Last week, when I shared with you a traditional, rustic southern Italian recipe for Fave, Rape e Ciccoria, I hinted at my general dislike for most “Italian” food served in the states. Scratch that. I think I made it loud and clear. Big vats of pasta, dishes containing more cheese than vegetables and protein, and greasy breaded things are not my nature. Heck, even the last time I ventured into Boston’s North End, the local mecca of supposedly authentic Italian food, and waited over an hour in the cold for one of the most popular establishments, I was disappointed with my meal. It was described as layers of eggplant, veal, prosciutto and mozzarella in tomato sauce, but I don’t know that any of those things were actually present. All I could taste were breadcrumbs and oil.
Not surprisingly, on the rare occasion I do find myself in a typical American Italian restaurant, I’m not jumping for joy at the thought of any appetizers. First of all, most of these “chefs” are not experts in the art of frying so they take anything relatively good like a ravioli or calamari and fry it, and most of the flavor becomes lost behind the grease and battery coating. There’s usually a “fonduta” of some sort – honestly, would any Italian even know what that is? Bruschetta is a safe bet for fresh flavored lighter fair, but only when tomatoes and basil are in peak season (which is about two months out of twelve here in New England.)
Go big, or go home. That’s my general rule of thumb when it comes to anything food-related. I also abide by a rule of making things that I actually want to eat whenever bringing food somewhere. So when I was asked to bring appetizers to an Italian-themed get together, I decided to go straight to my most authentic Italian resource for some traditional – but likely unexpected – Italian fare. (This is not to say that all Americans have no idea what real Italian food is, but let’s face it: many do not.) That source, also mentioned in last week’s blog post, is a cookbook titled Flavors of Puglia, written by Nancy Harmon Jenkins. And it was given to me by a relative who hails from – where else, Puglia. Because of that and because none of the recipes resemble any old lasagna or chicken parm most Americans consider “Italian”, I have a lot of love for this book.
The three appetizers I brought – Grilled Breaded Mussels, Roasted Peppers Stuffed with Anchovies, Raisins and Capers, and Grilled Eggplant Rollatini – all received raves at the gathering. I like these recipes because they are comprised of fresh, simple ingredients. When blended together, they create a morsel of food that bursts with flavor without being too heavy. I think the folks from Puglia would agree with me that this is some of the best kind of food. As an added bonus, each of these recipes can be prepped ahead of time so you aren’t scrambling in the kitchen in front of your guests; instead you can leisurely nibble along with them.
Mussels are so easy and quick to prepare, and they’re usually pretty cheap. When served on the half shell, they make for a more elegant presentation. For these reasons, they’re a great choice to serve for company. These mussels, steamed in white wine and stuffed with a mixture of fresh parsely, bread crumbs, and tangy pecorino romano – were devoured at not one, but two parties at which I served them. If you’re looking for healthier choices, don’t be put off by the cheese and breadcrumbs: it’s really just a tidbit when divided up among all those luscious pieces of protein.
Grilled Breaded Mussels (Cozze Arracanate)
Adapted from Flavors of Puglia, Nancy Harmon Jenkins
2 pounds mussels, scrubbed and debearded*
dry white wine
2 tablespoons minced garlic
3 tablespoons chopped flat leaf parsely
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
2 tablespoons grated Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano
1/4 cup bread crumbs
olive oil, for drizzling
Rinse the mussels under cold water and discard any that are cracked or open. Place the mussels in a large pot with enough white wine to cover the bottom of the pan. Cover and turn the heat to high; cook for 3-4 minutes or until the mussels open. remove from heat, and transfer the mussels to a large bowl. Strain and reserve the liquid from the pan.
To prepare the bread crumb stuffing, place the remaining ingredients except for the olive oil in a small food processor and pulse together.
When the mussels are cool enough to handle, open each one and remove the meat from the shell. Discard one half of the shell, and place the other half on a baking sheet, with the mussel meat on top of it. Sprinkle the mussels with the bread crumb mixture. Drizzle with a bit of the reserved cooking liquid, and some olive oil.
The mussels can be prepared up until this point and left at room temperature for a couple hours; do not refrigerate or they will toughen.
When ready to serve, preheat the broiler and set oven rack to the top position. Broil the mussels for 5-8 minutes, or until lightly browned. Serve immediately.
*All mussels that I have bought at the seafood counter in my regular grocery store have been almost thoroughly debearded already. This confused me the first time I ever bought mussels because I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be pulling off. These mussels may have a few “loose threads” hanging out, so that’s what I yank out. I suppose it’s possible you may buy mussels that require more debearding, but don’t be alarmed if they look clean already – just move on to the next step!
It’s no secret I have a fetish for the combination of sweet and salty foods (kettle corn is one of my favorite snacks.) So when I read the ingredients for this recipe – plump, sweet raisins with salty capers and anchovies and savory pine nuts, I was immediately smitten. These did not disappoint. My only regret? I wish I’d thought to make them with mini sweet bell peppers instead of pepper strips. Next time!
