A summer feast is a nice thing especially when it consists mostly of fresh vegetables and good people to share it with. Monday night I had my second cousin Franny, my Dad and my brother Vincent and my sister Maryanne over for dinner. Monday morning I woke ready to kick some culinary ass.
I set out shopping early.
I’m a culinary traditionalist when it comes to food. I love those old world recipes taught to me by my parents and grandparents and I love the basics culinary techniques I learned at Johnson & Wales University many moon pies ago. Yet, at the same time I like to put a modern twist on all that I make, so fear not people, I can make a killer Korean Taco and I can throw-down some fierce Kimchi, so don’t misunderstand me, I’m culinary cool too.
Appetizer # 1 – A variety of Bruschetta
I arranged four different kinds of Bruschetta on an old sliver tray I bought at the GoodWill years ago, it’s an elaborate number with mini-claw legs, rather dramatic and impressive and well worth the twenty-five bucks it cost me. The first row of Bruschetta was fresh ricotta (I made homemade ricotta, easy and fun to make) that I spread on small toast rounds (crostini) sprinkled with roughly chopped pistachios nuts and topped with a faint drizzle of pistachio oil, this was subtle and delightful. Next row chopped roasted red peppers with crispy shallots also placed on ricotta with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, this was earthy, savory-sweet and balanced off by the lightness of the ricotta. Next row was the classic Bruschetta, chopped tomatoes, fresh basil and garlic with a splash of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Finally, my favorite, chopped Portabella mushrooms sautéed in Irish butter, fresh thyme and salt then chilled and place on the small crostini and garnished with a few shavings of Fontina Cheese.
Appetizer # 2- Stuffed mini-peppers with mascarpone, blue cheese and fig jam
I adore those small colorful sweet peppers that are now available in supermarkets and I wanted to do something fun with them. I knew I didn’t want to cook them because they were so sweet and crispy and have a nice cooling affect on the palate. I thought them a good pair with cheese. I grabbed a bunch of the smallest ones I could find and split them in half and stuffed them with a combination of Mascarpone and Blue cheese and touch of Fig jam. I placed them on a bed of Italian Parsley alternating colors. When done arranging I dabbed each pepper with fig jam and a slight sprinkle of ground walnuts. I must admit I impressed myself with this display of scrumptious, colorful and inviting appetizers that we ate ravenously with red wine and cold beer. When done it was time to placed my summer feast on the table and call everyone over to the table to indulge.
When my guest were seated I circled the table serving each person French style using a fork and spoon balanced in one hand scooping up spoonfuls of food and placing it on my guest’s plates, the trick is not to spill food on your guest’s lap. I learned French Service many years ago while in college when I worked as a banquet server at the old Lafayette Hotel in Boston. Of course I’m not snotty and formal and I allow my guest to help themselves, but I always like to serve a few dish first to make everyone feel at ease and to encourage a festive atmosphere. I love when platters of food are passed to one another and I enjoy watching people fill their plates and I particularly like when my dinner guests take second helpings and I always encourage thirds and fourths and doggie bags. I also take pleasure in hearing compliments on the wonderful job I did preparing the meal and in turn I act surprised, meek and humble of heart (all the while I know I made a kick-ass dinner.)
Okay, so here’s the menu and how I did it.
Fennel Salad with Oranges Slices, Olives with Orange Champagne Vinegar
I thinly sliced fennel and navel oranges (blood oranges are best for this dish) and tossed them with black olives and a minuscule touch of olive oil and a good splash of Orange Champagne Vinegar (purchased at Trader Joes). Chill well. This is a refreshing and different salad that becomes extra-extra-incredible when served with slab of room-temp gorgonzola.
