The Italians cope with summer cooking better than anyone. All those colorful vegetable salads spiced with olives, anchovy and capers make meats, even poultry, seem superfluous. Summer means the taste of olive oil, fruity but light, with lemon as the perfect counterpoint.
With Italy in mind, I called my friend Henry Grossi, who holds down a stove at Time/Life Books, where he is helping create the new "Healthy Home Cooking" series.
Though he is tempted by French and oriental cuisine, to Grossi good home cooking has to be Italian. "All those lovely antipasti," he said, happily settling into a favorite subject. "They make a wonderful summer buffet spread on their own, though you can add some salami, mortadella or prosciutto if you want."
Plotting a perfect lunch, we began with caponata based on eggplant fried in oil, then simmered with celery, capers and olives until dark and rich. "The sweet-sour tomato and vinegar flavoring is typical of Sicily," remarked Grossi. "As for those so-called Sicilian stuffed tomatoes you're suggesting, peas are Venetian, beans are Florentine, tomatoes are ubiquitous; you have a bit of everything there."
Casting around for a contrast, we settled on a salad of cucumber, fennel and radishes dressed simply with lemon and oil and plenty of fresh mint. The same basic seasonings with a different herb turn up again in the shellfish salads beloved of all Italian cooks. Mussels, scampi, squid and clams are plainly cooked, then marinated with lemon, olive oil and quantities of chopped Italian parsley. Indeed, one of the revelations of Italian cooking is how vivid and fresh good ingredients can taste with the simplest of seasonings.
In the same tradition are focacce, fragrant fresh breads flavored with herbs, coarse salt, nuts or spicy sausage. Shallow and round, resembling a plain pizza, they are the perfect accompaniment to antipasti of any kind. Made only with flour, water and a touch of olive oil, they are given a particular zesty lightness by an extra dose of yeast.
After such a spread, we agreed to skip thoughts of a main course and head straight for dessert. Italy's greatest sweet gift to the western world is surely ice cream, at its best flavored with pistachio.
Extracting the full flavor from pistachios is not easy and, after some experimentation, I've found the best method is to grind the nuts to a paste with cream, then infuse them with hot milk before making a custard. Even Grossi, an exacting critic, had to admit its excellence when a shimmering pale green bowl was placed before him.
Timetable How reassuring to have a timetable that leaves the last hour before serving almost entirely free.
Up to 6 weeks ahead: Make ice cream and store in freezer.
Up to 2 days ahead: Make caponata and refrigerate. Cook tomatoes and keep in refrigerator.
In the morning: Make bread dough, flavor, leave to rise and refrigerate. Make cucumber and fennel salad and chill. Set the table. Chill the wine.
Two hours before serving: Heat oven to 400 degrees and start baking breads.
One hour before serving: Make shellfish salad and refrigerate. Let tomatoes and caponata come to room temperature.
Just before serving: Add mint and complete cucumber salad.
CAPONATA (Salad of Sweet Sour Eggplant) (6 servings if served alone) Mild mellow wine vinegar is important for this salad and a handful of pine nuts is a good addition.
1 1/2 pounds eggplants, diced with the skin
Salt and pepper to taste
1/3 cup olive oil
6 stalks celery, cut in 1/2-inch slices
2 onions, sliced
4 tablespoons tomato paste
1 tablespoon sugar
1 cup red wine vinegar
4 tablespoons capers
3/4 cup (3 ounces) pitted black olives
Sprinkle eggplant with salt and leave 30 minutes to draw out bitter juices. Rinse with cold water and pat dry on paper towels.
Meanwhile, heat half the oil in a frying pan, add celery and fry until brown. Lift out, add onion and fry until brown also. Lift out and add to celery. Heat remaining oil in pan, add eggplant and fry briskly until tender and brown. Add to other vegetables.