Roasted Peppers Stuffed with Anchovies, Raisins and Capers (Peperoni Arrotolati)
Adapted from Flavors of Puglia, Nancy Harmon Jenkins
6-7 multi-colored bell peppers
3 tablespoons capers
3 tablespoons lightly toasted pine nuts*
3 tablespoons risins, soaked in warm water for about 15 minutes
8 oil-packed anchovy filets
2/3 cup bread crumbs
2 tablespoons chopped flat leaf parsley
freshly ground pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons olive oil
Begin by roasting the peppers. To do so, preheat the broiler. Wash the peppers and slice in half, removing the stem and ribs. Place the peppers, skin side-up, on a baking sheet and spray with canola or olive oil cooking spray. Place the sheet in the oven, on the top oven rack position. Broil the peppers for 5-10 minutes, until charred on all surfaces. Transfer the peppers to a large bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside until cool enough to handle.
To prepare the filling, place the remaining ingredients in a small food processor and pulse to combine. Or, finely chop and mix together. Season to taste with pepper (it will likely not need any salt, because the anchovies are very salty.) Mix in the olive oil to form a loose paste.
To assemble, take a bell pepper half and carefully slip off the charred skin. Cut the pepper in half. Working with one strip at a time, place about one teaspoon of the filling mixture on the wide end, and roll up towards the pointed end. Secure with a toothpick and gently place into a lightly oiled baking dish. Repeat with remaining peppers. The peppers can be assembled a day or two ahead of time and stored in the refrigerator.
Just before serving, bake the stuffed peppers in a preheated 425ºF oven for about 15 minutes, until warmed through and lightly toasted. Serve immediately or at room temperature.
*To toast pine nuts, place them in a dry skillet over low heat, shaking the pan occasionally, until lightly browned and fragrant.
This recipe is an exception in that it does not hail from Flavors of Puglia, rather it is a rendition of my favorite way to make eggplant parmesan. For years I hated the dish and it wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I realized why: in most kitchens around here, eggplant parmesan is prepared by liberally breading the eggplant and frying it in oil, thus masking the actual flavor of eggplant. The vegetable’s goodness is further diluted by layering it with copious amounts of cheese and typical rich spaghetti sauce. Grilling thin strips of eggplant, on the other hand, brings out its natural smoky flavor. Delicate slices of mozzarella cut fresh from the deli melt in harmoniously without overpowering, and a quickly simmered tomato sauce highlighted with fresh garlic and basil compliments perfectly. Again, simple ingredients; clean, fresh flavor; and as an added bonus it’s much lower in carbs. This is the only way I’ll eat eggplant parmesan now, and after trying this bite-size version, many of my friends and family are on board too. Don’t be afraid to make a really big batch of these rollatini; there’s no such thing as having too many. Possible outcomes are that they will all get eaten, even by the supposed non-eggplant-eaters. Or, you’ll have a few to nibble on from the fridge in the days to follow.(Because I am particularly obsessed with these rollatini and they’re my new favorite healthy-ish appetizer to share with friends, I’m sharing them with Amy for her Slightly Indulgent Tuesday Feature for January 25th over at Simply Sugar & Gluten Free.)
Grilled Eggplant Rollatini
Adapted from Gourmet, June 2007
2-3 large eggplant
canola or olive oil cooking spray*
1/3 – 1/2lb mozzarella cheese, sliced thinly (not fresh mozzarella)
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
14.5 oz can diced tomatoes
salt, to taste
1/4 cup roughly chopped fresh basil
1/4 cup grated Pecorino Romano Cheese
Slice the eggplant thinly, preferrably using a mandoline, to about 1/4″ thickness. Sprinkle both sides of each slice with salt, and place on a baking sheet, layering between paper towels. Set aside for at least an hour.
Preheat a grill to medium-low heat. Rinse the eggplant slices and pat dry, then spray each with cooking spray. Grill the eggplant slices for a few minutes on each side, until lightly browned. Set aside.
Fold a slice of cheese in half and break it apart. Place one half on a slice of eggplant and roll up, starting with the wider end. Secure with a toothpick and place in a lightly oiled baking dish. Repeat until remaining cheese and grilled eggplant slices are used up.
To make the sauce, begin by heating the olive oil over medium heat in a saute pan. Give the tomatoes, with their juices, a few pulses in a blender or food processor to break them up. Add the garlic and crushed red pepper to the saute pan, and cook for one minute. Add the tomatoes and salt, bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the basil and cheese. Spread the sauce over the eggplant rollatini.
At this point the dish can be refrigerated for a day or two, until ready to serve. Preheat the oven to 425ºF, and bake for 10-15 minutes, until heated through. Serve immediately or at room temperature.
* I prefer to use cooking spray to prepare my eggplant slices for grilling, rather than brushing the pieces with olive oil. It’s lighter, of course, but more importantly, I just find it to be much neater and quicker.