Preparations for a recent Italian dinner party we hosted began 24 hours before guests were to arrive. The occasion was the result of four generous people making a donation to Rotary for the opportunity to enjoy a meal of Italian food and wines in our home.
I started the night before by making cacciatore. It is a hunter’s stew and, like all stews, it tastes better after a day that allows flavours to meld.
The rest of the menu wasn’t particularly complicated. I planned to make a variety of crostinis, toasted slices of baguette topped with things like almond pesto (the almonds substitute for the traditional pine nuts, or pignoli), grape tomatoes and ribbons of prosciutto — ham sliced so thin, as the joke goes, that the pig didn’t feel it coming of its hind end.
While a typical Italian meal sees salad served after the main courses and before dessert or cheese, we continue to serve it first. Otherwise it seems to get lost or, on occasion, even forgotten. My choice was a Caprese-style salad, with fresh basil, cubes of fresh mozzarella cheese, grape tomatoes, black olives and Italian spices, tossed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
Following the salad would be seafood cioppino, a stew with a tomato base that is ultra-easy to make and great for company because one can prepare the base early, then bring it to a boil and add a selection of seafood 10 minutes before it is to be served. I chose mussels, scallops, cod, prawns and clams. The base includes onions, garlic and green pepper, finely chopped and sautéed in olive oil. Spices, white wine, canned Italian tomatoes and clam juice complete the stock. Serve slices of Calabrese bread to soak up the sauce and it’s a meal in itself.
Dessert was one we hadn’t tried before and it, too, didn’t require much work. Two dozen dried figs are simmered for about 40 minutes in a cup of red wine, along with sugar, a cinnamon stick and slices of fresh ginger. Once the figs are very soft they are removed, then the wine is cooked down by two thirds, then strained. To serve, I mixed fresh cream with mascarpone (an Italian cream cheese), spread couple of tablespoons on each plate, cut the figs almost in half, spread them apart and placed them on the cream cheese base, then drizzled the sauce on top.
Among my preparations earlier day was the making of a batch of pasta, which I rolled into sheets that were allowed to dry for an hour on floured towels. Then I used a pizza wheel to slice the sheets into wide ribbons, or pappardelle, which continued to dry on the counter until ready to cook. It would be served with the cacciatore.
When our guests arrived we toasted the occasion with flutes of prosecco, a dry rose sparkling wine from northern Italy. Placed in the bottom of each flute before the wine was poured was a preserved edible hibiscus flower. The red flowers and juice stain the prosecco to a deeper pink colour and makes a very nice presentation. We sat for an hour, sipping our wine, chatting and nibbling on the crostinis before moving to the dining room table.
The meal went entirely as planned and my selection of Sangiovese wines proved to pair well with each dish, in large part because the salad, cioppino and cacciatore all included tomatoes, which are a particularly good marriage with medium red wines like Chiantis.
Our guests chose to drink cappuccinos with their dessert and we lingered at the table, enjoying the company and conversation, until late in the evening. We have hosted many such dinners (some featuring Indian dishes) as Rotary fundraisers and I heartily recommend the practice. We make our donation by providing the food and wine and guests contribute cash for a worthy cause. And everyone benefits from the enjoyment that inevitably comes when food, wine and friends are combined.
Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.