Whoever coined the phrase "holiday madness" was no doubt cooking a meal for company. Given the demands of the season, laboring in a hot kitchen--particularly when a winter day may reach 90 degrees--is about as festive s shopping on Christmas Eve. What home chefs need for times like these is a modern-day miracle: the cook-ahead holdiay feast.
Two respected local cookbook authors, Viana La Place and Evan Kleiman (who is also co-owner of Angeli, Angeli Trattoria and Angeli Mare restaurants), have obliged us. Drawing recipes, with a few variations, from their three books--"Cucina Fresca," "Pasta Fresca" and "Cucina Rustica"--they have created a voluptuous menu based on rustic Italian dishes, full of fresh vegetables, served at room temperature and, best of all, cooked completely a day or so in advance.
Traditional favorites still have their place, of course. But for light cheer without the heavy hassle this year, take a Roman Holiday.
Melanzane con Cipolla
(Grilled Eggplant With Sweet Onion)
1 large glossy, unblemished eggplant1 sweet red or white onion, peeledExtra-virgin olive oilSalt to taste2 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly slicedRed chile-pepper flakes1 bunch fresh oregano leaves or 1 tablespoon dried oregano to tasteRed wine vinegar Cut off and discard root and blossom ends of eggplant. Cut eggplant into crosswise slices, approximately 3/8 inch to 1/2 inch thick. Set aside. Cut onion crosswise into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Heat outdoor grill or ridged stove-top griddle until very hot. Lightly brush eggplant and onion slices with olive oil. Place slices on grill, oiled side down, in one layer. Brush sides facing up with additional oil. Cook until grill marks are clearly visible and vegetables begin to soften. Turn eggplant and onion, and continue cooking until they are just soft but not burned. Remove from grill and set aside separately. Continue grilling vegetables until all are cooked.
Use serving platter for marinating the vegetables. Layer half eggplant on platter and lightly salt to taste. Place 1 thin slice of garlic on each slice of eggplant. Sprinkle red chile-pepper flakes and oregano to taste over eggplant (use dried oregano sparingly). Drizzle vinegar and olive oil lightly over eggplant. Top eggplant layer with half grilled onion slices. Add condiments as for eggplant layer, finishing with vinegar and oil. Make second layer of eggplant slices and another of onion slices, sprinkling each layer with herbs, oil and vinegar. Set aside at room temperature to marinate at least 1 hour.
Serves 4 to 6 as an appetizer.
(Rustic Country Tart)
6 packages (10 ounces each) frozen chopped spinach1 tablespoon butter1 tablespoon olive oil1 small onion, peeled and minced4 eggs1 cup grated Parmesan cheese1/2 cup bread crumbsCoarse salt and freshly ground pepper to taste4 large red bell peppers, or 1-pound can good-quality peeled red peppersSoft Tart Dough1/2 pound Italian fontina cheese with rind removed, sliced1/2 pound Black Forest ham, sliced 1/8 inch thick1 egg beaten with 2 teaspoons milk Cook spinach according to package directions. Drain in colander, and rinse under cold water to cool. Drain spinach and squeeze out excess moisture. Spinach should be almost completely dry. Set aside. Heat butter and oil together in small skillet. Saute minced onion until translucent and beginning to color. Mix together spinach, sauteed onion, eggs, Parmesan, bread crumbs, salt and pepper in bowl. Set aside.
To peel peppers, place over gas burner or under broiler and turn with tongs until blackened all over. Place in plastic bags, close top and let peppers sweat 10 minutes. Remove from plastic bag and remove skins under cold running water. Lay on paper towels to dry. Carefully remove stems; discard seeds and white ribs. Cut peppers to lie flat in one piece. Set aside.
To assemble tart, roll out 2/3 of Soft Tart Dough on parchment, wax paper, aluminum foil or plastic wrap into circle about 14 inches in diameter. Line medium mixing bowl with plastic wrap. Invert dough circle into bowl. Peel off top layer of paper or plastic wrap and pat dough against sides of bowl. Place thin layer of spinach mixture on dough, then red pepper, fontina and ham. Continue layering in pattern you like, but finish with layer of spinach at least 1/2 inch thick.
Roll out remaining dough on parchment, wax paper, aluminum foil or plastic wrap into circle large enough to cover filling. Invert dough onto tart filling and peel off paper or plastic wrap. Trim edges of circle; it should not overlap first dough layer. Brush edge of circle with egg wash and fold over extra dough from the larger circle (which will become top of the tart). Make sure edges are well sealed. Carefully invert tart onto baking sheet and remove bowl. Peel off plastic wrap that lined bowl. If desired, use leftover dough to make leaf shapes; lightly brush one side of leaves with water and place on tart, wet side down.