Put tomato paste and sugar in pan and stir in vinegar. Add capers and olives and stir in fried vegetables. Season with plenty of pepper and cook until vegetables are soft and dark, 15 to 20 minutes, stirring often. Let cool, then taste for seasoning.
Caponata can be kept up to 2 days in the refrigerator and flavor mellows on standing. Serve it at room temperature.
POMODORI ALLA SICILIANA (Sicilian Baked Tomatoes) (6 servings as a first course)
Good hot or cold.
12 medium tomatoes
1 1/4 cups (5 ounces) pitted black olives, chopped
3 tablespoons capers, drained
1/2 cup cooked green peas
2 1/2 cups cooked dry white beans
3 ounces fresh parmesan, coarsely grated
2 tablespoons chopped oregano
1 clove garlic, crushed
Ground black pepper and salt to taste (optional)
1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs
2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil for sprinkling
Cut off tops of tomatoes and discard; scoop out seeds with a teaspoon. Sieve seeds in a strainer to extract juice; reserve 1/2 cup.
Mix olives, capers, peas, beans, cheese, oregano, garlic and tomato juice with black pepper to taste. Salt may not be needed if olives or cheese is salty. Fill mixture into tomatoes, mounding it well, and top with bread crumbs. Set tomatoes in an oiled baking dish and sprinkle with olive oil. Bake in a 375-degree oven until just tender and tops begin to brown, 25 to 30 minutes.
The tomatoes can be kept in the refrigerator up to 2 days. Serve them hot or at room temperature.
INSALATA DI CETRIOLI, FINOCCHI E RAFANO (Salad of Cucumber, Fennel and Radish) (6 servings if served alone)
A crisp and cooling combination.
1 large cucumber
1 pound root fennel
6 ounces red radishes, trimmed
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup olive oil
1 clove garlic, crushed
Salt and ground black pepper to taste
Small bunch of mint
Halve cucumber lengthwise and scoop out seeds if large. Set cucumber on board cut side down, halve lengthwise and then cut crosswise into 1/4-inch slices. Thinly slice fennel and divide in strips. Cut half a dozen radishes as roses and soak in ice water so petals open; thinly slice the rest.
Toss all vegetables with lemon juice, then add oil, garlic, salt and pepper and toss again. Taste for seasoning and leave to marinate 1 hour and up to 4 hours in refrigerator. Strip 8 to 10 leaves from mint stems and chop coarsely, reserving sprigs.
Just before serving, mix chopped mint with salad, pile in a bowl and decorate with mint sprigs and drained radish roses.
INSALATA DI FRUTTA DI MARE E FUNGHI (Salad of Shellfish and Mushrooms) (6 servings if served alone)
The shrimp and mussels in this recipe can be replaced by scallops and clams. Poach the scallops in 2 to 3 tablespoons white wine just until they lose their transparency; cook clams like mussels.
1 pound mushrooms, thickly sliced
5 anchovy fillets, chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
5 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup olive oil
3 pounds mussels
3/4 pound cooked baby shrimp
Salt and pepper to taste
3 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley
Gently mix mushrooms with anchovy, garlic, lemon juice and half the olive oil. Cover and leave to marinate 1/2 to 1 hour.
Meanwhile, wash mussels under running water, scrubbing to remove weed. Discard any that do not close when tapped. Put mussels in a large pot, cover and cook over high heat, stirring once, just until they open, about 5 minutes. Let cool slightly, then shell them, discarding the tough outer ring. Discard any mussels that have not opened in the heat.
Gently stir mussels and shrimp into mushrooms with remaining oil, salt, pepper and parsley. Taste for seasoning, adding more lemon juice if needed. The salad can be kept in the refrigerator up to an hour.
FOCACCIA (Seasoned Bread) (Makes two 12-inch loaves)
To satisfy hearty appetites, make two batches of bread, using all four of the flavor variations.
