When it comes to the temperature of what they eat, Americans like their hot food hot and cold food cold. But Italians aren’t so fussy.
No one beats the Italians for putting out an endless variety of tantalizing dishes that achieve their ultimate intensity of flavor at room temperature Italians even have a phrase for this kind of food, cucina fresca. Loosely translated, this means “fresh cuisine.” But as authors Viana La Place and Evan Kleiman note in their book “Cucina Fresca” (Harper & Row), the term also means cool or room temperature.
Room-temperature foods taste better than foods that are hot or cold. Heat and cold numb our palates. And foods at both ends of the thermometer can be jarring. Ever bite into a slab of teeth-chattering pate? Or a slice of pizza that scorched the roof of your mouth?
An antipasto buffet of room-temperature dishes is a natural idea for everyday eating in weather that’s not too hot or too cold, like late summer and early fall. It’s also a great concept for entertaining.
One of the most sumptuous antipasto buffets I’ve ever had was at Palermo restaurant in San Jose, CA years ago when I was food editor at the San Jose Mercury News. I never made it past the phalanx of marinated zucchini and onions, thick wedges of spinach frittata, plump calamari salad and 40-odd other dishes to the pastas or entrees.
But getting customers to sample room-temperature food wasn’t always easy for owner Renato Cusimano. “We had a dish on the menu of linguine with a fresh, uncooked tomato sauce,” he said. “We had to stop serving it because too many people told the waiter to take it back to the kitchen and heat it up.”
In his native Sicily, Cusimano remembers, almost everything the family ate was not only eaten at room temperature but it was also stored that way, sometimes for a week or more. “My mother would put the food out on the balcony or some other part of the house that was cool. But sometimes, when she went to pick it up, there was nothing left,” he says.
September and October are perfect for room-temperature food because produce is still abundant. About 80 percent of Palermo’s buffet was vegetarian. One of Cusimano’s favorite dishes is roasted yellow and red bell peppers that have been peeled, and then laid out flat in pans. The peppers are covered in olive oil and a small amount of balsamic vinegar and allowed to marinate a few hours. They they’re cut in strips and served with anchovy fillets, orange slices and black olives.
In another seasonal favorite, fava beans are boiled quickly, and then tossed with sweet, cooked onions, olive oil and parsley. Sometimes they’re combined with peas and artichoke hearts. Cusimano says no buffet could be complete without at least a few artichoke dishes.
Though some of the dishes are true salads, most are cooked dishes that are allowed to cool to room temperature. As they cool, flavors develop and intensify. Sometimes, Cusimano took a dish that is normally hot, such as eggplant Parmesan, and made it room temperature. In this version, eggplant slices are sautéed in olive oil, then drained. The cooled eggplant is then layered with a delicious marinara sauce and lightly sprinkled with Parmesan cheese. It is infinitely superior to those gooey, hot casseroles.
Preparing room temperature food at home is a snap because you can put dishes together ahead of time, refrigerate them, and then take them out before serving. Allow refrigerated food at least an hour to warm up properly. Some dishes, like those containing fresh tomatoes, should never be refrigerated. Make those dishes up the day you need them. But for safety reasons, try not to leave them out for more than two hours. (See safety tips below.)
When you’re putting together your own buffet, think balance. A total of five dishes should do it for most occasions. Let one of them be relatively substantial, such as a seafood salad or even thin slices of cold roast pork with mustard mayonnaise and pickles. Add a loaf of crusty bread and a fruity red or crisp white wine, and you’re set.
SPICY OLIVE AND LEMON CAPONATA
Caponata is a must for any antipasto buffet. Unlike the classic version, this one doesn’t use eggplant. It, and the two recipes that follow are from “Sweet Onions & Sour Cherries” by Jeannette Ferrary and Louise Fiszer (Simon & Schuster).
• 8 ounces pitted green olives
• 8 ounces pitted black olives
• 2 tomatoes, seeded and chopped
• 1/4 cup oil
• 6 cloves garlic, minced
• 1 tablespoon tomato paste
• 3 quarter-inch-thick slices lemon
• 1 teaspoon chile powder
• 1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1)Slice olives and put in a medium saucepan with tomatoes, oil, garlic and tomato paste. Simmer for 8 minutes.
