It's a particularly American expectation that the food be served either piping hot or ice cold, and this is not unreasonable. For one thing, food in either state is least likely to poison us. We also know that if the sauce of a dish is still bubbling or the soup we're about to eat is hot enough to cause blisters, they haven't been sitting around the kitchen.
The problem is that food at either extreme is difficult to taste. Until our soup cools a bit its subtle flavors are lost. A frosty beer might be right for a hot day, but if you like the flavor of beer it's best drunk at 50 degrees -- cool but not cold. There may be nothing more flavorless or unnecessary than a freezing cold tomato, yet until recently a lot of us made salads that would numb your teeth and many restaurants still do. Any roast is better when it sits for 30 minutes, and it's perhaps best when barely warm.
Because of our notions about food temperature we overlook the fact that some dishes are most delicious neither hot nor cold, but at room temperature, and that they're perfectly safe to serve that way provided precautions are taken.
There's little danger and a lot more pleasure in eating a salad of room-temperature greens and parboiled vegetables tossed before serving in an oil and vinegar dressing. Cooked meats or roasted fowl can be wonderful at room temperature, and may be cooked the day they're to be served and simply allowed to cool before carving; or they may be cooled a day ahead, refrigerated, and brought to room temperature.
Aside from their flavor, room-temperature dishes are practical for entertaining. They can be prepared ahead and put on the table whenever you want. Since many cultures have always considered this a reasonable way to feed people there's no lack of dishes to choose from. Italian antipasti are familiar examples. While a few should be hot, most antipasti are set out in restaurants in Italy as a mouth-watering display for arriving patrons.
Knowing our penchant for removing directly from the refrigerator to the table any dish that is not to be served steaming hot, Marcella Hazan, the noted cooking teacher, stresses after most of the antipasti recipes in her cookbooks that they be served room temperature, or if prepared ahead and refrigerated, they must be brought to room temperature.
The dishes listed as "cold" or "cold platters" at the top of a Chinese menu usually aren't cold dishes the way we think of them; they simply aren't hot. These traditionally include hand-shredded chicken "salads," jellyfish dishes, aromatic beef shin or lamb, and noodles with a sauce of sesame seed paste.
In Japan vegetables, seafood and poultry are tossed in an array of dressings for the beautifully composed dishes known as sunomono and aemono, which are served room temperature. Room-temperature Middle Eastern dishes can be found under "salads" on English menus. In Morocco these encompass uncommon combinations such as oranges with olives, beets with paprika or even lambs' brains with preserved lemons.
In India there are chats, salad-like concoctions of potatoes or fruit mixtures served neither hot nor cold. In fact, Indian dishes with vegetables that can stand more than a few minutes' cooking time (such as potatoes, cauliflower, string beans and okra) are cooked in oil rather than butter, and are as good when they cool as when they're eaten hot.
Eggplant dishes of any culture cooked in a fine oil needn't be hot to be enjoyed. (I stress oil as a cooking medium for any dish later to be cooled since animal fat or butter congeals, and isn't very appetizing.)
For those afraid of what guests might think about eating room-temperature food, I can only say that if a dish is delicious this won't be a problem, providing the dish, if it's cooked first, is thoroughly cooled. A lukewarm dish will suggest that it should be hot. Also, because some of the dishes at a dinner party or buffet are room temperature doesn't mean all of them must be. Room temperature just provides an attractive alternative to hot and chilled.
While a lot of hot foods cool down to equally delicious room-temperature dishes, many, including chowders and most soups, the majority of deep-fried foods and stews with fatty meats, must be hot to be enjoyed. By the same token some dishes require refrigeration to set or maintain a desired consistency.
There are also foods that spoil faster at room temperature and should not be used in the sauces or dressings of dishes that will be sitting out for any length of time. These include mayonnaise and dairy products. This does not mean any dish with mayonnaise need be served ice cold. The main ingredients of the dish -- vegetables, fruit, cooked seafood, etc. -- may be room temperature and the mayonnaise or mayonnaise dressing kept refrigerated, then tossed with the ingredients right before serving.
Oils used in dressings with vinegar or lemon juice are safe sitting for a couple of hours with raw or cooked vegetables and cooked meats and seafood. Some dishes in fact benefit from marinating an hour or two, while others, and these include salads with delicate greens, should be tossed at the last minute. STUFFED BREAST OF VEAL IN PARCHMENT (Petto Di Vitello in Cartoccio) (8 servings)
Carlo Middione, owner-chef of Vivande Porta Via in San Francisco, was happy to contribute this veal recipe, which is ideal for a holiday buffet since it's delicious served room temperature, sliced like a pa te'. When told it was to be for an article on room-temperature foods Middione mentioned that Americans who have eaten fine meals in Italy in restaurants and homes are often astounded by the endless parade of memorable dishes. By way of explaining how this can be done, he has had them recall that with the exception of the soup and the pasta, which must be piping hot, many of the other dishes were probably room temperature, which is perfectly permissible in good Italian cooking.