Choose small zucchinis and cut them in half. With a spoon scrap out the seeds and pulp making little boats. In a bowl place chopped red peppers, grated garlic, lemon zest, one half chopped zucchini, bread crumbs, olive oil, a few hefty splashes of red wine and water to moisture. Fill the zucchini boats with the stuffing and paint on tomato paste and drizzle with olive oil and bake until the tomato pasted turns an intense, almost reddish-black. I serve these cold, but they are equally as good when served warm. These are also spectacular placed on top of a garden salad or on your head.
Roasted Tomato Caprese Salad
A few years ago I saw the Barefoot Contessa make a Caprese Salad using roasted tomatoes instead of raw ones and ever since then I’ve been dying to try it and giving the fact I prefer my tomatoes roasted or stewed it was a perfect match for me. I sliced and seeded a dozen plum tomatoes and coated them with olive oil and sea salt and roasted them in the oven until they just started to char, became limp and their color turned to a deep vibrant red. After chilling these jewels I layered them with fresh mozzarella and garden picked basil and added more olive oil. The flavor of these tomatoes was deeply concentrated, robust and tangy, almost like a Classic Margherita Pizza without the crust. Perfecto!
Oven Roasted Sweet and Hot Italian Sausage with Broccoli Rabe and Potatoes
While Italian Sausages and potatoes were roasting in my oven I sautéed two bundles of Broccoli Rabe and seasoned them with plenty of garlic, sea salt and olive oil. When they were done I added to the Rabe the sausages that I sliced in bite size portions and the roasted potatoes. I emptied this entire delightful mixture of goodness into my big oval serving bowl. This was hearty and decadent, (what could possibly be better than Rabe drowning in sausage fat?).
Salad Nicoise, a French composed salad
No summer dinner would be complete without my famous Salad Nicoise, anyone that knows me, knows this is my most favorite salad. Its origins are from the south or France and I threw it into my Italian summer dinner menu for good measure and also, well, because I’m international that way. Take a huge round glass platter and put some chopped romaine on it, in the center place dark, oily rich Italian tuna and sprinkling capers and Nicoise olives on top. Around the border of the platter place blanched green beans, beets, roasted red peppers, boiled potatoes, anchovies, more olives, cucumbers and halved boiled eggs. I once again, humbly admit, this was stunning (if I do say so myself) it was fresh, crisp, salty and at the same time dazzling and full of flavors making for a hearty, unforgettable salad, Vive la France! (When I’m eating this salad alone I like to pile it high on Italian bread and eat it like a sandwich allowing the olive oil it to run down my arms, but since my sister Maryanne was sitting next to me, trust me, I knew better than to eat like the vulture I truly am.)
Dessert – Cherries simmered in red wine and topped with Mascarpone Cheese
Now the grand finale, my newest and most favorite thing to end any meal with… FRESH CHERRIES POACHED IN RED WINE! Oh, My God! — —Take a deep breath, count to three, so good… so damn GOOD! —This is how you do it and you must do it now because cherries are in season. Okay take out the pits; do this by slicing the cherries in half and getting that damn pit out anyway you can. This takes time, but worth it. Next, place the cherries in a pot and cover them with red wine (any red will do!) add some lemon zest and bring to a simmer for 20 minutes. Take them off the heat and let them sit for a few hours (I’ve served this warm and cold, cold is best). Next, line goblets with cubed pound cake (pound cake is optional, these cherries are great on their own) place the cherries and the juice over the pound cake and top with sweetened Mascarpone Cheese. Besides pitting the cherries, this is simply one of the most easy to make delicious desserts ever, its depth of flavor is staggering and the way the simmering cherries will perfume your house is reason enough to make this dessert, if you need another reason, the mind-blowing visual of the ruby-red cherries and the intense purple wine simmering in a pot is scrumptiously astonishing.
I promise, after making all these things I mention in this humble little blog of mine, you’ll stop and think how wondrous and mysterious food is and for a few hours or maybe for a day or two or for the rest of your life you’ll be convinced that all is right in the world and for me that is exactly what food should do, nourish the body, soul and mind and make people abundantly grateful and happy day after day because good food and how we prepare it is eternal. Pass it on…