When friends come over and you find yourself the cook, you don't want to get stuck at the stove. You'd rather be chatting and enjoying the fun. Easy-to-serve do-ahead food that can be put out buffet-style is just the ticket.
Pasta shells filled with a ricotta-spinach mixture, sauced with marinara (a meat or mushroom sauce would work well, too) and sprinkled with cheese can be put together up to two days ahead, then baked while you're munching on appetizers.
Serve it with a chopped antipasto salad, a crunchy, robust mix of appealing ingredients that improves in taste when made in advance.
Chilled beer or a jug of Chianti works well with all of these flavors. Add a bowl of fresh strawberries with cookies for dessert, and you're all set for a great time.
Mandel is a cookbook author.
Pasta Shells With Ricotta-Spinach Filling and Fresh Basil
Active Work Time: 35 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour 10 minutes
The recipe can be easily doubled or tripled. Cook all 20 shells, even though you will be using only 16. Some inevitably fall apart during stuffing.
20 jumbo pasta shells
1 cup spinach leaves
1/2 cup grated pecorino Romano cheese
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
Dried red pepper flakes
1 pound ricotta cheese
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cups pasta sauce such as marinara, mushroom or meat sauce
1 1/2 cups shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup thinly sliced basil leaves
* Cook pasta shells in plenty of boiling salted water until tender but still firm to the bite, 12 to 15 minutes or according to package instructions. Drain.
* Chop spinach in food processor. Transfer to bowl and stir in Romano cheese, garlic, egg, 1/2 teaspoon salt and red pepper flakes to taste. Add ricotta and mix well.
* Gently toss pasta shells in oil. Put 2 slightly rounded tablespoons of cheese-spinach mixture in each of 16 pasta shells. Close shells, slightly overlapping 1 side of each.
* Spread 1 1/2 cups pasta sauce evenly in bottom of 13x9-inch shallow baking dish. Arrange shells, rounded side down, in single layer over sauce. Spoon remaining 1/2 cup sauce evenly over shells. Sprinkle mozzarella and Parmesan over sauce. Cover with foil. (If made ahead, bring to room temperature before baking.)
* Bake covered at 350 degrees until sizzling, about 35 minutes. Sprinkle with basil and serve hot.
4 servings. Each serving: 741 calories; 1,579 mg sodium; 147 mg cholesterol; 36 grams fat; 62 grams carbohydrates; 41 grams protein; 0.33 gram fiber.
Chopped Antipasto Salad With Toasted Garbanzo Beans
Active Work and Total Preparation Time: 40 minutes
Toasting the garbanzo beans makes them crunchier and more flavorful. Cheese can be added, if you wish. Be sure to dice all antipasto ingredients the same size.
1 (15-ounce) can garbanzo beans
1 (6 1/2-ounce) jar marinated artichokes
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 large stalks celery, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 small red onion, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 large red bell pepper, cut into 1/2-inch dice
8 Kalamata olives, pitted and sliced
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper
4 cups romaine leaves torn into bite-size pieces, chilled and crisped
2 tablespoons minced parsley, optional
12 paper-thin slices Genoa salami
* Rinse and drain garbanzo beans and blot dry with paper towels. Cut artichokes into 1/4-inch-thick slices and reserve liquid.
* Heat 1 tablespoon oil in nonstick skillet over high heat. Add garbanzo beans and cook, shaking pan often, until browned, about 7 minutes.
* Combine garbanzo beans, artichokes and their liquid, 2 tablespoons olive oil, celery, onion, bell pepper, olives, 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, oregano, garlic, salt and pepper to taste in 2-quart bowl and toss until well mixed. Taste and add more salt and pepper if needed. Let rest at room temperature up to 4 hours.
* Toss vegetables. Combine romaine and vegetables and toss. Add remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil, remaining 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar and remaining 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar and toss again until well mixed.
* Mound salad on platter. Sprinkle with parsley if desired and garnish with salami slices.
4 servings. Each serving: 466 calories; 980 mg sodium; 11 mg cholesterol; 35 grams fat; 35 grams carbohydrates; 10 grams protein; 2.48 grams fiber.
Garlicky Focaccia With Onions, Red Pepper Flakes and Rosemary
Active Work Time: 25 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 40 minutes plus 1 hour standing
1 (1/4-ounce) package dry yeast
1 teaspoon honey
1 1/4 cups warm water, 105 to 115 degrees
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup rye or whole-wheat flour
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon cornmeal
2 teaspoons minced garlic
2 small onions, halved and thinly sliced
3/4 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
3/4 teaspoon coarse salt
1 teaspoon snipped fresh rosemary
* Stir yeast and honey into warm water. Let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes.