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Italian Bean Salad with Balsamic Vinaigrette Topped with Tuna or Tofu

When I lived in Italy, every few weeks, I would buy myself a ready-to-eat salad that contained frisée lettuce, corn, and borlotti beans. It was topped with a small mound of julienned carrots, basic balsamic vinegar, and extra virgin olive oil. Taste and texture-wise, that salad had everything going for it: creamy beans, sweet corn and carrots, bitter, crunchy lettuce, and tangy-sweet vinegar.

This salad takes its inspiration from the original. I use pinto beans, mixed greens, and chopped carrots instead. I also add raw onions. Rather than just splashing vinegar and oil on top, I make balsamic vinaigrette.

This salad can stand on its own but with the addition of tuna steaks for meat-eaters or sautéed tofu for vegetarians, it becomes a hearty yet refreshing main dish. Each version serves four.

Make the salad:

¼ cup balsamic vinegar

1 tsp honey

2 tsp Dijon mustard

2 teaspoons fresh basil, chopped or torn (about 5 large basil leaves)

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

Salt & pepper to taste

½ small onion, peeled and thinly sliced

1 cup canned pinto beans, rinsed and drained

4 cups mixed greens

½ cup frozen corn kernels, defrosted and drained

1 small carrot, peeled and chopped roughly the same size as the corn and beans or 1 cup matchstick carrots

In a large mixing bowl, add the balsamic vinegar, honey, Dijon mustard, chopped basil, and a pinch of salt and pepper. Whisk together. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil and continue whisking until the vinaigrette is well-blended.

Set aside half of the vinaigrette.

Add the sliced onions and pinto beans to the vinaigrette in the bowl and stir to coat them. Top the vinaigrette with the mixed greens, corn, and carrots, and refrigerate until ready to use.

Prepare the protein (Veggie Version)

14 oz package of extra-firm tofu packed in water

Salt, pepper, and garlic powder to taste

2 – 3 TBS olive oil

Drain the liquid from the tofu and rinse. Pat the tofu with a paper towel to remove excess moisture. Cut the tofu into 8 equal slices (about ½ - ¾ inch thick). Place a few sheets of paper towel onto a cutting board. Place the tofu slices in one layer on top of the towel. Cover the tofu with a few more sheets of paper towel and then a large plate, sheet pan, or cutting board. Add a few cans or heavy pan on top. Leave for at least 15 minutes to ½ hour. The idea is to press out as much water as possible—it helps with the spatter and the tofu will brown better.

Remove the weight and paper towels from the tofu. Sprinkle both sides of each slice of tofu with salt, pepper, and garlic powder.

Add 2 TBS of olive oil to a large nonstick skillet. Heat the pan on medium. Place the tofu in one layer and cook for 5 – 6 minutes on one side or until golden brown. Flip the tofu and cook for an additional 5 – 6 minutes or until golden brown, adding more oil if necessary. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool slightly (about 2 minutes). Cut each slice of tofu diagonally (you should have 16 triangles). Set aside.

Prepare the protein (Meaty Version):

2 tuna steaks, about 8 oz each (I use Ahi / Yellowfin)

1 – 2 TBS olive oil

Salt, pepper, and garlic powder to taste

Rinse the tuna and pat dry with paper towels. Sprinkle each side of the tuna steaks with a pinch of salt, pepper, and garlic powder. Set aside.

Add 1 TBS olive oil to a large skillet, heat on medium, and add the tuna steaks.

Cook for 2 – 3 minutes. Gently flip the tuna steaks over and cook for an additional 2 – 3 minutes. The tuna should still be pink in the center. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool slightly. Slice the tuna.

Assemble the salad:

Using tongs or a rubber spatula, gently fold the dressing from the bottom of the bowl and coat the vegetables. Carefully tip the salad onto a serving platter or 4 plates.

Top the salad with the tofu or tuna. Drizzle the remaining vinaigrette over the top of the protein and serve immediately.

I make mistakes so you don't have to!

I grabbed the knife closest to me (serrated) to cut the tuna.

Don't use a serrated knife to cut tuna fish!

That being said, T. Rex assured me that despite its appearance,

the tuna still tasted delicious! Yay!

Don’t Freak Out!

1) For the Veggie Version, you can grill the tofu instead of sautéing it. Or substitute baked tofu or tempeh.

2) For the Veggie Version, if you want to add toasty goodness but don’t want to use soy, you can make homemade croutons. Simply cut a few slices of baguette, ciabatta, or artisan white bread into bite-sized cubes. Toss with a tablespoon or two of olive oil, a pinch of salt, pepper, dried basil, and garlic powder. Brown in a nonstick skillet on medium heat or place in one layer on a pan and brown in a toaster oven. Top the salad with the homemade croutons.

Or top the salad with your favorite brand of store-bought croutons or pita chips. If you go the bread route, you may want to reduce the amount of vinaigrette you make. Although croutons with a light drizzle of balsamic vinaigrette would also be delicious—just don’t add too much or the bread will become soggy.

3) For the Meaty Version, substitute the tuna fish with grilled chicken or turkey breasts or pork tenderloin.

4) Experiment with the salad. Try a different kind of bean. Cranberry (borlotti), red, or black would be delicious. Or grill an ear or two of corn, cut it off the cob, and add it to the salad. Try a different kind of lettuce. Romaine, Belgian endive, radicchio, or good old iceberg would definitely work!

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