2)Add the lemon, chile powder, cayenne and 3-4 tablespoons water. Simmer until the water is absorbed. Let cool and taste for salt. Makes 2 cups.
CAULIFLOWER SALAD WITH THREE-MUSTARD DRESSING
• Florets from 2 heads cauliflower, cooked just until tender
• 1/2 pound sweet Italian sausage, cooked and sliced
• 1 bunch green onions (white and green parts), thinly sliced
• 1 cup mayonnaise
• 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
• 2 tablespoons whole grain mustard
• 1 tablespoon hot sweet mustard
• 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
• Salt and pepper
Combine cauliflower, sausage and green onion in a large bowl. In a small bowl, combine remaining ingredients, stirring until smooth. Fold the dressing into the cauliflower mixture. Serves 12.
SWEET AND SOUR EGGPLANT SALAD
• 4 Asian eggplants
• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 small onion, chopped
• 1/2 red bell pepper, chopped
• 2 cloves garlic, minced
• 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
• Healthy pinch of sugar
• 1/2 cup Greek black olives, pitted and chopped (optional)
• 1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
• Pinch cayenne pepper
1)Pierce eggplants with a sharp knife in a few spots and bake in a 400-degree oven or grill until just soft, about 15-20 minutes. Cool and cut into strips.
2)Meanwhile, put skillet over medium heat. Add the oil, onion, and bell pepper. Stir and cook until the vegetables begin to soften. Add the garlic and cook garlic for a few minutes more. Add vinegar and continue cooking until the mixture is thick and syrupy.
3)Add the eggplant and remaining ingredients. Cook 3 minutes. Taste for salt and sugar. (It should have a sweet and sour balance.) Makes 2 cups.
The following two recipes were adapted from “Primi Piatti” by Christopher Styler (Harper & Row).
CROSTINI WITH WILD MUSHROOM TOPPING
• 20 slices French or Italian bread, 1/2 inch thick
• Olive oil
• Wild mushroom topping (recipe follows)
1)Heat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly brush bread slices on both sides with olive oil. Arrange in a single layer on a baking sheet.
2)Bake on lowest rack until underside is golden brown, about 12 minutes. Serve at room temperature with wild mushroom topping (below) or other toppings of your choice. Makes 20 crostini.
WILD MUSHROOM TOPPING
• 1 tablespoon olive oil.
• 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
• 1 pound wild mushrooms or button mushrooms or a mixture of both, sliced thinly
• 1/2 cup chopped onions
• 1 garlic clove, minced
• 2 tablespoons minced Italian parsley leaves
• 1 teaspoon dried thyme
• Salt and pepper to taste
• 1/4 cup dry white wine
• 1/4 cup chicken broth
1)Heat olive oil and butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat until sizzling. Stir in mushrooms, onions and garlic and cook 5 minutes or until mushrooms are softened.
2)Add remaining ingredients and cook, stirring until most of the moisture is evaporated. Transfer to a cutting board.
3)Chop to a spreadable consistency. Cool to room temperature.
• 8 large eggs
• Salt and pepper to taste
• 2 teaspoons chopped fresh basil
• Zucchini filling (recipe follows)
• 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan
• 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1)Turn on broiler.
2)Beat eggs, 2 tablespoons of water, salt, pepper and basil until thoroughly blended. Add zucchini filling and Parmesan.
3)Heat butter in a heavy 10-inch ovenproof skillet (cast iron is ideal) over medium-low heat until foaming. Pour in egg mixture and reduce heat to low. Cook eggs until all but the top 1/4-inch is set, about 15 minutes. Loosen the sides of the pan with a firm rubber spatula
3)Place skillet under broiler just until the top of the frittata is set, a minute or so. Cool to room temperature.
• 12 ounces zucchini
• 1 tablespoon butter
• 1 clove garlic, minced
• Salt and pepper to taste
1)Trim ends of zucchini and grate using the large holes of a box grater.
2)Heat butter in a skillet, and when foam stops, add zucchini, garlic, salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, until soft and barely browned. Cool slightly.
FOOD SAFETY TIPS