Entertain With Ease

Stracciatella Gelato Photo by Dan Kacvinski

We love entertaining friends. The process is easy: We check our calendar, pick a date and discuss whom to invite, usually eight to 10 guests. It is fun to mix couples who have the same interests but have never met.

At our last dinner party, we bought white cotton fabric to use as tablecloths and had a large selection of crayons and markers available. We then asked everyone to draw their own place setting. Each guest drew the most amazing artwork, and when they finished, we set the table for dinner. We kept these tablecloths and use them for special events.

There is always a theme for the meal, usually Italian, dairy or seafood. We begin with appetizers in the living room; homemade pizza is always a favorite. Toppings can vary — a classic Pizza Margherita with tomato sauce and cheese or an Onion-Anchovy Pizza, a specialty of the Italian Riviera. I prepare the sautéed onions and the pizza dough a couple of hours in advance. Then I roll out the dough, top it with the onions and anchovies and bake it so it’s hot and crisp when guests arrive.

Because fava beans grow in our vegetable garden at this time of year, we serve them as a first course, often in a cappuccino cup with diced fresh pecorino cheese, olive oil, salt and pepper. For a special treat, combine cannellini beans with salmon caviar; in Europe, it’s called “Rich Man, Poor Man.”

Plan a soup that can be made in advance and heated just before serving, or prepare a salad that can be put together earlier in the day and combined with your favorite dressing just before serving. The Watermelon and Tomato Salad is ideal, as the ingredients can be combined ahead of time and tossed with a balsamic and olive oil at the last minute.

Remember to select your plates for each course, and have them stacked and ready to go.

Although some courses are last-minute, have all the ingredients available and prepped. If serving a pasta dish, have the sauce pre-made; then all you have to do is boil the pasta and combine just before serving. Be sure to heat shallow bowls for the pasta course.

Often we will serve several small plates, similar to a tasting menu, and include a delicious dessert to finish the meal. One of my favorite desserts is Stracciatella Gelato (vanilla chocolate chip). If you don’t have time to make it at home, purchase a good-quality gelato. I always include biscotti that are easy to make and contain no butter or olive oil. Serve them alongside the gelato.

Before our guests leave, I love taking a group photo. Even at the most serious dinner party, the guests become a little rowdy, act silly and make funny faces as they pose. The evening always ends on a happy note.

The next day, a copy of the menu, with the date and guests’ names, is added to a notebook that I have been keeping for more than 30 years. It comes in handy, especially when we are planning our next dinner party and don’t want to duplicate the same dishes for our guests.

All recipes are from “Italy Cooks” by Judy Zeidler.

(From “Italy Cooks” by Judy Zeidler)
Driving down a country road in Italy, we would often come across a stand selling watermelons. You could buy a slice and eat it on the spot or take a whole watermelon home. When we were living in Pietrasanta, there was wild excitement over Italy winning the World Cup. I remember one young man wearing a jersey with red, white and green stripes (the Italian flag) riding his motorcycle while holding a big slice of watermelon (also red, white and green), rubbing it all over his face to express his joy.
3 cups tomatoes, cut in 1/2-inch cubes
3 cups watermelon, cut in 1/2-inch
2 tablespoons minced fresh basil
3 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
to taste
Pomegranate seeds
Gently toss the diced tomatoes, watermelon and basil in a large bowl. Toss with balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and salt and pepper just before serving.
Spoon onto salad plates and sprinkle with pomegranate seeds.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
This dish, a specialty of Florence, is often called “Rich Man, Poor Man” because beans are considered a poor man’s dish, while caviar, being so expensive, is obviously a rich man’s choice. Whatever you call it, this recipe is an unusual blend of two contrasting flavors and makes a really different appetizer or first course.
2 cups dried cannellini beans
or 2 cans (15 ounces each)
cannellini beans
7 tablespoons olive oil
3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
to taste
3 ounces beluga, sevruga
or salmon egg caviar
If using dried beans: Soak the beans overnight in a bowl of cold water. The next morning, drain the beans and rinse them under cold running water. Place them in a large, heavy saucepan; add 4 tablespoons olive oil, garlic and rosemary. Add enough cold water to cover the beans by 1 inch. Cover and simmer 1 to 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally, until tender. Add additional water as needed. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cool.

If using canned beans: Place the beans and their liquid in a pot. Add 4 tablespoons olive oil, garlic and rosemary. Add water, if needed, to cover the beans. Cover and simmer 5 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to avoid sticking. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cool.
To serve: Spoon the cooked beans into individual dishes or cups, drizzle with the remaining 3 tablespoons oil, and top with caviar. Serve cold or room temperature.
Makes about 6 servings.

Spaghetti With Halibut Ragu Photo by Dan Kacvinski

In restaurants on the Italian Riviera, a dish called pissaladiere is often served as an antipasto. It consists of a thinly rolled pizza dough topped with a rich and savory mixture of slow-cooked onions and garlic, garnished with pungent anchovies and olives, and drizzled with olive oil. This is a great way to wake up your taste buds.
Basic Pizza Dough (recipe follows)
5 tablespoons olive oil
2 pounds (3 large) onions, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
to taste
1 can (2-ounces) anchovy fillets,
1 cup chopped olives (optional)
Preheat oven to 450 F.
Prepare the Basic Pizza Dough.
Heat 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Reduce heat to low, cover, and cook for 30 minutes. Stir occasionally to avoid sticking. Do not allow onions to brown.

Roll out pizza dough. Place onion mixture on the pizza round. Arrange anchovies in a circular pattern. Add olives on top, if desired. Sprinkle with remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil.
Bake for 30 minutes or until golden brown.
Makes 12 servings.

