Antipasto misto, a colorful melange of seasonal Italian dishes that comprises the first course in a multi-course meal, is deceptively elegant and characteristically sensual.
Both in Italy and trend-setting American restaurants, it is quite common for diners to be greeted inside the door by assorted antipasti set out on plain white plates or in glass bowls. Because part of the eating pleasure is visual, cooks strive to offer a colorful palette to spark the taste buds.
Literally translated as "before the meal," antipasto should be assembled from a large array of hot and room-temperature dishes, and eaten in miniature-sized selections.
First are the crostini, pieces of close-textured Italian bread toasted and topped with the likes of chicken livers saute'ed with onions and marsala, then dressed with anchovies and capers, or slices of mozzarella, anchovies and olive oil, or an unctuous spread of gorgonzola, the creamy Italian blue cheese. For crostini, the bread is either fried or lightly toasted before being baked with the topping.
Platters of crostini are served hot, or just warm. In addition to the warm crostini, you may also encounter deep-fried squid, stuffed and fried zucchini flowers, or a warm salad of wild mushrooms to round out the selection of hot antipasti.
But it's the magnificent mixture of room-temperature dishes that are worthy of the premier position of antipasto. These are gently pungent, aromatic, herb-scented little tastes meant to stimulate and build the appetite toward the rest of the meal. As with all good cooking, the availability of ingredients largely determines what will be on the antipasto table. And spring is a luscious time to describe, and prepare, such a table.
In the beginning, we'll take meaty red and yellow peppers, broil or grill them to char the skins and deliver a slightly smoky flavor, then peel off the skin and soak strips of the vegetable in olive oil. This olive oil has been used to saute' a little chopped garlic, then it's made piquant with vinegar, salt and pepper. The strips look nice arranged in white rectangular plates, yellow strips overlapping red strips.
We'll steam asparagus, green beans and zucchini, make olive oil-based sauces for each, and one hour before serving set the vegetables to marinate in each dressing. Zucchini benefits from being bathed in freshly chopped mint, parsley (preferably flat leafed) and garlic; the rail-thin spring asparagus needs little tampering except to be doused with olive oil and lemon juice; and green beans, a bit hardier, take well to being combined with thin slivers of red onions.
Young spinach leaves, quickly stir-fried in olive oil and splashed with heady balsamic vinegar before being tossed with pine nuts and raisins, make a good pan-cooked antipasto dish.
To further enrich the offerings, you may include a bit of good pasta salad (one that, thankfully, does not use a creamy kind of dressing), an easy-going and light seafood salad, artichokes stuffed with garlic and parsley, and an eggplant appetizer familiarly known as caponata.
These delicious preparations are among the specialties of the restaurant Vincenzo and, at one time or another, can be found on the polished-steel antipasto cart at that establishment. Vincent MacDonald, owner of the restaurant, on 20th Street off Connecticut Avenue near Dupont Circle, has shared the recipes, and I have adapted them for the home kitchen.
The pasta salad with crab meat is a handsome blend of macaroni cooked to a gentle firmness, then sauced with a thin dressing of olive oil, lumps of crab meat, hot pepper flakes, salt and freshly ground black pepper. Snipped basil leaves and bits of diced ripe tomato finish off a dish that uses prime ingredients in perfect balance.
Both the eggplant and artichoke dishes are mild and fragrant, and greatly profit from being made ahead; it's easy and efficient to cook the artichokes and eggplant early in the day for the evening's antipasto table. The eggplant is fried in olive oil (likewise the onion and celery) before being stewed with a small amount of pure'ed plum tomatoes, capers, olives and vinegar. Frying the vegetables locks in the flavor and sweetens them at the same time, as the browning process lightly caramelizes the exterior of each vegetable. The artichokes are well trimmed of the coarse exterior leaves to leave the paler green leaves ready to be stuffed with a mixture of garlic, parsley and mint. These small bundles are then braised in water and some reserved stuffing mixture. I find it best to baste the artichokes continually, because that moisturizing sprinkle of liquid cooks the vegetable to a melting tenderness.
The seafood salad is built upon steamed mussels, clams, poached squid and shrimp. It is not loaded up with onions, celery or assertive herbs. Rather, the salad is a blend of seafood lightly touched with lemon juice, olive oil, salt, pepper and parsley. The one ingredient that binds all the flavors of the dish together is the boiled-down cooking liquid taken from the steaming of the mussels and clams.
Anytime you need a rich yet subtle taste for a seafood salad, boil down the strained cooking liquor of shellfish and add that to the olive oil dressing. It is likely you'll need to add less salt to the dish, as the reduced liquid tends to lend a natural briny flavor.
