Travel to the extreme northwest corner of Italy and you’ll be in Valle d’Aosta, a semi- autonomous alpine region with a fierce sense of its unique identity. It’s also known as Val d’Aosta and therein lies a clue to a place where French and Italian are the official languages–and whose cuisine combines the best of both countries.
Valle d’Aosta’s hearty mountain cooking is based on the assumption that, between meals, you’ll be skiing, hiking or laboring in the terraced hillside vineyards. Otherwise, there could be a serious risk of plastering on the pounds.
It’s a fair bargain, given the pleasures of digging into rib-sticking beef stews, polenta with puddles of melted cheese, and a thick bread, cabbage and Fontina soup (casserole, really) called seuppa vapellinentze. Valdostano cooks have a way with pastry, thanks to that French connection, so skipping dessert would be a big mistake.
Salads can be substantial, too, bringing together some of the region’s best ingredients. One of my favorites is an insalatona (entree-sized salad) strewn with chunks of luscious Fontina, big croutons fashioned from whole-grain bread and thick pieces of crisp bacon. There’s one more delightful touch: caramelized cipolline onions with a sweet-sour flavor.
This salad brings back memories of the spot where I first ate it–Rifugio Ristorante, not merely an alpine restaurant but one suspended in air at station midway up the funicular that crosses between Courmayeur in Italy and Chamonix in France. Incredibly, the Monte Bianco (okay, Mont Blanc) transportation authority runs the restaurant–imagine Amtrak operating a fine-dining establishment, and you’ll understand why I find this surprising.
Every bite was revelatory. It was summer and the greens and vegetables had the bright flavors conferred by a short but intense growing season. I appreciated each morsel of Fontina all the more, having hiked across alpine meadows with rutted trails cut by the cows whose rich milk yielded that cheese.
That salad was only one thing I ate during a mid-day meal, accompanied by Valle d’Aosta’s good red wine, that left me dazed but happy as our gondola floated over gem-like glacial lakes, moraines, icy gorges and tiny moving figures that turned out to be hikers, picking their way across the terrain.
Back home, I found that this insalatona makes a wonderfully satisfying one-course meal--summer or winter–and included a version in Piatto Unico. You can find the recipe there or use the photo as a guide to putting the salad together (I make the dressing with olive oil and red wine vinegar). I do want to give you the recipe for the onions, well worth the trouble. You’ll end up with more than needed for the salad, but the leftovers can be reheated gently to serve with steak, pot roast or roast chicken.
Or follow my example, and do a rerun of the insalatona. Eating it in my home on Florida’s flat Gulf Coast, I imagine just for an instant that I can see snow-capped mountains in the distance.
Caramelized Cipolline Onions
Makes about 24 onions
2 pounds cipolline (small, flat onions), pearl onions or shallots
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
¼ teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt
1. Fill a medium saucepan or skillet broad enough for the onions to fit in a single layer with water; bring to a boil. Add the onions (they will bob to the top) and let them cook for about 20 seconds; drain and cool slightly. Pull off the papery outer skin; trim any dangling roots or tips but leave the root ends intact (otherwise, the onions will come apart when cooked).
2. Return the onions to the saucepan; add water half way up the sides of the onions. Bring to a boil; reduce the heat and simmer the onions for about 20 minutes, stirring at least once, until tender and about half of the water has evaporated. Add the olive oil, butter, vinegar, sugar and salt; continue to simmer slowly, with the lid ajar, stirring often, until the liquid has mostly evaporated.
3. When the onions start to sizzle, pay close attention. This is when they begin to brown–a good thing, but you must be careful not to burn them. Add a little water and reduce the heat if they seem to be cooking too quickly. When they are a burnished golden brown, consider them done.