Monday, February 21, 2011

Forget dinner, I'd rather have hor d'oeuvres

Hor d'oeuvres have always been the most fun part of the meal for me.  Usually the only thing I will order in any upscale restaurant (more on that in a future post), they present opportunities for boundless creativity, surprise and amusement.  They can also be as easy or as complicated, as whimsical or as straightforward as you wish.  Last Saturday night's dinner party started with Villa Jolanda Prosecco (my go-to budget-friendly Italian sparkler that is bright and lemony) and was accompanied by three hor d'oeuvres.  They were all easy to prepare and fairly straightforward.  However, they do require planning ahead because some of the ingredients are only available in places such as Whole Foods and Central Market.

The first of the three were cerignola olives, touted as the largest olive in the world (and they easily are).  Cerignolas come in green, black, and RED (I'm referring to a vivid red, not reddish like a calamata) and they have pits.  I found mine at Central Market and chose the green variety, which have a firm but yielding flesh and a buttery flavor.  Just to make things interesting, I drained the brine, combined them with orange zest, fresh thyme leaves, cracked pepper, a whole clove of garlic and some EVOO.  I let them "cure" a little in the fridge for several hours, but they would have been better prepared the day before.

My second hor d'oeuvre was a little bean I've become addicted to after reading a 2010 Saveur article on readers' 100 favorite gourmet foods.  Lupini beans have turned this girl's head.  Salty, briny, nutty and very firm, they're just plain fun to eat.  You can eat them straight from the jar, or you can do as I did on Saturday night:  drain them of their brine.  Return them to a serving dish (I used an oversized martini glass) and drizzle them with EVOO, then sprinkle with a generous amount of cracked black pepper.  YUM!  There are several brands available (Cento and DeLallo are the two I've seen locally).  My guests really loved them.  They're best at room temperature.  I have a friend who eats them regularly and adds garlic along with the EVOO.  She says she has to have them pretty much every day.

The third hor d'oeuvre took a little more effort to prepare but it's a simple and versatile preparation.  It's also seriously delicious.  I developed this recipe last summer after looking for a fresh "salsa" for grilled halibut.  It's great on grilled tuna as well, or any firm-flesh fish.  But don't think of the typical salsa flavor profile for this--it goes in a different direction.  Straight to the Mediterranean.  Recipe follows.

I also want to include my recipe for Chicken Cacciatore (below), which I've been refining over the years.  I think I'm at the zenith with this one, but I'll wait for your comments.  I served the chicken with polenta enriched with plenty of butter and parmesan, but you could easy serve it with the pasta of your choice.  The main course was accompanied by a bitter winter greens salad seasoned with dried marjoram, basil and oregano, dressed with EVOO, cabernet wine vinegar and splash of balsamic, and finished with flake salt and curls of Pecorino Romano.  We also enjoyed a bottle of Castello D'Albola 2007 Chianti Classico (Italy), a lovely soft, dry red with just a few tannins, lots of cherry and fruit in the mouth, floral nose.  Lovely, full, and a perfect acid balance with the rich main course.  Gorgeous in the glass.  Thanks again, to one of my wine guys at Spec's.

One more note:  I really cheated on dessert.  After my original plans to make homemade meringues with strawberries macerated in Grand Marnier fell through due to the humidity, I caved in and served individual dishes of fresh strawberries with a small cup of warmed Nutella (add a little Frangelico to make it more adult) and Pepperidge Farm Black and White Milano cookies on the side.  Served with great coffee and cordials, it was an easy dessert and not as much as a cop-out as I feared, as evidenced by its quick disappearance.

Tomato, Caper and Parsley Condimento

          Serve this with grilled slices of French bread that have been brushed with olive oil...

2 medium tomatoes (of course, very fresh, very ripe summer tomatoes are preferable, but I used 2 large Romas)
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 Tbs. finely chopped parsley (Italian flat-leaf is preferred)
2 Tbs. capers (non-pareil size)
1/2 tsp. salt (or to taste)
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup EVOO (make it a fruity one)

Cut the tomatoes into quarters, removing seeds and juice (reserve for another use if you wish).  Cut into 1/4 inch dice.  Mix tomatoes in a small bowl with remaining ingredients.  Serve immediately, or chill until ready to use.  Keeps for 3 days.

Wealthy Peasant
chicken cacciatore

3 lbs. bone-in chicken thighs, skin and fat removed
1 lbs. mild or hot Italian sausage (links cut in half)
Salt and pepper
1 lb. mushrooms, cleaned and roughly chopped
2 Tbs. EVOO
26 oz. jar marinara sauce (use a high-quality sauce such as Mezetta or Newman’s)
1 15 oz. can chopped fire-roasted tomatoes
2 to 3 cloves garlic, smashed and chopped
1 Tbs. anchovy paste (or use half of a 2 oz. tin)
1 cup oil-cured olives, pitted ***
¼ cup capers (capotes-size or larger)
1 tsp. crushed red pepper
1 tsp. dried rosemary
1 tsp. dried fennel
¾ tsp. dried thyme
3 cups dry red wine
1 med. onion, cut into ½ inch wedges
1 sweet red pepper, cut into lengthwise strips
1 green pepper, cut into lengthwise strips
Chopped fresh parsley for garnish
Asiago or parmesan cheese, freshly grated

      1.  Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
2.     Place chicken thighs and sausage in a large gratin or oblong baking dish (approx. 10 X 13 inches).  Season generously with salt and pepper.  Roast in oven until meat is browned, about 20 to 25 minutes.
3.     Meanwhile, sauté mushrooms on medium-high heat in a medium-size sauté pan until well-browned, about 10 minutes.  Salt and pepper generously.  Set aside.
4.     Heat marinara sauce gently and add the canned tomatoes, garlic, anchovy paste, oil-cured olives, capers, crushed red pepper, rosemary, fennel and thyme.  Mix well.  Check for seasoning and correct salt.  Add sauteed mushrooms.  Continue to heat gently.
5.     Pour wine over chicken and sausage.  Scatter onion and red and green peppers over the top.  Return to oven to caramelize vegetables for about 10 minutes.
6.     Pour warm sauce over meat and vegetables.  Cover loosely with foil and reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees.  Bake for at least another 30 minutes.  The chicken should fall off the bone when this dish is done.
7.     Garnish with fresh parsley and serve with polenta or pasta.  Pass plenty of grated cheese.  Serves 4.

***You can approximate the flavor of oil-cured olives by draining a can of small pitted olives and poaching slowly with 1 tsp. salt in1/3 cup EVOO over low heat for about 1 hour.

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