My friend and teacher Nancy Verde Barr first introduced me to the Italian technique of steeping mint in vinegar and water, then using the liquid to add a bold mint flavor to salad.
A steeping period as short as 30 minutes will give the vinaigrette a substantial mint kick, but if you have the inclination, you might try it for a couple of hours, or even overnight to see just how intense the flavor can become.
In my repertoire of salads, this one is a rare exception in that my favorite time to serve it is out of season, in the winter. In New England, there is no local table grape industry, so I buy them out of season in a supermarket; mint is available year-round (but not in my backyard). The salad makes a bright and refreshing contrast to root vegetables, like a summer day that has suddenly wandered into the middle of February.
Yield: Makes 4 servings
¼ cup red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons water
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh mint
1 small shallot, minced
¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 large head Romaine lettuce, leaves separated, washed, and dried
1 small red onion, sliced paper-thin, soaked in ice water for 30 minutes (to remove bitterness), drained, and dried
½ pound seedless grapes, washed and cut in half
½ cup sliced almonds, toasted
¼ pound ricotta salata, thinly sliced
1. Combine vinegar, water, and 2 tablespoons of the chopped mint in a small nonreactive saucepan. Bring to a simmer, then remove from the heat, and let steep for 30 minutes.
2. Strain the vinegar into a small bowl and discard the mint. Add the shallot. Whisk in the oil in a thin, steady stream. Season with salt and pepper.
3. Mix the Romaine leaves in a large bowl with the remaining ½ cup mint, the red onion, and grapes. Add the vinaigrette and toss well. Taste, then season with salt and pepper if necessary.
4. Arrange the salad on chilled plates, top with the toasted almonds and slices of ricotta salata, and serve.