Most Italian groceries sell sharp, vinegary vegetable pickles, usually a combination of carrots, celery nuggets, cauliflowerets, tiny pickling cucumbers, green olives and so on. The vegetables are flavored with bay leaf, peppercorns, whole dried hot peppers and a little garlic. These are fun to have sitting round on the refrigerator shelf to add bite to the mellower antipasti. Serve a small bowl of these along with your antipasti. It's easy to make these pickles at home, when you can vary the kinds of vegetables you like.
Delicious as all of these dishes are individually, best by far is to have a selection for the antipasto table, sharp and vibrant balancing out the smoother and mellower tastes. The following are examples of just that combination, in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts: PEPPER SALAD (8 servings as part of an antipasto)
Roasting the peppers over an open flame (or on a charcoal grill) until the skins blister and char is the preferable method for preparing the vegetable for salad. A most satisfactory substitute, however, is to halve the peppers and broil them until the skins blacken, which is the method I've outlined below -- this method can be performed in any kitchen, any weather. 6 firm, meaty red peppers, or a mixture of red and golden peppers, halved 1/2 cup olive oil 2 garlic cloves, minced 3 tablespoons finely chopped parsley 4 tablespoons red wine vinegar 2 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano or 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano 1/4 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Place the peppers on a cookie sheet skin side up and grill the pepper halves under hot broiler until the skin is charred all over. Wrap the peppers in a brown paper bag, close tightly and set aside; the steam created will help to separate the skin from the pepper flesh.
In the meantime, place the oil and garlic in a small saucepan, place over moderately low heat and cook for 2 to 3 minutes or until the garlic is barely golden. Remove from the heat and stir in the parsley, vinegar, oregano and red pepper flakes.
Seed, core and peel the peppers; cut or tear the peppers into 2-inch-wide strips. In a bowl, layer the peppers with the flavored oil, sprinkling salt and pepper lightly on the layers as you go. Let stand at room temperature at least 1 hour before serving. ASPARAGUS WITH OIL AND LEMON (8 servings as part of an antipasto)
Spring-green asparagus, young and tender, is steamed, then bathed in a little olive oil and lemon juice, and seasoned only with salt and freshly cracked pepper. When asparagus is in season, this becomes one of the purest and best ways to enjoy the vegetable. 2 pounds fresh, firm asparagus 4 tablespoons olive oil Juice of 1 large lemon, strained Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Rinse the asparagus spears in cold water. Break or cut off the woody part of the stem. With a very sharp paring knife, take off a thin 1/16th-inch outer peel, starting from the bottom of the tip right down to the base.
Steam the asparagus until just cooked, about 5 minutes -- the stalks should be tender but still firm and not droopy if lifted up. Quickly refresh the asparagus under cold water, taking care not to mash the fragile tips. Remove the asparagus to several thicknesses of paper toweling to drain and cool off completely.
About one hour before serving, whisk together the olive oil and lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Arrange the asparagus in a wide shallow serving dish and pour over the oil and lemon mixture. Sprinkle a little more freshly ground pepper over top just before serving. WILTED SPINACH WITH RAISINS AND PINE NUTS (8 servings as part of an antipasto)
Here spinach is barely cooked in hot olive oil, then sprinkled with a little balsamic vinegar; at the end dark raisins and toasted pine nuts are stirred through the spinach. 1/3 cup olive oil 3 pounds tender young spinach leaves, trimmed of stems, washed and dried%T2 garlic cloves, finely chopped 1/4 cup moist, plump dark raisins 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar (available at some supermarkets and most specialty food stores) Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste Generous pinch freshly ground nutmeg 2 tablespoons pine nuts, lightly toasted
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet, and when it is hot, add the spinach and stir-cook until it just begins to wilt. Add the garlic, raisins, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper and continue cooking for about 1 minute or until the spinach is almost tender. Remove from the heat and season with the nutmeg. Turn the spinach into a bowl and let it cool.
After 1 hour, taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper as needed. Sprinkle the pine nuts over the top just before serving and gently stir them through. GREEN BEANS WITH RED ONIONS AND CAPERS (8 servings as part of an antipasto)
When you encounter the thinnest of beans, buy them up for this dish. Rail-thin haricot verts, available at specialty food stores, make a most luxurious salad -- but are quite expensive. 1 1/2 pounds fresh, firm green beans, trimmed 1/3 cup olive oil 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar 2 small garlic cloves, minced 1 tablespoon tiny capers, drained of brine Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste 1 small red onion, halved and thinly sliced
Steam the green beans until tender but still firm. Refresh the beans in cold running water. Drain the beans on several thicknesses of paper toweling.