4-pound breast of veal, whole, boned by the butcher or you may bone it yourself
1 pound ground veal
2 ounces pork fat, chopped
1 small yellow onion, chopped and saute'ed until light golden in 2 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup bread crumbs
1/2 cup grated parmesan or romano cheese
1 bunch green swiss chard or 2 bunches spinach, cooked and chopped
1/3 cup fresh or frozen tiny peas
1/3 cup shelled pistachios
1 teaspoon dried marjoram or 1 sprig fresh
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme or 1 sprig fresh
2 teaspoons salt or to taste
1 teaspoon or more black pepper
6 quail eggs, hard-cooked and shelled (optional)
1/4 cup veal or chicken stock
1/3 cup marsala wine
Cut the veal breast meat from the rib bones if you haven't had your butcher do it, and save the ribs for stock or soup. In a large bowl, mix the ground veal, pork fat, saute'ed onion, bread crumbs, cheese, chard, 2 eggs, peas, pistachios, marjoram, thyme, salt and pepper. To adjust the seasonings if necessary, saute' a teaspoon or two of the stuffing until cooked, and taste.
Lay the veal breast with the cut side up lengthwise in front of you. Put the stuffing lengthwise down the center of the veal breast to within an inch of each end. The stuffing should resemble a sausage roll. If the quail eggs are used, push them into the stuffing at random.
The veal breast now must be rolled like a jelly roll. First, fold the left and right flaps of the veal breast -- the short sides -- just over the stuffing mixture, and continue rolling the meat into a loaf. Tie the veal roll at 2-inch intervals with a kitchen string.
Generously butter a parchment paper that is at least 2 by 2 1/2 feet, and carefully place the veal roll in the center of it. Sprinkle the roll with the stock and marsala. Fold the parchment paper, one long edge at a time, over the veal roll and smooth it out. Fold the ends of the paper neatly under the roll, making sure it is well sealed, and place the roll in a shallow greased baking pan. Bake at 350 degrees for about 1 1/2 hours. Remove the roll from the oven and allow to sit covered until it reaches room temperature, 2 to 3 hours. This is also delicious made a day or two ahead and refrigerated. It must sit at room temperature 2 to 3 hours to warm up. Slice it as you would a pa te', and dot it with some of the flavorful natural gelatin you'll find inside the package. HAND-SHREDDED EGGPLANT (4 to 6 servings)
Eggplant dishes, from France's ratatouille to Italy's caponata to the myriad dishes of the Middle East and Asia, are especially good at room temperature. This Chinese "salad" is excellent as part of a western dinner or buffet.
2 1-pound eggplants
3 tablespoons light soy sauce
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons dry sherry
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon minced ginger
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 scallion, green part included, finely minced
In a covered wok with a rack, or a steamer, steam the eggplants for 20 minutes. Remove to cool; they should be slightly collapsed. Combine the soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, salt and sherry, and mix until the sugar dissolves. Heat the vegetable oil in a small pan and add the garlic and ginger. Cook briefly until fragrant, and stir in the soy sauce-vinegar mixture. Bring just to a boil, then remove from the heat and allow to cool.
When the eggplants are cool enough to handle, cut them into 1 1/2-inch lengths, and pull them apart into shreds about 1/4 inch thick. (This takes a little time but the resulting texture is worth it.) The skin of the eggplant, if it's tender, may be shredded with a knife and added. The eggplant shreds can sit in a bowl until ready to serve.
Just before serving, drain any liquid that has accumulated around the eggplant shreds, toss them with the sauce and sesame oil, and serve garnished with the minced scallion. NEW POTATOES WITH PEAS AND CORIANDER (6 servings)
This simply made Indian dish requires no unusual ingredients, and makes an unusual, spicy potato salad when served room temperature.
6 new potatoes, about 1 1/2 pounds
1/4 cup peanut or vegetable oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon minced ginger
2 small red chili peppers, minced
1/2 cup fresh coriander (cilantro) leaves
1 teaspoon salt or more
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 teaspoons coriander
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/3 cup water
1/2 cup fresh or frozen peas
Dice the potatoes with the skin into 1/2-inch cubes. Put them in water until ready to use.
Heat the oil in a skillet. Drain the potatoes and add them to the skillet. Stir for a minute, and add the cumin seeds. Cook, stirring, for another 2 minutes. Add the turmeric, garlic, ginger and chilies, and stir for another 2 minutes.
Add the remaining ingredients, except the peas, lower the heat, cover and simmer for 15 minutes, checking from time to time. Add more water if necessary. After 15 minutes add the peas, turn up the heat and cook, stirring, until most of the liquid is gone. Allow to cool. Just before serving, give the dish a quick stir. This may be prepared ahead, refrigerated and brought to room temperature. SWEET POTATOES WITH SAFFRON (8 servings)
Although this closely resembles an American holiday dish, in Morocco this is eaten as a premeal salad.
2 pounds sweet potatoes
1 pinch saffron threads soaked in 1/4 cup hot water
2 tablespoons sweet butter
3 tablespoons peanut oil
1 1/2 teaspoons salt or to taste
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger or 1 tablespoon fresh, minced
1/2 cup brown sugar
Minced parsley for garnish
Peel and cut the potatoes into 16 to 20 pieces. Add these to a skillet with the rest of the ingredients except the parsley, and cook over medium heat, stirring until the butter melts. Cover and turn the heat to low. Simmer for 20 minutes, stirring from time to time. (You needn't add liquid.) When the potatoes begin to fall apart, continue to cook, mashing them, until the sauce is syrupy. Allow to cool, garnish with the parsley and serve.