Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Italian Family Table - Antipasti For a Crowd

Tutti a tavola a mangiare! 
This is the directive that Lidia Bastianich, one of my favorite Italian cooks, gives when her tempting dishes are ready. It means, "everyone to the table to eat!" 
I love these words because they evoke, at least for me, a very specific emotion. 
When I hear them, I know it's time to enjoy family, togetherness, community, and most of all, great food.  
Antipasti, Photo: NK

This past Saturday, I was lucky enough to swing a get-together with my brother and sister and their families. It isn't often that our three busy schedules coincide, so I was especially delighted to be able to catch up with them before the holiday season made things even more complicated. My mom was kind enough to offer her home as the venue. She's also a great cook and graciously volunteered to make her delicious sauce and meatballs to serve as the main course (we were a total of 8 people + a baby). All I would need to do was set out some hors d'oeuvres and whipped up a salad. Our guests brought dessert, so the whole thing came together easily. The larger the crowd, the simpler I like to keep it. 

Fennel (Left), Cheeses in counter clockwise order from the bottom left: Truffle Pecorino, Taleggio, Provolone, & Spreadable Goat Cheese Photo: NK

One of my favorite ways to get everyone to a table is to lay out a varied, vibrant spread of meats, cheeses, and fruits as a way to kick off a meal. When guests fill up a bit before the actual dinner, you need only serve one main course and maybe a salad, and they'll be more than satisfied. Focusing on the pre-dinner foods is a great way to front-load the work that goes into any large gathering, as well as to add variety, leaving you plenty of time to enjoy your family or guests. 

As for the pre-dinner spread, I have a very particular plating aesthetic:

plenty of color. 

It should be noted that when I am creating a multi-course sit-down meal, my strategy is very different; I'll instead, keep pre-dinner bites very light (or make much fewer of them) so as to leave my guests able to enjoy all the subsequent dishes. 

Antipasti is the plural of the Italian word, Antipasto, which means, before the meal
For me, assorted antipasti is the best way to start a large gathering because a lovely cold appetizer spread nearly always requires little to no cooking. It's more about using great products and assembling them beautifully. Because I put a high priority "presentation," or how food looks, antipasti platters also allow me to flex my creative plating muscles - one of my most favorite things to do! 
How'd it turn out? I'm still pretty giddy even a day later. It's always so wonderful to spend time with my siblings, niece and two nephews. I don't get to see them nearly as much as I'd like. My eldest niece and nephew are growing up into remarkable young people - but so fast! The baby of our family is only year and a half old. He's a real ham, and his adorable antics kept us laughing for hours. 

There really is nothing like sharing a meal with family. 

With Thanksgiving and the holiday season right around the corner, what better time to share these simple antipasti ideas with you? The selection offered below is certainly very typical, but you should feel free to add your own ideas. I'm aiming only to provide a recap in order to lend a little inspiration at a time of the year when cooking for a crowd can seem incredibly daunting. I hope you enjoy this Cold Antipasti How-To, and that you have plenty of great holiday memories on their way to you!

First, before we start, 
A general Rule for portioning cheese and meats: 
1 ounce of per person means everyone will get a taste. 
2 ounces per person will be an ample serving. 
1.5 ounces per guest is probably perfect. 

Antipasti for 8

Platter 1 - Salumi - aka The Salted, Cured Meats
Prosciutto, very thinly sliced. Imported is ideal, or one of many great domestic choices.
Sopressata, hot or sweet, depending on your preference. 
Garnish the plate with brightly colored vegetables. We used Campari & Zima Tomatoes.  And we mustn't forget to add some beautiful Italian Flat-Leaf Parsley.

Platter 2 - Formaggi - The Cheeses
Cheeses are pictured above in order, counter clockwise beginning from the bottom left:

Truffle Pecorino - Goodness, this truffley sheep's milk cheese was mouthwatering and worth the price tag. 1/3 Pound means everyone will get a taste, and a 1/2 Pound will allow for a bit extra. 

Taleggio - Relatively easy to find, this Italian "stinky cheese" is brie-like in consistency and wonderful spread on toasty bread or eaten alongside pears or honey. 1/4 to 1/3 of a pound will do. 

Provolone - Loved by all, this kid friendly, salty, and slightly tangy semi-soft cheese is great on any plate. 1/2 of a pound will be just enough for a party of 8, 2 slices a piece most likely.

Goat Cheese Spread- This soft goat cheese can be purchased ready to eat, or you can make it yourself by thinning out regular goat cheese with a teaspoon or two of milk, making it easy to spread on toast. Goat cheese is absolutely delicious with a little drop of

Fig Spread - The sweet and tangy combo of the fig with goat cheese is always a winner.
Grapes - to add color and sweetness. 
Parmesan Straws - again, very kid friendly and great dipped in goat cheese. 
Italian Parsley - for garnish

Forelle Pears - These pears are just gorgeous - petite and green with flecks of peach and red. 

Platter 3 - Cold Salads - Mozzarella Caprese & Marinated Eggplant + Tapenade
Mozzarella Caprese - This is easy! Slice about 3/4 Lb of fresh Mozzarella Cheese and alternate it with slices of the freshest tomato you can find (we used Campari). Drizzle with extra virgin oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Drizzle with balsamic vinegar reduction or ready-prepared balsamic glaze. Finally, chiffonade some basil and sprinkle the ribbons over everything. 

Marinated Eggplant - The only item on today's spread that must be made ahead. Choose your favorite method of marinating and prepare a day in advance. Here are two simple recipes (this or this) from our own kitchen. Alternately, good Italian delis will often offer ready-made marinated eggplant. 

Olive Tapenade - Delicious spread onto toast and readily available at most specialty markets. If you can't find tapenade, there are many great recipes available. Save time and buy pitted olives if you end up making it yourself. 

Caprese Salad, Marinated Eggplant, and Olive Tapenade, Photo: NK

Slices of Semolina Bread

Carr's Rosemary Crackers, or any variety that suits your taste

Fennel - With its distinct licorice flavor, fennel serves as crunchy and refreshing palate cleanser in between bites. 

And there you have it, plates and plates of delicious Italian specialties that taste as good as they look. 

Is there anything better? 

Wishing you and your families a wonderful holiday season filled with love, laughter and many great meals.

Buon appetito! 

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