Everyone loves the hominess of colorful and fragrant antipasti platters or one-pot meals. Coupled with the boisterous and robust image of friends and family gathered around a large wooden table with bottles of wine and bowls of fresh picked vegetables is hard to pass on…unless it’s to pass the bowl!
Dining outside, al fresco, is an Italian tradition that beckons enjoyment and good cheer. Colors of red, gold and blue atop the table echo nature’s bounty of sunflower fields and freshly picked grapes.
This meal is simplicity itself. Just add a little amore and serve it up proudly. With this party menu, a loaf of crusty country bread and bottle of red wine, nothing else is needed. Buon appetito!
PROSECCO PARTY GRAPES
Prepared in 5 minutes or less plus marinate overnight in the refrigerator.
Rinse the grape bunches then pat dry. Cut them into smaller clusters of 4 grapes each.
In a large bowl with a tightly fitted lid, pour Champagne. Add ¼ cup sugar, lemon and orange zest and gently stir until sugar is completely dissolved.
Add the grape clusters, cover and marinate overnight in the refrigerator.
Before guests arrive, drain grapes and gently pat dry with a paper towel. Sprinkle with superfine sugar and chopped mint leaves. Pile grapes and fresh figs into pretty serving bowls and set them atop tables for guests to nibble on during the party.
Prepared in 20 minutes or less plus one hour to drain eggplant.
Preheat oven to 375°F.
Trim the eggplant and cut crosswise into ¼-inch slices. Sprinkle lightly with salt on both sides and place the slices on plates lined with paper towels to drain for 1 hour.
Rinse off each eggplant slice to remove salt then pat dry with paper towels.
Arrange three separate plates for dipping line-up of flour, egg mixture and bread crumbs.
In a medium bowl, beat the eggs, grated cheese, water and pepper to taste until well-combined. Dip each eggplant slice into flour, then into the egg mixture and lastly into the breads crumbs. Pat well to evenly coat each side. Place the coated slices on a wire rack for 15 minutes to dry.
In a large skillet on high heat, warm ½-inch vegetable oil until it’s popping. Add the eggplant slices a few at a time without over-crowding the skillet. Fry until each slice is golden brown, approximately 3 minutes per side.
Drain the slices on paper towels. Place on a large colorful serving platter.
Serve immediately or keep warm in a low temperature oven. Serves 8.
Sun-dried tomatoes in oil add a gourmet touch and a burst of tomato flavor to this savory dish. Unless they are already packed in oil, sun-dried tomatoes will need to be reconstituted before use. Just let them soak in warm water for thirty minutes until soft and pliable, drain (reserve the liquid to add flavor to stocks and sauces), pat dry and use as directed in your recipe. You can also use wine, broth, or other cooking liquid to reconstitute. Once reconstituted, use them within several days or pack in olive oil and store in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.
GRILLED MOZZARELLA AND SUN-DRIED TOMATO SPIEDINI
Prepared in 10 minutes or less.
Preheat grill or oven to broil. Lightly brush the grill rack or broiler pan with olive oil.
On each skewer, alternating the ingredients, thread three pieces of sundried tomatoes, two mozzarella cubes and two basil leaves. Brush the mozzarella with marinade from the sundried tomato jar.
Grill or broil the skewers just until the mozzarella begins to melt, flipping once. Serve immediately. Serves 8.
Pancetta, a flavorful Italian pork belly bacon cured with salt and spices and not smoked, adds intensity and depth to this hearty pasta dish. It’s often sold in a cylinder shaped roll and can be stored tightly wrapped in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.
Prepared in 1 hour 25 minutes or less.
In a large pot over medium heat, warm olive oil. Add onions, celery and garlic. Sauté until all vegetables are tender and slightly brown, approximately 8-10 minutes.
Increase the heat to high then add veal, pork, pancetta (or bacon). Sauté until meats are brown for 10 minutes. Remember to break up the meat with the back of a wooden spoon or fork while browning.