Prepare this basic pizza dough, roll it out, and select your own toppings: sliced onions, anchovies, sliced mushrooms, sliced zucchini, oven-baked tomatoes, roasted peppers cut into strips. This recipe also serves as a base for Pizza Margherita.
2 packages active dry yeast
Pinch sugar
1 1/4 cups warm water (110-115 F)
Olive oil
3 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
Dissolve the yeast with the sugar in 1/2 cup warm water; set aside until foamy. In a large mixing bowl, combine the remaining 3/4 cup water, 1/4 cup olive oil and yeast mixture.
Combine the flour and salt, and stir this mixture into the yeast mixture, 1 cup at a time, until the dough begins to come together in a rough ball.

Place dough on a floured board and knead until smooth and elastic, then place in an oiled bowl, brush oil on top of dough, cover, and set in a warm place to rise for about 1 hour, until doubled in bulk.
Punch down the dough and break off golf ball-size pieces to make 8- to 10-inch or individual pizzas. Knead each piece of dough on a floured board for 2 or 3 minutes, working in additional flour to make it smooth and no longer sticky. Roll dough out into a thin circle. Brush a round pizza baking pan with olive oil, dust with cornmeal, and arrange the rolled-out dough on top. Spread with assorted toppings.
Makes 3 or 4 pizzas, depending on size.

I drew inspiration for this spaghetti dish from a seafood pasta we were served at Osteria da Fiore in Venice.
1/2 pound string beans, ends trimmed
Coarse salt
1/2 cup olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
10 anchovy fillets, mashed
2 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 pound halibut fillets, cut in 1-inch
1 tablespoon minced parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
to taste
1 pound spaghetti
Drop string beans into a large pot of boiling, salted water, and simmer until tender. Drain, reserving water for pasta, and set string beans aside.

Heat olive oil and garlic in a large skillet over medium-high heat; add anchovies. Lower heat to medium-low and cook, stirring until smooth, about a minute. Add the string beans and tomatoes and cook, stirring until tomatoes soften. Add wine and simmer until alcohol evaporates; then add halibut and cook for another 3 to 4 minutes. Add a little water, if necessary, to keep sauce moist. Stir in parsley and salt and pepper to taste.

Bring reserved cooking water to a boil, add spaghetti and boil until tender but firm; drain well. Add spaghetti to sauce in skillet and toss to coat. Serve immediately.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.

This recipe, from our first trip to Italy, has become my signature gelato. It is always there in my freezer to be enjoyed — day and night. The milk makes it light, and the eggs help make it creamy. Serve it with biscotti, and top with chocolate sauce for serious chocolate lovers.
Although you can use vanilla extract, a plump, fragrant vanilla bean yields the best flavor. When buying the beans, make sure the exteriors are black and appear moist — signs of freshness.
2 cups milk
1 cup sugar
2 vanilla beans, split lengthwise,
or 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
7 egg yolks
Ice water (for cooling custard)
2 cups whipping cream
8 ounces semisweet chocolate, melted
Combine milk with 1/2 cup sugar in a medium heavy saucepan over medium heat; bring to a boil, mixing until sugar is dissolved. Turn off heat, add vanilla beans, cover, and let steep 5 minutes. (If using vanilla extract, add it later, when adding the whipping cream.) Remove vanilla bean and scrape seeds into milk mixture. Stir until seeds separate; then add pods.

Beat egg yolks and the remaining 1/2 cup sugar in a large bowl using a wire whisk or an electric mixer; mix until light and fluffy. Pour heated milk mixture in a slow stream into egg mixture; blend well. Pour egg mixture back into saucepan with milk mixture, mixing to blend well. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, to just below the boiling point (170-180 F), about 5 minutes. Pour custard into a fine strainer suspended over a large bowl set over a larger bowl filled with ice water. Scrape up thickened cream that settles on bottom of pan. Add whipping cream (and vanilla extract, if using), and mix until cooled. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until cold.

Freeze in an ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions. When mixture is very cold and thick and machine is still running, pour in warm melted chocolate in a thin stream. The chocolate will quickly harden and break up into small pieces. Continue to freeze ice cream. Spoon into plastic containers, cover, and freeze until ready to serve.
Makes about 3 pints.

From “Italy Cooks” by Judy Zeidler
Known as cantucci in parts of Italy, these almond cookies are baked twice, resulting in a crisp, flavorful biscuit. This recipe is versatile. You can substitute some whole-wheat flour for the white. Possible additions include chocolate chips, poppy seeds or dried fruit.
2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
3/4 cup ground toasted unpeeled almonds
1/2 cup whole toasted unpeeled almonds
2 whole eggs plus 1 egg white
1/2 teaspoon anise or almond extract
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup sugar
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Place the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and fennel seeds in a mound on a floured board. Surround the outside of the mound with the ground and whole almonds. Make a well in the center. Place the eggs, anise and vanilla in the well. Beat the sugar into the whole eggs, blending well. Quickly beat the egg mixture with a fork, gradually incorporating the flour and almonds to make a smooth dough.

Divide the dough into 3 to 4 portions. With lightly oiled hands, shape each portion into an oval loaf shape. Place the loaves 2 inches apart on greased baking sheets. Brush with the egg white.
Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until lightly browned. Remove the loaves from the oven, use a metal spatula to transfer them to a cutting board, and cut them into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Place the slices cut side down on the same baking sheet and return them to the oven. Leave the biscotti in the oven for 5 to 10 minutes per side or until golden brown. Transfer to racks and cool completely. Store in plastic containers.
Makes about 6 dozen.

This entry was posted in Articles. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.