Mar 032012

The Italians love good food, fast days or not. All kinds of special dishes have popped up over the centuries to get around papal restrictions designed to curtail excess (sumptuary laws), for Lent and other holy days. Take the fast day salad. There are many resourceful variations on the theme. What all have in common is that they’re meatless.

This one is a composed warm salad of creamy boiled potatoes, canned tender Italian blue fin tuna filets, hard-cooked eggs, and asparagus. Italian tuna, called ventresca (stay tuned for a future  post about this as yet under-appreciated delicacy), comes from the belly or underside of the prized fish. It’s light pink, moist, and delicate in comparison to the dry white meat albacore variety that is packed for the American market. If you can’t find it or it’s not in your budget, substitute good quality Italian tuna packed in olive oil, which is also moist and delicious–avoid tuna packed in water, it’s too dry and tasteless for this recipe.

Fast Day Salad  Photo: Hirsheimer & Hamilton

Fast Day Salad Photo: Hirsheimer & Hamilton, from Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul, by Julia della Croce (Kyle Books, 2010)

Italian Fast Day Salad with Potatoes, Hard-Cooked Eggs, Asparagus, Tuna, Capers

Serves 4

While the salad can be dressed with extra-virgin olive oil and good red wine vinegar like its French cousin, salade niçoise, nothing beats the luxurious texture and deliciousness of homemade mayonnaise dressing and I encourage you not to deprive yourself of the pleasure. If you haven’t made home-made mayonnaise before, it will be a revelation.

for the home-made mayonnaise dressing:
2 organic egg yolks
1/2 teaspoon or to taste, fine sea salt
3/4 cup safflower or grape seed oil mixed with 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
finely ground white pepper to taste

*Note: All the ingredients and equipment used for making the mayonnaise must be at room temperature.

for the salad:
1 pound fingerling, Yukon Gold, or Red Bliss Idaho®potatoes
3 eggs
1 bunch tender asparagus in season
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 can (6-1/2 ounces) imported Italian tuna, packed in olive oil,* drained and gently flaked
2 tablespoons thinly slivered red onion, soaked in cold water and drained
1 tablespoon small capers, drained and rinsed in cold water

*as blue-fin tuna is an endangered species, substitute albacore, bigeye, yellowfin, or skipjack, pole-caught and troll-caught, packed in oil

First make the mayonnaise:

1. Put the egg yolks and half the salt into the bowl of an electric mixer and beat at medium speed until they are pale yellow and a thick, creamy consistency.

2. Add the combined oils drop by drop, beating constantly. Stop adding the oil every few seconds while you continue beating until you see that the oil already added has been absorbed completely by the egg yolks. It is crucial not to add too much oil at once or the mayonnaise will not emulsify. Turn off the mixer occasionally and use a rubber spatula to scrape the inside so that all the ingredients are thoroughly combined and absorbed. Continue adding the oil in a thread, beating all the while, until the mixture becomes quite thick. Add the remaining salt, lemon juice, mustard and pepper. Blend to combine thoroughly. Check for salt. Use immediately, or cover and chill. Homemade mayonnaise will keep for a week in the refrigerator.

Note: If the mayonnaise separates, bring the broken mayonnaise and other ingredients to room temperature. Break one yolk into mixing bowl and whisk in the broken mayonnaise tablespoon by tablespoon until the mixture is cohesive, then add in a bit of the vegetable or olive oil, or whichever oil you used for the recipe, to set the mayonnaise.

For the salad:

1. Put the unpeeled potatoes in a pot with enough cold water to cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Immediately reduce the heat to medium and cook until tender when pierced with a sharp knife, about 20 minutes. Drain and when cool enough to handle, peel the potatoes and cut them crosswise into ¼-inch thick slices. If using Red Bliss, there is no need to peel.

2. In the meantime, place the eggs in a saucepan with cold water to cover and bring to a boil. Cook them for a total of 15 minutes from the time they are placed on the stove. Drain and shell them while they are still warm so that they will slip out of their shells easily, then allow to cool before cutting crosswise into ¼-inch thick slices.

3. Remove the tough lower stalk of the asparagus. Fill another saucepan with water and bring to a boil. Add the salt, then the asparagus. Boil, uncovered, until tender, about 7 minutes. Drain, refresh in cold water, and set aside. It is best if they are still warm when dressed.

4. In a salad bowl, preferably of clear glass, layer first the potatoes, then the tuna, onion, asparagus, and eggs in that order, spooning a little mayonnaise on each layer before arranging the next one. Spoon more mayonnaise on top and scatter with the capers. Serve warm, or within 2 hours of preparing.

Disclaimer: This recipe belongs to Julia della Croce and was adapted for the Idaho Potato Commission’s Potato Salad promotion. The author was financially compensated for her participation.

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  4 Responses to “Luxurious Penance: Italian Fast Day Potato Salad”

  1. Lovely Julia! So simple yet satisfying. Hope you are enjoying Sicily!

  2. Julia, I was unhappy to see you recommending bluefin tuna in this really lovely recipe. This big fish is critically endangered and efforts have been made for years to put it on a complete ban. Scientists can actually count the numbers of bluefin left in the Atlantic (which is where the Mediterranean population originates). Most conscientious chefs won’t use it and I think we food writers should be on the same course and educate people about its perishable status. Much better to choose albacore or yellowfin tuna (aka ahi) which is not in such short supply.

    • Hi Nancy–You’re right, thanks for pointing this out. I copied this recipe onto my post from an old file without updating it. Years ago I treated ourselves to pricey high quality ventresca (a luxurious penance indeed) once a year during Lent, following family tradition. Today I avoid buying blue-fin for the same reasons you do and always advocate for environmentally sustainable practices. Despite the goof, I carry a copy of the wallet-size Guide to Ocean Friendly Seafood, put out by the Blue Ocean Institute, for reference when I am food-shopping. The substitutes recommended for blue-fin tuna are albacore, bigeye, yellowfin, and skipjack, pole-caught and troll-caught. Readers can get a free smartphone app of this guide from the website, For anyone out there who’d like more information about ocean conservation issues, these are informative websites: (you can download the pocket guide here) and (Marine Stewardship Council).

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