Add canned tomatoes with all their juices and 1¾ cups chicken broth, milk (or cream) thyme and fresh red pepper flakes.
Recue heat to low and simmer uncovered for 1 to 1½ hours. Gently stir and break down tomatoes with the wooden spoon. You can add more chicken broth if ragu sauce becomes too thick while stirring occasionally.
Season with salt and fresh pepper.
In a large pasta pot, boil slightly salted water. Cook fettuccine al dente, cooked yet firm to the bite. Then drain.
Add cooked fettuccine to pot with the ragu sauce and toss with tongs to blend.
Transfer to a bowl and sprinkle with ½ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and parsley.
Serve immediately. Serves 4.
DOLCE VITA TUSCAN CHICKEN
Prepared in 25 minutes or less plus overnight refrigeration and 1 hour to bake.
Combine chicken, garlic, oregano, salt and pepper, vinegar, olive oil, raisins, capers (and juice) and bay leaves into a Ziploc baggy.
Place in refrigerator and marinate overnight.
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Place chicken into shallow baking pans and spoon generous amounts of marinade on top of each piece of chicken.
Sprinkle brown sugar and white wine around the chicken pieces.
Bake for one hour basting every 10 minutes with pan juices. Remove cooked chicken onto serving platter and sprinkle fresh chopped herbs generously on top.
Serve immediately with extra gravy sauce from pans. Serves 8.
Zuccotto, “little pumpkin” in Italian, a divine semi-frozen chilled dessert with origins in Florence, is rumored to be inspired by the shape of that city’s famous cathedral duomo, dome, or cardinal’s skullcap. It can be frozen then thawed before serving and will take your tastebuds on a heavenly trip.
ZUCCOTTO “ITALIAN FROZEN CREAM CAKE
Prepared in 10 minutes or less plus 3 hours in the freezer.
Cut the sponge cake horizontally into slices and line a round, smooth pudding basin. Lightly moisten the slices with the Cointreau. Set aside a few extra sponge cake slices for final stages.
Whip the heavy cream together in a large mixing bowl with an electric mixer over medium speed. Slowly add the confectioners’ sugar and almond extract until peaks form. Gently fold in with a spatula the ground almonds, the chocolate chips and the tiny pieces of candied citrus.
Divide mixture into two parts in two separate bowls. Melt the dark chocolate and add to one part of the mixture. Pour the white cream mixture into the pudding basin, and make it stick to the sponge cake lining the sides.
Leave a space in the middle and spoon in the chocolate mixture into the center until filled. Arrange the remaining Cointreau soaked cake slices covering the bottom completely and trimming to fit. Cover with plastic wrap before freezing for at least 3 hours before serving. Serves 8-10.
CAPPUCCINO SPIKED BROWNIES
Prepared in 35 minutes or less plus one hour refrigeration.
For the Brownie:
For the Cream Cheese Frosting:
For the Glaze:
In a metal bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water melt the chocolate with the butter and the espresso mixture, stirring until the mixture is smooth. Remove the bowl from the heat, let the mixture cool to lukewarm, and stir in the sugar and the vanilla.
Stir in the eggs, 1 at a time, stirring well after each addition, stir in the flour and the salt, stirring until the mixture is just combined, and stir in the walnuts. Pour the mixture into a buttered and floured 13 x 9-inch baking pan, smooth the top, and bake the brownie layer in the middle of a preheated 350ºF oven for 22 – 25 minutes, or until a tester comes out with crumbs adhering to it. Let the brownie layer cool completely in the pan on a rack.
Next, in a bowl with an electric mixer cream together the cream cheese and the butter until the mixture is light and fluffy, add the confectioners’ sugar, sifted, the vanilla, and the cinnamon, and beat the frosting until it is combined well.
Spread the frosting evenly over the brownie layer and chill the brownies for 1 hour, or until the frosting is firm.