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Apéritifs help start the night on a positive note

At the end of the day, an apéritif is a pleasant way to ease you into dinner and the night.

September 22, 2011|By S. Irene Virbila | Los Angeles Times Restaurant Critic
  • Day-closing aperitifs can include a kir royale, left, Negroni or Campari and soda.
Day-closing aperitifs can include a kir royale, left, Negroni or Campari… (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)

As life gets ever more hectic, I rely more and more on the civilized custom of a before-dinner apéritif. Sometimes it's all I can do to make it to that magical hour when I'm handed a Campari and soda or a glass of rosé and take a first bite of dusky olive tapenade on toast.

This is nothing like the urge "Mad Men"-era dads, mine included, felt to grab that first glass of Scotch the minute they walked in the door. It's more of a gentle, insistent yearning, not so much for the alcohol but for the pause that marks the end of the workday and the beginning of the evening.

That's when whatever's left undone will have to wait for tomorrow, when you can sit dreamy-eyed and absorbed in simply watching the light fade to dusk. It's about celebrating the moment at hand, alone, with one other or with friends. A ritual that's well worth cultivating.

An apéritif can be as simple as a glass of chilled fino or manzanilla sherry with a bowl of oil-slicked olives and roasted almonds. Or some vermouth or Fernet Branca on the rocks with a few slices of Fra' Mani salame and thin slices of baguette.

If I have some ripe white peaches and a bottle of Prosecco knocking around, I might make Bellinis, but how likely is that, unless I've planned well ahead? I also love a kir royale, like the one Lou Amdur makes at his wine bar Lou, with an artisanal crème de cassis and Crèmant d'Alsace rosé.

Lately, though, I'm drawn to bitter — that cooling Campari and soda or my new favorite, a classic Negroni: one part gin, one part Campari, one part vermouth di Torino. For a lighter version, I might top it off with the last of the Prosecco.

What's important too is that little bite — call it tapas or pintxos or canapé. Go to any bar in Venice, Italy, for example, for an apéritif and you'll find a spread of cicchetti, the Venetian equivalent of tapas, laid out on the counter. In Spain, well, you could spend the entire night hopping from bar to bar, nibbling on this and that. That's why the dinner hour starts well after 10 p.m.

At any rate, the apéritif hour ensures you won't arrive at the table famished and wolf your way through the meal. It's just more civilized.

An ambitious cook can go to elaborate lengths to produce an array of little bites. I'm more inclined to keep it fairly simple and usually put out just one or two easy things.

It could be as basic as whole almonds toasted with olive oil and fresh thyme leaves, which I love.

Right now, at the height of tomato season here in California, I'm making pa amb tomàquet like crazy. That's Catalan for bread with tomato. There are many variations, but basically it's toasted bread — baguette or, my favorite, La Brea Bakery's white table bread (available only at the original bakery on La Brea) — rubbed with a halved tomato and drizzled with your best olive oil. Sprinkle on some sea salt. Serve as is or topped with a slice of jamon serrano. Or a single salt-cured anchovy filet marching down the center.

There's always the classic melon or figs and prosciutto. Or smoked salmon. I'm not going to run out to the store to buy some, but when I cured a big piece of salmon this summer, gravlax-style, we enjoyed slivers of the fish on toast almost every night until we ran out.

If I have the time (and some Gruyère in the fridge), I'll make gougères, those delicate cheese puffs Burgundian winemakers often serve to show off their wines. For a festive occasion, make it Champagne and gougères still warm from the oven.

For another toast topping, you can soft-scramble a couple of eggs with a few spoonfuls of grated bottarga and top them with a strip of scarlet piquillo pepper. As a variation, scramble the eggs with piquillo peppers and top with an anchovy. And if you've somehow secured a black truffle, roughly chop it and fold it into butter-rich oeufs brouilles (the French version of scrambled eggs).

Roasted eggplant, mashed with a fork and seasoned with garlic, lemon juice and olive oil makes another simple spread with triangles of warmed pita. And, of course, I'm always ready to have a plate of those pretty rose-and-white French breakfast radishes with sweet butter and sea salt.

If I have a spare half hour, I'll mix up some socca batter, basically chickpea flour, water and a dash of olive oil, to make the street food snack, a sort of chickpea crepe, beloved in Nice in the South of France. David Lebovitz has a good recipe in his book "The Sweet Life in Paris." Or try panisses, chickpea cakes, from Daniel Young's book "Made in Marseille."

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