By Suzanne Dunaway
od forbid this is attributable to age, but lately I've been having trouble with crowded restaurants and loud noise. Pity. Missing out on Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan in Rome was not my plan, but what the heck; I'd seen them both years before and have a good CD system.
Still, the crowds in which I can still function well are the ones I invite for apero in France or aperitivo in Italy. A welcome change from long six-course dinners, especially in summer, an evening of small, made-ahead delights that appear when the hostess feels like serving them (or passing them to a guest to serve, always a great ice-breaker), leave me free to mingle.
The following quantities are for six.
The first trick is to put out really good olives and toasted nuts (which I buy raw, spritz with water, sprinkle with salt and oven toast at 190 C for 10-15 minutes), along with marinated radishes. Trim a bunch of radishes the day before, leaving little green stalks for handling, add the juice of a large lemon and sprinkle with a half teaspoon of salt. Refrigerate overnight, drain and serve with the olives, a nice contrast.
My second trick is to make a quick puréed soup, requiring no spoon. Use a blender or food processor to mix a sweet onion or tiny garlic clove, 6 very ripe tomatoes, 1 slice of toasted bread, a cup of fresh basil leaves plus a sprig of mint, a squeeze of lemon, and salt and pepper to taste. Blend until very smooth, and serve in coffee cups with a dash of olive oil in each. For a more refined soup, rub it through a sieve and add 1 cup of whole-milk yogurt to thin it, plus chopped basil or mint as a garnish.
Smoked salmon is my mainstay for aperitivi, but the trick here is to blend 250 grams of soft butter with a small jar of capers until very smooth. I buy small commercial toasts, spread them with my caper butter, and put slices of salmon or any smoked fish on top. Sprinkle with lemon and pepper before serving. These can easily be made at the last minute before guests arrive. Or wrap small pieces of melon with strips of smoked salmon and secure with a pick, salmonciutto e melone.
At my last gathering, I improvised a variation on brandade, the salt cod paste served in southern France. Boil three medium potatoes, peeled, in salted water until very tender. In a food processor, blend the potatoes, one can of very good tuna in olive oil (drain off the oil and add an ample dash of your best extra virgine to the mix), two sprigs each of mint and basil, one small sweet onion, the juice of a small lemon, and salt and pepper. Spread on crackers and serve. My guests went wild over this, as not everyone embraces salt cod (see my brandade recipe).
A good caponata, made ahead of time, is always a success: In a generous amount of extra virgin olive oil, sauté one large sweet onion (diced), three cloves garlic, one medium eggplant (diced, salted, and patted dry after 15 minutes), three stalks celery, and one small bulb of fennel. Cook until very soft, adding a little olive oil if necessary, then add 400 grams canned plum or cherry tomatoes, puréed, one coffee spoon of sugar, a dash of wine vinegar, a dash of balsamic vinegar, a few capers, and a very small peperoncino, crushed. Simmer for half-an-hour, let cool, and serve with toasts or crackers.
Sometimes I grate the rind of an Amalfi lemon into the mix.
In France, of course, one can put out the cheese board at the end of a gathering, so why not in Italy, too? A good cacciotta, tomino and a slice of gorgonzola are enough for anyone who is still hungry. But I’m sure there will be few.
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