By Domenica Marchetti
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
School's barely out and already my grill has been working overtime. That's what happens as soon as summer heat descends upon us. We head straight for the flame at mealtime and straight for the freezer for dessert.
But now is also the right time to step away from either extreme and take a cue from Italian summer cooking traditions: meals that are made to be served at room temperature. I'm thinking about the sorts of selections you might find in a trattoria: platters of fried eggplant, stuffed vegetables, colorful strips of roasted peppers, rice and grain salads, lightly stewed fish, and roasted or grilled meats that have been given a little time to lose their heat and gain flavor as they cool.
Dishes served at room temperature -- or slightly warmer or cooler -- are appealing for several reasons. For one thing, you can taste food better at room temperature than you can when it is hot or cold (ice cream being the exception, of course). It makes perfect sense, therefore, to seek out good-quality, fresh ingredients. And what better time than summer to take advantage of the bounty of vegetables and herbs -- tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, basil, mint and the like -- already starting to show up at local farmers markets?
Room-temperature dishes take well to assertive summer flavors. A plate of fried zucchini slices splashed with good wine vinegar, garnished with mint and garlic and allowed to marinate for an hour or so at room temperature -- a classic southern Italian preparation known as Zucchini Alla Scapece -- seems perfectly designed to stimulate the appetite no matter how sweltering it is outside.
As a cook, I also appreciate the convenience of a dish that can be made in advance and left to rest for a spell, giving me a breather.
A note of caution seems in order here: Serving food at room temperature does not mean letting it sit for hour upon hour, thus allowing germs to grow, especially when ingredients such as eggs and meat are involved. What I'm talking about is giving the dish just a little time -- 30 to 60 minutes -- to compose itself; that allows the heat to dissipate and the flavors to come together.
I like the variety of food that can be served at room temperature. My first cookbook, which was on Italian soups and stews, included a chapter on summer recipes. Italians love rustic soups made with vegetables, legumes and grains or bread at any time of year, and in summer they serve these soups slightly warm, sprinkled with freshly grated cheese and drizzled with the best olive oil. As a soup lover, I can't imagine not taking advantage of the wonderful flavors that fresh summer vegetables add.
When I want to take a break from grilling, I make a light but really flavorful fish stew that calls for marinating a single large piece of swordfish overnight in the refrigerator with a mix of herbs, tomatoes and olives. The next day, the stew is simmered gently on the stovetop until it is just cooked through. In cooler months I serve the stew hot. But these days I let it sit off the heat for 30 to 45 minutes and then spoon it over grilled bread, such as bruschetta. The fish turns out moist and succulent and is infused with the flavors of its marinade. To anyone who is used to dry, over-grilled swordfish kebabs, this stew is a revelation.
Perhaps my favorite dish to serve at room temperature is a rice salad that was a specialty of my mother's eldest sister, Gilda. She never considered herself much of a cook, but my sister and I adored (and still do) her Insalata di Riso, a simple salad of arborio rice mixed with tuna, olives, capers and other piquant ingredients. I usually toss everything together, cover the salad and let it rest for about an hour before serving. At that point, the rice is just slightly warm and all the flavors seem to be at their fullest.
Often, I will serve one or two room-temperature dishes as part of a meal: fried or roasted bell peppers alongside a steak, for example. But sometimes it's fun to serve a whole meal in that way. The recipes included in the section today give you the option to choose. Served in generous portions, the rice salad is practically a meal in itself. But it also makes a nice first course, followed by fish stew, with either a stuffed pepper or some fried zucchini (or both) on the side.
You can carry the theme through dessert with a fresh fruit tart, such as the Apricot Crostata I've included, served barely warm -- though because it is summer, you certainly could not be faulted if you chose to top it off with a scoop of cold vanilla ice cream.
Domenica Marchetti, author of "The Glorious Soups and Stews of Italy," lives in Alexandria.