Many restaurants in Italy have large tables near the entrance to the dining room. Walking past all the antipasti that the kitchen has prepared shows the promise of the meal to come. They are, of course, never cold, but at room temperature, bathed in olive oil with a sprinkling of fresh herbs such as rosemary or oregano and livened up with an old vinegar. These dishes, served all together on a plate, frequently make the best part of the meal.
Habit has it that hot food should be served very hot and cold food very chilled, even though neither allows us to best taste the subtleties in a dish. It's like sampling a white wine. Drink it well chilled, of course, but for judging the wine, chill it only lightly so you can taste every characteristic of the wine.
Food actually tastes more flavorful at room temperature, and there is a large repertoire of dishes that should be served at an ambient temperature.
When cooking a dish that is to be served at room temperature, remember a few things. The aromas will be less intense in a tepid dish than in a steaming hot one, and since our sense of smell excites taste, compensate by overspicing the dish. To create a subtle taste in a hot dish, the sauce might have called for wine. But in a cool or chilled dish, you'd better use citrus juice or vinegar; the dish needs that little oomph for recognition. You may also find, depending on how you taste salt, that more salt is needed than in a hot dish to liven the flavor.
Butter or margarine congeals when chilled, so substitute an oil if the dish is to be served at room temperature. Flavored oils such as olive and walnut contribute their own special character to a dish. Room-temperature meals can be salads or not, but whether you are presenting your meal on a bed of greens or as a composed plate, the role of the dressing is the same--it unifies all the ingredients.
Foods at room temperature are happy all together on a plate. Instead of serving the usual starter, main course and dessert, prepare a few dishes and serve them together. Place them on a buffet and let guests dine at their own speed or serve them at the table at the same time.
Such food has the comfort of an old cashmere throw and shows an elegant style. Sometimes it takes a little more work to prepare a room-temperature meal, but the work is done at leisure. Start cooking early in the day, allow time to cool the food and patiently finish each dish. This is not cooking against the clock.
4 medium eggplants (about 4 pounds total)
1/2 cup butter
2 cups milk
1/4 teaspoon ground mace
3 (28-ounce) cans whole peeled tomatoes, finely chopped
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon dried oregano
Peel eggplants. Slice lengthwise into 3/8-inch slices. Layer in colander, sprinkling layers with kosher salt. Set aside 40 minutes to drain off any bitter juices.
Combine butter and 6 tablespoons flour in small saucepan. Set over medium heat and slowly stir in milk. Add mace. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cook until thick, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat. (Sauce will be very thick.)
Place tomatoes and liquid in saucepan. Add garlic and oregano. Place over medium heat and cook until reduced by about 1/4, becoming sauce-like.
Rinse eggplant slices and pat dry. Dust lightly with flour. Heat large skillet over medium heat. Add about 1/4 inch olive oil and cook eggplant slices, few pieces at time, on both sides. Add more oil as needed
Arrange 6 eggplant slices on large baking dish greased with little olive oil. Spread each slice with small amount thickened milk sauce, then cover with some tomato sauce. Repeat layering as necessary until all ingredients are used, ending with layer of eggplant.
Bake, covered, at 375 degrees until bubbling hot, about 45 minutes. Remove casserole from oven. Cool and uncover. Serve at room temperature. Makes 6 servings.
VITELLO TONNATO ON PASTA
1 onion, chopped
1 tablespoon minced garlic
3/4 cup olive oil
2 pounds veal loin or leg roast
1 (6 1/4-ounce) can tuna, drained
24 anchovy fillets
1 cup dry white wine
1 cup chicken stock or water
1 teaspoon thyme leaves
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/2 pound dry pasta
2 egg yolks
1/4 cup capers, drained
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
Combine onion, garlic and 2 tablespoons olive oil in 2-quart saucepan. Place over medium heat and cook, stirring, 5 minutes. Add veal, tuna, 6 anchovies, white wine, stock, thyme, bay leaves and white pepper. Reduce heat to low and cook, covered, on top of stove, about 50 minutes, or until meat thermometer reads 135 degrees. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature.
Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain. Toss with little oil and cool.