Whisk together the olive oil, vinegar, garlic, capers, salt and pepper. Combine the green beans with the onion slices and toss with whisked mixture. Turn the beans into a serving dish and let stand for 1 hour before serving. MARINATED ZUCCHINI (8 servings as part of an antipasto)
This is a lively way to treat the small, thinnish zucchini. The vegetable is steamed, not boiled, and while still hot, tossed in a mint- and parsley-flavored olive oil mixture. 1 1/4 pounds fresh, firm small zucchini, well scrubbed and trimmed 1/4 cup olive oil 3 tablespoons white wine vinegar 2 garlic cloves, minced 3 tablespoons finely chopped parsley 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint leaves Salt and freshly ground white pepper, to taste
Steam the zucchini until just tender, about 4 minutes if the squash is quite young, a little longer if it is larger. The zucchini should be firm but not raw inside. With a pair of tongs, remove the zucchini to a side dish and let it sit for 3 minutes.
Whisk together the olive oil, vinegar, garlic, parsley and mint. Slice the zucchini into 1/2-inch disks and place in a bowl. Pour over the olive oil mixture. Season the zucchini with salt and pepper. Turn the zucchini in the dressing to combine and let stand for at least 1 hour before serving.
Variation: 2 teaspoons finely chopped drained capers may be added to the olive oil mixture along with the herbs. PENNE SALAD WITH CRAB MEAT (Vincenzo) (8 generous servings as part of an antipasto)
This pasta salad is a light, refreshing one -- it takes snowy fresh crab meat and combines it with quill-shaped durum wheat pasta, flecks of hot red pepper, fresh basil leaves, diced ripe tomato and olive oil, eschewing the use of mayonnaise or other egg-based dressing. It is lovely on its own as a summer luncheon dish and spoonfuls of it are awfully good on the antipasto plate. 1 pound penne rigate (preferably imported pasta such as De Cecco) 1/3 cup (approximately) plus 1 tablespoon olive oil 1 large garlic clove, peeled Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste 1 teaspoon, or more to taste, hot red pepper flakes 1/2 pound fresh (not pasteurized) lump or jumbo lump crab meat 15 small fresh basil leaves, gently torn into small pieces by hand 1 large ripe tomato, skinned, seeded and diced
Cook the pasta until just firm to the tooth in a large pot of generously salted boiling water (about 8 minutes). Drain the pasta well in a colander and set aside.
Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a small saute' pan, add the garlic clove and saute' 1 minute or until it turns a light golden color. Discard the garlic. Add the salt, black pepper, red pepper and crab meat; stir-cook for about 1 minute. Remove from the heat and let cool.
In a large bowl, combine the pasta, 1/3 cup oil, basil, diced tomatoes and crab meat mixture. Mix gently so as not to break up the big chunks of crab meat. Do not refrigerate. Serve decorated with whole, fresh basil leaves. EGGPLANT SALAD (Caponata) (Vincenzo) (8 generous servings as part of an antipasto)
This salad is a fine way to treat eggplant -- it's fried until golden, then combined with saute'ed celery, some piquant olives and capers, and everything is simmered in a small quantity of pure'ed plum tomatoes. 2 pounds eggplant, trimmed and sliced into 3/4-inch-thick slices Salt, preferably coarse (kosher) 3/4 cup good quality olive oil 9 tender stalks celery heart, cut into 3/4-inch lengths 1 large onion, halved and sliced 3/4 cup red wine vinegar 1 tablespoon sugar 1 1/2 cups canned plum tomatoes, drained, and pure'ed through the fine disk of a food mill 1 tablespoon capers, rinsed in cool water and dried on paper toweling 10 green Greek olives, rinsed in cool water, dried, halved and pitted Salt and freshly ground pepper
Place the unpeeled eggplant slices in a colander and generously sprinkle with coarse salt. Let the eggplant slices stand for about 45 minutes, or until they have "sweated out" the bitter juices. Drain the slices well on paper toweling and cut them into small 3/4-inch cubes.
Heat 1/2 cup olive oil in a large skillet over high heat and fry the eggplant cubes in the oil, in two portions, until golden in color. Remove the eggplant pieces to paper towels to drain with a slotted spoon. Add another 1/4 cup of olive oil, heat the skillet over a moderate flame, and stir in the celery. Stir-cook the celery for about 5 minutes, or until it turns a light golden color. Remove the celery with a slotted spoon to a large bowl. Add the eggplant to the bowl. In the same oil the celery was saute'ed in, stir in the sliced onions and cook them over moderate heat for 5 minutes or until they turn a light golden color. Remove the onions to the bowl of vegetables. Pour in the vinegar, bring to the boil and reduce by 1/3. Stir in the sugar, tomatoes, capers and olives. Season with salt and pepper. Cook for 10 minutes over moderately low heat, at a gentle simmer. Add the celery, eggplant and onions and cook for about 5 minutes more or until the eggplant is just tender. Cool to room temperature.
Adjust the seasoning of the caponata, adding additional salt and pepper as needed. Serve at room temperature.
