Before diving deep into what makes Nostrana’s famous radicchio salad so awesome, let me mention that Nostrana has been open for fifteen years in Portland, Oregon. In terms of the life of a restaurant, fifteen years is pretty much forever. Which means chef Cathy Whims is doing a few things right. Cathy and her husband David West opened Nostrana in 2005, in the heart of the Buckman neighborhood, which encompasses the Central Eastside Industrial District. With the coziness of the wood decor and pizza oven inside and the patio seating outside, it very much has a neighborhood bistro feel to it.
For decades, Cathy has been a frequent traveler to Italy, where she has built friendships, strengthened her relationship to Italian cooking, and studied with the famous Marcela Hazan. Lucky for her (and us), Italian cuisine adapts very well to the Pacific Northwest. Mainly because they both draw on the natural bounty of the region, supporting local farmers, fisherman and ranchers. Starting with the best ingredients and creating rustic, simple dishes, can result in some of the most complex and tastiest food. I read a quote by her that really struck a chord, “at Nostrana, the farmers and the ingredients cultivate the menu”.
Nostrana’s famous radicchio salad unveiled
I could go on and on about Cathy’s offerings, but in this post I will focus on a single one. Her eponymous Insalata Nostrana, or Nostrana salad is one of those dishes that is known across Portland as being iconic. And to me, the secret sauce is the dressing. I thought this from the first time I had the privilege of indulging. And then everywhere I read about it, I saw I was not alone.
When a salad hits all the proper notes – crunchy, savory, acidic, salty, umami, creamy, complex, beware that a cult following is not far behind.
It’s a good time to add that the radicchio salad is also served at The Oven and Shaker, which is another Italian restaurant is owned by Cathy Whims. Located in The Pearl, this one is more pizza and craft cocktail based and a bit more casual than Nostrana. Although equally as delicious.
So, when a dish is THAT good, it is deserving of some additional attention. Let’s break things down and look at what makes Cathy Whim’s radicchio salad amazing. And while some people are in the strict recipe following camp (which will yield you a tried and true fabulous salad), I am in the loose recipe following camp. I use recipes to get inspired but adapt them to my personal taste buds.
Cathy was generous enough to share the recipe for Nostrana’s famous radicchio salad in Diane Morgan’s, A Christmas Table.
2-3 heads radicchio
6 tbls extra virgin olive oil
2 tbls red wine vinegar
1 tbls mayonnaise
1 large egg yolk
2 salt packed anchovies
1 large clove garlic (I added a bit more)
1/2 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 cups fresh bread cubes from artisanal loaf
2 tbls unsalted butter
1 tbls chopped fresh rosemary
1 tbls chopped sage
Finish with freshly grated parm and fresh ground black pepper
A properly dressed salad is something to behold
So, here we go on putting it together
Cut in half and core radicchio. Radicchio is in the lettuce family, closely related to chicory. It is a real beauty and besides the usual purple varieties (elongated and round like a head of lettuce), I have seen Instagrammable pink varieties as well.
Tear the leaves apart into bite sized pieces and soak them in ice water for one hour. This keeps it crisp and removes some of the bitter flavor, making even the pickiest of salad eaters happy. I LOVE bitter greens and am always looking for additional ways to add more bitters to my diet. So, I actually skip this step.
If you want to get wild and crazy with your version of Nostrana’s famous radacchio salad, use some unusual varietals!
While the radicchio is soaking, work on your croutons (or you can do this the day prior). The better the bread, the better the crouton. Ciabatta or sourdough would be excellent choices here. Size matters here! Cathy’s croutons are bite sized, which makes for graceful consumption.
Now toast the pieces at 400°F for about 8 minutes, or until golden brown. Melt the butter on medium and add your herbs. For the Mediterranean herbs, I find the dried versions concentrate the flavor more than fresh herbs. Yet fresh herbs are lovely for other reasons. So, you pick. Cook for 2 minutes or until you can smell them roasting. Pour the butter mixture over the croutons while they are still warm and toss to coat. I haven’t made croutons with gluten free bread, but perhaps will try. I have a feeling this would be one instance where the gluten free doesn’t work well.
The dressing is a play on a classic Caesar Salad dressing. If you have never tasted FRESHLY made Caesar dressing, then you are in for a real treat! Although consider yourself warned, you will never be able to go back to eating the prepared version for as long as you live.
For years, I used to cook an egg for 1 minute and then crack it into salad right before serving. It did create a nice gloss on the greens. Although now I prefer to use only the yolk to make my mayonnaise in the bowl. So put the yolk in the bowl and slowly drizzle in the olive oil, whisking the whole time. You can do this process in the blender as well.
Once it is emulsified, add the red wine vinegar, which Cathy substitutes for the traditional lemon juice.
With a mortar and pestle, smash the garlic and salt packed anchovies. This is one place NOT TO SKIMP. The difference between the pre-crushed and doing it for yourself is like night and day. I add more garlic than the recipe calls for. This is a matter of taste. Add the sugar and some black pepper. If you have WAY more dressing than you plan to eat right then, then put some aside in the fridge. Because once the salad is assembled, it doesn’t keep.
Spin the radicchio or dry it with a big towel.
Assembling Nostrana’s famous radicchio salad
Now you have your 3 components and it is time to assemble. In the bowl where the dressing was made, add the radicchio and toss to coat the leaves evenly.
You can now plate this family style on a platter, or in individual bowls. Sprinkle the parmesan cheese and the croutons on top. And a sprig of fresh rosemary if you are feeling fancy. Lastly, a healthy dose of freshly ground black pepper.
I hope you decide to take the liberty of creating this salad in your own kitchen, as well as ordering it at Nostrana. I am pretty sure it will quickly rise to your list of go to faves.
We take guests to Nostrana on the Bustling Buckman Food Tour. And guess what we order? Insalata Nostrana! And if you want to explore Cathy’s other restaurants, then hit Oven and Shaker and Enoteca Nostrana. Enoteca is the wine bar just next door to Nostrana which is perfect for tapas style dining and a drink if you are waiting for your table at Nostrana.
And while you are getting Nostrana’s famous radicchio salad, order some pizza, made to order in the wood fired oven