. In fact, you shouldn't buy feta cheese from a supermarket unless it's your only option. I have the fortune of living close to the Italian Market, where quality feta and plenty of other Greek salad fixings are available. The Greek quickly became my favorite salad and now I demand that all the ingredients be in place for it to be up to par; kalamata olives, anchovies, hots, the whole nine (I should note here that I'm referring to the American permutation of the Greek, no offense to any Greek readers). Most recently, I discovered a Bulgarian feta that can be described as 'too strong for some'. I highly recommend.

The strong flavors of this salad are what appeal to me the most. I find it pleasing to go through the intense saltiness of the cheese and anchovies, and the tartness of the dressing, the punch of garlic, all in one multi-textured bite. That's why i always looked at the antipasto salad with interest.

This thing is a hell of a salad, and with three kinds of pork in it, I'm shocked that it didn't dawn on me to try it sooner. I got my first antipasto from Cosmi's Deli, an absolute gem of a deli that's been at 8th and Dickinson since the 1930s. Aside from spectacular hoagie selection and killer salads, this place has the best damn prosciutto pepper shooters I've had, but that's talk for a different post.

Over a bed of romaine and tomatoes are piled roasted peppers, black and green olives of somewhat ambiguous quality, croutons, and crumbled Italian tuna fish. The tuna didn't strike me as appetizing at first, but combined with the stars of the salad, it did quite well. Laid over all this is a liberal helping of three kinds of Italian cured meats rolled up into little tubes, looking like three walls of three different log cabins made of different trees: prosciutto, salami, and sopressata. The first thing I appreciated was that this presentation makes it nice and easy to puncture it with your fork to pick it up, combine it with whatever other ingredients, and eat it all in one bite. I tried my best to differentiate between which meat I was eating, but it wasn't long before I was mixing it up and lost track. The prosciutto was familiar, having been my first conscious pork experience ever just over a year ago. Paper thin and just a little sour, it fell in well with its surroundings. The saltiest and most textured of the meats was the salami, with little fatty white deposits that you find in a lot of cured pork. This texture is one that really grossed me out at one time, but has grown on my much as beef tripe did, the reason being that it's all about interesting mouthfeel. The sopressata had a slightly coarser texture than the salami.

The meats being the main event, this was a pretty good salad. It would have been nice to have a few other flavor groups in there traditional to antipasto in Italy. Especially missed were pepperoncini and artichokes. These are things I might consider adding myself next time I pick up an antipasto salad. Another thing I'd venture to handle myself is the dressing. Whoever invented creamy vinaigrette should be shot. One thing I still, after 13 years, don't understand about American food is why dressings have to be goo. Unless it's thousand island or ranch or gorgonzola, it doesn't have to be so thick. I don't blame Cosmi's for catering to the wider taste for packaged dressing, but I definitely won't use it again. Combined with my own concoction, this salad has immense potential. The obsession lives.

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