Note: The caponata may be mounded on a platter and garnished with hard-cooked egg wedges and olive oil-packed tuna chunks, if you like. STUFFED ARTICHOKES (Vincenzo) (8 generous servings as part of an antipasto)
The sturdier, thicker outer leaves of whole artichokes are taken off so that the supple, tender inside leaves can be stuffed with a savory, but very simple, mixture of chopped garlic, parsley and mint. 6 medium-size artichokes 2 lemons, halved 2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped 1/2 cup parsley leaves, finely chopped 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint leaves (about 3 larges stalks) 1/2 cup olive oil, divided into 1/4-cup portions Salt for sprinkling 1 cup cold water
Peel back and remove the tough outer leaves of each artichoke; turn the artichoke on its side and cut off the top third. With a small paring knife, trim off the outer stalk and leaves at the base, leaving about 1 inch of the base remaining. Pry open the artichoke and remove the choke with a melon baller. Rub the cut parts, and insides, of all artichokes with the lemon halves, squeezing some of the lemon juice in the center of each artichoke. Place the artichokes in a large bowl of cold water with the lemon halves.
For the stuffing, combine the garlic, parsley, mint and 1/4 cup of the oil. In an ovenproof casserole large enough to hold all of the artichokes in one layer, spoon in half of the oil and herb mixture. Stuff the remaining half of the mixture between the leaves of the artichokes. Lightly salt the inside of the artichokes.
Place the artichokes right side up in the casserole, pour over the additional 1/4 cup oil and the cold water. Cover the pot and place over moderately high heat; bring the liquid to a boil. Transfer the casserole to the lower third level rack of a 325-degree oven and cook the artichokes for 30 to 45 minutes or until they are tender to the piercing of knife tip. Now and again, baste the artichokes with some of the liquid.
Cool the artichokes to room temperature, basting occasionally. Serve them at room temperature, quartered.
Note: As an alternative to oven cooking, the artichokes may be simmered on the stove top over moderately low heat until tender. SEAFOOD SALAD (Vincenzo) (8 servings as part of an antipasto)
This seafood salad is enhanced with the reduced cooking liquid of the mussels and clams. 18 mussels, well scrubbed 1/2 cup water 18 littleneck clams, well scrubbed
3/4 pound squid, interior portions cleaned out, outside de-skinned and tentacles cut off above the eyes, and reserved, the body of the squid cut into 1-inch rings 4 cups water blended with the juice of 1 large lemon 18 large shrimp, left unpeeled 1/4 cup (approximately) extra virgin olive oil Juice of 1/2 large lemon, strained Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste 2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
Put the mussels in a large, heavy casserole with 1/2 cup water, cover, and place over high heat; cook until the mussels have opened, about 4-5 minutes. Remove the mussels with a slotted spoon to a large side dish. Add the clams, cover, and cook over high heat until they have opened, about 8 minutes. Remove the clams to a side dish to cool.
Strain the mussel-clam liquid through a cheesecloth-lined sieve into a small saucepan and reduce the liquid to 4 tablespoons. Remove the clams and mussels from the shells, place them in a bowl, and pour over the reduced liquid; set aside.
Place the squid and water (with lemon juice) in a large saucepan (about 8 quart capacity); bring the liquid to a rapid simmer, then cover and simmer the squid until tender, about 25 to 30 minutes. Remove the squid, drain well, and add to the shellfish (mussels and clams). In the same water, add the shrimp and simmer for 2 minutes. Cool the shrimp, then peel and devein them. Add the shrimp to the other seafood.
Pour the oil over the seafood and add the lemon juice. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper and stir together with the reduced clam-mussel liquor, combining everything well. Fold in the chopped parsley. Serve at room temperature, or refrigerate, covered, for half a day before serving; serve the salad at cool room temperature. VINEGARY VEGETABLE PICKLES (12 servings as part of an antipasto) 4 cups of water 3 cups of distilled white vinegar 2 teaspoons coarse (kosher) salt 6 cups mixed vegetables (carrots, celery nuggets, cauliflowerets, tiny pickling cucumbers, green olives, and so on), peeled and cut into bite-size pieces 4 cups of white wine vinegar 1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns 2 bay leaves 3 whole dried hot red peppers or 2 fresh serrano chili peppers 3 peeled garlic cloves 1 cup green olives
Bring water and 3 cups of vinegar to boil with salt. Add vegetables and boil for 2 minutes. Drain vegetables and discard the liquid. Boil 4 cups of white wine vinegar with whole black peppercorns, bay leaves, whole dried hot-red peppers or fresh serrano chili peppers, and peeled garlic cloves. Add vegetables and boil for 1 minute. Cool, add green olives, and refrigerate for at least 1 day.