One of the nicest things about an Italian meal, is nibbling on those delicious appetizers, munching on some good bread, sipping on wine and getting your taste buds ready for your main course. Antipasti, (literally meaning the things BEFORE the pasta dish), are easy to prepare beforehand, as they are usually dishes that need to marinate anyway. Make these a good 2-3 hours before your guests arrive and the flavors will intensify and improve in the meantime.
Here are a few suggestions for a quick and easy selection that I put together using one frying pan and a few simple and inexpensive ingredients. You can have these 4 tasty snacks prepared in way less than an hour. I kid you not.
Funghi Sfiziosi con Salsiccia Secca
The first thing I did was to heat up my grill pan nice and hot. Then I added a handful of sliced "dried" Italian sausage- or "salsiccia secca". This is a firm sausage, not quite a salami, but with a strong, salty flavor with hints of garlic and fennel, which I love to cook with. Drop it onto your pan and brown it slightly- this will cover the pan with enough fat for you to finish the two other dishes. Slice your mushrooms THICKLY- I mean, halve them and cut each half into 3 slices. Thicker slices mean you will have a firm and juicy bite of good mushroom flavor. Add a little rosemary and a good grinding of lemon pepper. Set them aside and move onto the next dish. That's right- the mushrooms are finished!
My whole "secret" here, is using the flavors in your ingredients to the full. The sausage will give your mushrooms a nice garlic note and they will both taste delicious when they are well browned and have some nice scorch-marks from your grill pan. Just keep doing what I'm doing- be lazy and let the food do the work for you!
This is a very simple version of the classic Sicilian Caponata. I did without the tomatoes to have a somewhat firmer texture and a "cleaner" flavor. I chopped the eggplant into small cubes and put them on one side of the pan and kept the celery, also in thin slices, a little separate. I wanted to make sure that the flavors didn't blend together, but that they remained distinct. I wanted this to be a slightly different animal to the classic dish. They should be ready after 6-7 minutes, after which I sprinkled them with finely chopped rosemary, thyme and some crushed garlic. Remove from the heat, add capers and black olives, a little olive oil... and move on to the third dish...
This particular selection of dishes relies on the heat of the grill-pan and the fat from the sausage, to give all of the other ingredients a smokey, strong flavor that enhances the individual flavors of the other vegetables. Sorry vegetarians- you can of course make all of these things without the sausage and just use oil... but they ain't gonna taste as good!
Zucca alla Griglia
These are the easiest, but by no means any less tasty as the others... Zucchini get such a bad rap for being bland and flavorless and it is a real shame. If you season them well, they are nice, juicy and mild additions that can be used in any number of ways. Cut the zucchini into decent slices- not too thin- you don't want them to fall apart... and PRESS them into the hot pan. Make them squeal. Literally. You will here the juices ooze out and sizzle on the pan. Now let them sit and scorch a little- and in the meantime sprinkle them with a hint of turmeric and cayenne and then flip them over and do the same to the other side. 2-3 minutes on each side should be plenty. Add some rosemary and a little salt at the end of the cooking time- this avoids the rosemary burning and the zucchini from softening up too much.
Ok- so you have earned the chance to relax after all of this fast-moving work at the stove top. Turn off the heat and let the pan soak. Have a glass of wine- knock yourself out! Not literally though... we still have one more dish to make... something fresh and light as a contrast to all of this grilled stuff...
Formaggio di Capra al Insalata
This is a simple "salad" made of goats cheese, spring onions, radishes, onions and thyme. Slice your spring onions and celery finely and sprinkle with lemon juice and a pinch of sugar and salt. Crumble the goats cheese up and mix with the radishes and onion, along with some freshly plucked thyme. Pepper to taste and add a little olive oil. The cheese is quite salty and needs no further seasoning- if fact, what I did was to add a drizzle of honey before serving... delicious!
This is a great way to start a sumptuous Summer meal... or you can always tell your guests you are not feeling well, grab yourself a chunk of crusty Italian bread and a nice glass of red wine... put your feet up- and enjoy a lazy evening of simple luxury on your own!