Ladies and gentleman, I present to you:
Capunata, also known as la Cialda Leccese
(Special kudos to Silvestro Silvestori of Awaiting Table for unearthing and publishing this recipe, which - strangely - doesn't seem to be well known here in the land where it originated.)
So easy to make - it takes about fifteen minutes - this dish brazenly showcases summer freshness and lightness. While it is similar to the Cialda in Tuscany, a 'soup' made with day old bread and tomato, this version is distinctly Pugliese. And it has nothing in common with the sweet-sour capunata of Sicily (also quite delicious, but totally different - a kind of sauce made with aubergine/eggplant, onion, celery, olives and tomatoes)
If you've eaten different kinds of Mediterranean food, you may have encountered Tabouleh, another salad made with very similar ingredients - wheat, cucumber, tomato, minced onion, parsley and olive oil - that is quite common in Arab culture. I've often wondered if there is any connection, since there was a period of Arab domination here in the South. A friend from Lebanon to whom I introduced this dish also immediately saw a resemblance.
There are only seven ingredients, but don’t skimp - they should each be top notch quality. Pomodorini (cherry tomatoes), menoceddhe (local cucumber-like hybrid), frisa di orzo (dark whole grain barley frisa), cippola rossa (red onion, like the ones grown in Tropea), capperi al sale (salted capers), olio (extra virgin olive oil, preferably a Southern, somewhat bitter type), and basilico (fresh basil). Remember that even though you’re fussy about each ingredient, because you follow a cardinal rule of good Italian cooking - selecting the what's best and freshest at the moment - it costs very little to make this! So please don’t shop in a supermarket.
Slice very thinly some good red onion. Soak the slices for about ten minutes in water. This soaking tames the onion a bit, as it can be very harsh when raw. My personal, maybe heretical touch is to add a very small splash of plain wine vinegar (NOT 'Balsamic') to give a slight tartness. While the onion slices soak:
Obtain some good quality salted capers. Do NOT use the vinegared kind, please. The dish is too delicate for the overly acidic flavour which destroys the natural taste anyway. The best ones - plump, almost the size of peas, and with a rich flavour - come from Sicily or Marocco. Rinse them by swishing in a bowl with some fresh water for 15 seconds, then take them out, drain and dry with a paper towel. Don’t throw away the salty water.
Slice the cherry tomatoes. In June or July the best of the season are the datterini - so pretty, green and red colored, exploding with tart and sweet flavor. Set them cut side up and dust lightly with salt and, if you wish, a touch of oregano.
Peel, core and cut the menoceddhe into chunks about the size of dice. Add them to the tomatoes.
Remove the onion slices from the water, drain them a bit, scatter them and the the rinsed drained capers over the tomato and menoceddhe chunks.
Soak the frise just 15 - 30 seconds or so in salty water, like sea water, or the water you rinsed the capers in. Don't leave them in too long, they should be reconstituted, soft and moist, but not watery! Take them out and - very important - let them rest a few minutes: the water will continue to absorb and spread evenly inside the frisa. It might take you a couple of practice tries before you get this just right and to your taste. Crumble (sbricciolare) the frisa. I prefer a rustic to a fine texture, but please yourself.
Tear up some fresh basil leaves, which hopefully are from your own plant growing on a balcony or window sill. Don’t cut the leaves with a knife - the flavourful oil is very delicate and the metal of the knife blade can actually destroy it. Toss everything together with a few good glugs - don't be shy! - of the best olive oil you can get. A somewhat bitter oil is better than a smooth buttery type because it balances the earthy round flavor of the frisa; but again the most important thing is to please yourself.
That's all! Top with a few more basil leaves. It will look as ravishing as Claudia Cardinale - true Southern Beauty.
One of the charms of this dish is that it doesn’t keep well. Serve it within a half hour or so at most. It is best accompanied with a lightly chilled rosé - Girofle, Five Roses, Calafuria or one of the many excellent local ones now being produced with mostly negroamaro grapes. Or just some really clean pure water.
Rarely found even here in Salento, I’ve never seen Capunata/Cialda Leccese in any bar, café or restaurant. Every time I serve it to a local here a smile breaks out. It is nonetheless one of the most perfect examples of a Slow-Food type “Zero kilometer” dish I’ve ever encountered. You can make this in other places, I suppose. After all the frisa keep perfectly anywhere as long as you seal the bag tightly. And so do salted capers. But it just doesn't seem the same without fresh Pugliese tomatoes and those odd and endearing local cucumber/melon hybrids called mennucceddhre, or meluncceddrhe, or who knows how many other ways it might be spelled?
(One characteristic of the dozens and dozens of dialects and variations in Italy is that there exist almost no written authoritative texts, dictionaries or grammar books. In fact there is little consensus, but lots of territorial variation as you travel about. Sometimes moving only a few kilometres produces new words or new definitions, pronunciations and spellings. People will rarely acknowledge this spectacular diversity with a detached, ethnographic wisdom, saying perhaps, "Well it depends who you ask. Here they do it like this, but over there, maybe a different story." Instead, much more often, they usually say, "This is how it's done.")
Paired with local rosé and eaten in the hot, Mediterranean sea-moistened August air - this is as exquisitely seasonal and local a dish as exists anywhere in the world. It not only sustains and nourishes you through the blazing hot Salentino summer. In a small and essential way, it also connects you with land and traditions that are thousands of years old.