By Nancy Olah
Have you ever agonized over what to serve as a first course for a special meal?
Case in point. Our son, Nick, wanted to have a few close friends over to celebrate his 23rd birthday this past Saturday. He chose ravioli as the main course – and what goes well before the pasta? The antipasti, of course!
I used to think that antipasto (or its plural, antipasti) meant “before the pasta.” Duh!! It actually means “before the meal” and provides an opportunity to make an infinitely flexible and appealing mix of textures, colors, and flavors that stimulate your appetite for the meal to come.
In my home you’d never find the cured meats like salami or prosciutto that are in many restaurant antipasto courses. Instead, I created a variety of dishes – all of which were simple, delicious, and meatless. And although I was the only non-meat eater at the table, I’d venture to say that no one went home hungry or missed the meat!
So, this is a little different from my normal posts, because I want to share easy and interesting ideas for antipasto that you may not have considered.
My big centerpiece platter was going for the colors of the Italian flag – but obviously I should have put the roasted cauliflower in the center and ditched the yellow tomatoes in amongst the red. No matter – each of the three dishes was delicious.
On the left is the oven roasted cauliflower. Simply drizzle your flowerets with a tablespoon or two of rosemary infused olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and roast them on a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet in a 475 degree oven for about 20 minutes, covered with non-stick aluminium foil. At the end of 20 minutes, remove the top foil, turn the flowerets, and put them back in the hot oven for another 10 minutes. The beauty of this ultra simple recipe is that the cauliflower can be happily roasting while you make your tomato and mozzarella salad.
No, this isn’t a traditional caprese salad because the tomatoes available in the market right now are not local but are still coming from Florida. To make up for that loss of local freshness, I mixed Italian plum tomatoes with yellow grape tomatoes, added some ciliegine mozzarella balls, fresh basil, capers, extra virgin olive oil, a little basil and garlic infused olive oil, sea salt, freshly ground pepper, and a splash of white wine vinegar.
On the right is a fava bean and goat cheese salad from a recipe by Marcella Hazan from Marcella’s Italian Kitchen. Don’t even ask how long and tedious a process it is to cook fresh fava beans and how much waste in terms of the shells and skins will end up on your compost pile. Just do yourself a favor and buy them if you see ever them in the market. They are big ugly pods with a fuzzy white interior which each yield only two or maybe three beans if you’re lucky. You’ll need about three pounds of beans to make two cups of shelled fava beans. (Yes, you read that right!) After you shell the beans, you’ll need to blanch them in boiling water for about 2-3 minutes, and then slip off the skins. It seems like this should be an easy process, but it actually takes a very, very long time.
However, the end result is totally worth it. Fava beans should not be relegated to a Hannibal Lector joke. They have a delicious fresh taste reminiscent of edamame, but uniquely their own.
Next up was a thinly shaved cucumber, red pepper,and lemon salad, seasoned with lots of black pepper . . .
Bruschetta with shallot and dill goat cheese, and a black olive and feta tapenade . . .
And the spicy melon balls which are one of my hands’ down favorite, easy antipasti. Just use a melon scooper to make balls, sprinkle with red pepper flakes, and add a teaspoon or two of fig balsamic vinegar. Let them rest in the fridge for a couple of hours, and put them in a pretty bowl. The heat of the red pepper flakes will fire up your guests’ taste buds when contrasted with the sweetness of the cantaloupe. Everyone always loves this antipasto, and is always surprised at how simple it is to make!
Three types of Rio Bertolini ravioli served as our pasta course. Spinach feta ravioli with their chardonnay, leek, and picholini olive butter is in the back, and up front I’ve mixed the pear gorgonzola ravioli with butternut squash, gorgonzola, and walnut ravioli, accented by my own brown butter sage and sauce.
We finished up with a Black Forest Cake that Nick has been jonesing to make for more birthdays than I can count. I warned him that the 45-50 minute prep time in the recipe was laughably inadequate, and although our finished product doesn’t look very much like the picture in Anne Willan’s Look & Cook volume on Chocolate Deserts, we were still pretty darn proud of it.
Certainly not the most beautiful cake I’ve ever seen, but it was made with lots of love and laughs by me and the handsome young man who I proudly call my son.
How many 23 year olds would choose to spend their birthday cooking their own birthday meal with their mom?
Happy Birthday, Nick!