8 cups flour, more if needed
2 teaspoons ground black pepper
3 cups lukewarm water
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 ounces compressed yeast or 3/4 ounces dry yeast
Seasonings (see below)
Sift flour with pepper onto a board or marble slab and make a well in the center. Add water and oil, sprinkle over the yeast and leave until dissolved, about 5 minutes. Holding a pastry scraper in one hand, with your finger tips gradually mix flour into yeast mixture to make a paste. Work in remaining flour with pastry scraper and press dough into a ball. It should be soft, but if sticky, add more flour.
Flour the board and knead the dough until smooth and elastic, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer it to an oiled bowl, flipping ball of dough so top is oiled also. Cover with a wet cloth and leave in a warm place until double in bulk, 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Brush 2 baking sheets with olive oil.
Knead dough lightly to knock out air and divide in half. Flavor and roll each portion of dough as described. Cover with wet cloths and leave in a warm place until almost doubled in bulk, 3/4 to 1 hour. Note: It will spread somewhat on the baking sheet. The bread can be refrigerated up to 2 hours before baking.
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Bake breads one at a time until brown, 20 to 25 minutes. Serve warm, as soon as possible after baking.
Focaccia Alla Salvia (Sage Bread): Into one portion dough knead 1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh sage. Roll to a 10-inch round, brush with olive oil. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon coarse salt just before baking.
Focaccia Alla Salsicce (Sausage Bread): Into one portion dough knead 5 ounces coarsely chopped pepperoni sausage and 1 teaspoon salt. Roll to a 10-inch round, brush with oil, and if you like, sprinkle with 2 teaspoons red pepper flakes.
Focaccia Al Scarole (Escarole Bread with Garlic): Divide one small head escarole into leaves. Blanch in boiling salted water 2 minutes, drain, rinse with cold water and drain again. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in pan, add escarole, 2 crushed cloves garlic, salt and black pepper and cook, stirring, until escarole is thoroughly wilted and all moisture has evaporated. Let cool, chop finely and taste -- it should be quite peppery.
Knead 1 teaspoon salt into dough and divide in half. Roll to a 10-inch round and set on baking sheet. Spread escarole mixture almost to edge of dough and sprinkle with 1 ounce grated parmesan cheese. Roll remaining dough to an equal round, lift on top of escarole, press edges together to seal and brush with olive oil.
Focaccia Al Noci (Walnut Bread): Divide dough in half and roll to a 10-inch round. Transfer to baking sheet, brush with walnut or olive oil and sprinkle with 3/4 cup walnut pieces and 1 teaspoon coarse salt. Roll out remaining dough to an equal round, lift on top of walnuts, press down lightly and brush with walnut or olive oil.
GELATO DI PISTACCHI (Pistachio Ice Cream) (Makes 2 quarts)
Excellent with amaretti cookies or macaroons.
7 ounces pistachios
2 cups whipping cream
1 quart milk
10 egg yolks
1 1/3 cups sugar
Pour boiling water over pistachios, leave to soak 5 minutes, drain and peel them. Work nuts with 5 to 6 tablespoons cream in a blender or food processor to a smooth paste. Scald milk with pistachio paste, cover and leave to infuse over low heat, 15 to 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, whisk egg yolks and sugar until thick and light, about 2 minutes. Strain milk into egg yolk mixture, pressing well to extract all juice from nuts. Stir to mix, return custard to the pan and heat gently, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until custard thickens slightly and a finger drawn across back of the spoon leaves a clear trail. (Note: Do not boil or the custard will curdle.) At once take from heat and strain into a cold bowl.
Let custard cool, then chill over ice or in refrigerator. Whip remaining cream until it holds a soft shape, stir into ice cream and freeze it in a machine or churn until firm, 5 to 10 minutes.
Transfer ice cream to a chilled bowl, cover and freeze at least 6 hours. It can be stored in freezer up to 6 weeks.
To serve: shape balls of ice cream with a scoop and pile in chilled individual bowls.