The Italians cope with summer cooking better than anyone, in my opinion. 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 tempted by French and Oriental cuisines, to Grossi good home cooking has to be Italian. "All those lovely antipasti," said Grossi, 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."
A Perfect Lunch
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," Grossi said.
"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," Grossi said.
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.
With it we chose one of 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 focaccia , 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, an extra dose of yeast gives them a particular zesty lightness.
Greatest Sweet Gift
After such a spread, both Grossi and I 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 that 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.
ITALIAN LUNCH IN SUMMER FOR 12 Caponata (Salad of Sweet-Sour Eggplant) Pomodori alla Siciliana (Sicilian Baked Tomatoes) Insalata di Cetrioli, Finocchi e Rafano (Salad of Cucumber, Fennel and Radish) Insalata di Frutta di Mare e Funghi (Salad of Shellfish and Mushrooms) Focaccia (Seasoned Breads) Gelato di Pistacchi (Pistachio Ice Cream) Suggested wine: Light refreshing Italian Soave or red Valpolicella. Serve both wines chilled. Up to six weeks ahead, make ice cream and store in freezer.
Up to two days ahead, make Caponata and refrigerate. Cook tomatoes and refrigerate.
In the morning, make bread dough, then flavor. Leave to rise and then refrigerate. Make cucumber and fennel salad, then chill. Set table. Chill wine.
About two hours before serving, start baking breads.
About one hour before serving, make shellfish salad, then refrigerate. Let tomatoes and Caponata come to room temperature.
Just before serving add mint and complete cucumber salad.
(Salad of Sweet-Sour Eggplant)
1 1/2 pounds eggplant, unpeeled and diced
1/3 cup olive oil
6 celery stalks, cut in 1/2-inch slices
2 onions, sliced
1/4 cup tomato paste
1 tablespoon sugar
1 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup capers
3/4 cup pitted black olives
Sprinkle eggplant with salt. Let stand 30 minutes to draw out bitter juices. Rinse with cold water. Pat dry on paper towels.
Meanwhile, heat half of oil in skillet. Add celery and saute until brown. Remove celery and place in bowl. Add onions to pan and saute until brown.
Remove onions and add to celery. Heat remaining oil in skillet. Add eggplant and saute briskly until tender and brown. Add to other vegetables.
Place tomato paste and sugar in pan. Stir in vinegar. Add capers and olives. Stir in vegetables. Season to taste with pepper. Cook until vegetables are tender and dark, 15 to 20 minutes, stirring often. Cool. Taste to adjust for seasonings.
Caponata can be kept up to 2 days in refrigerator. Flavor mellows on standing. Serve at room temperature. Makes 12 servings.
Note: Mild mellow wine vinegar is important for salad and handful of pine nuts is good addition.
POMODORI ALLA SICILIANA
(Sicilian Baked Tomatoes)
12 medium tomatoes
1 1/4 cups pitted black olives, chopped
3 tablespoons capers, drained
1/2 cup cooked green peas
2 1/2 cups cooked dry white beans
3 ounces Parmesan cheese, coarsely grated