A friend and I took in Italian Night at a local restaurant recently, and we had a great time. The food was fresh, with plenty of herbs and tasty touches, and it’s always a treat to have someone cook for you and serve you in festive style. Best of all? You can recreate at least two of those specialty dishes in your own home.
If I may address the Newfoundlanders and Labradorians among you for a moment, do you remember your parents’ (or grandparents’) card parties, where toothpicks sported a slice of Vienna sausage with a pickle or pickled onion and a cheese cube? They weren’t gourmet cooking, but there weren’t a lot of choices at the grocery store, and I don’t recall many leftovers at the end of the evening, so someone liked them.
If antipasto sounds intimidating, think dressed-up hors-d’oeuvres that take advantage of all the wonderful things we can now buy right here. The lightly cooked mixed vegetable relish that lends its name to this appetizer can be made at home, but feel free to buy a jar. With the platter approach, it is really more of an optional condiment, anyway.
For dinner, arrange everything as artfully as you wish on a serving plate. For a party, double or triple the quantities and place each component in a separate serving dish, arranging them so they look like a giant platter. Don’t torture your guests by making them guess where to put the olive pits — put a dish off to the side to collect them or serve only olives with the pits removed.
This amount serves 8 easily as a full first course or provides substantial nibbles for up to 16 party goers. All amounts are approximate and easily adjusted to suit your tastes.
1/2 lb. each thinly sliced mortadella (Italian bologna), Genoa salami and prosciutto ham
1/2 lb. each provolone and mozzarella cheese, cubed
1 jar pickled artichokes, quartered
1 jar roasted red peppers—not the finely diced kind, drained thoroughly and quartered
1/2 cup non-sweet pickled onions or small pickles
8 cherry tomatoes, halved
16 large shavings or chips of Parmesan cheese
16 melon slices or other fruit chunks, to refresh the palate
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 baguette, thinly sliced
The key is to cut everything so it can be picked up with a toothpick or small cocktail fork and arrange it as attractively as possible. Drizzle olive oil over top of everything and garnish with large fresh basil or sage leaves or a bunch of Italian parsley — whatever you can find fresh. Serve purchased antipasto vegetable mixture with a small spoon in it on the side if you like.
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At least once a week someone asks me what makes a perfect lasagna. I think it has fresh tasting, flavourful layers; lots of cheese; and sufficient time to rest so it doesn’t collapse on the plate like a casserole.
This version is delicious and not too daunting for the home cook. While I like a creamy layer of béchamel sauce, it’s more work and I think the ricotta-goat cheese is tastier and easier. Spinach is also nice but it contains a lot of water and can create that soupy sensation. I have tried the non-boil noodles but I still prefer the kind you pre-cook. If you use the instant kind, then you might want to increase the liquid in the sauce— at least by a bit. Double this recipe if you’d like an extra pan for the freezer. Bake from frozen but reduce the temperature by 25 degrees and increase cooking time by about 20 minutes.
Best Homemade Lasagna
2 cups ricotta cheese (regular or light)
1 lb. hot Italian sausage (or mild if you prefer)
2 stalks celery, minced
1 large onion, finely diced
4 cups fresh mixed mushrooms, thinly sliced
1 lb. lean ground beef
2 tbsp. tomato paste
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp. dried oregano
1 28-oz. can crushed tomatoes
1 tsp. each salt and freshly ground black pepper (divided)
4 sprigs fresh thyme
6 sprigs fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley (stalks and all)
2 fresh bay leaves (or 3 dried)
1/2 box lasagna noodles (about 250 or 1/2 lb.)
4 oz. goat cheese
1-1/4 cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese (divided)
1/4 cup chopped fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley (leaves only)
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
1 egg, lightly beaten
3 cups grated mozzarella cheese (divided)
Before you start anything else — and you might want to do this a day ahead just to make life easier — put the ricotta in a colander or 4 layers of cheesecloth. Suspend over a bowl and refrigerate until as much of the moisture as possible has dripped out. Discard the liquid. Set drained ricotta aside to use later. Remove casings from sausages and scramble-fry in a Dutch oven until nearly cooked through. Add celery, onion and mushrooms and continue cooking until vegetables are wilted and golden and any released liquid has evaporated. Remove and drain; discard all but 1 tbsp. of fat. Return reserved fat to the pot and add beef. Cook until nearly cooked through and starting to brown. Push meat to the side and add tomato paste. Cook, stirring, until it becomes quite dark in colour and starts to coat the surface of the pot. Add garlic and oregano and cook another minute. Return sausage mixture and add tomatoes, half the salt and pepper, thyme, parsley and bay leaves. Cover and simmer over low heat about 40 minutes, or until slightly thickened and everything is tender; cool. Discard the thyme and parsley stalks and bay leaves and taste for salt and pepper — adjust to taste. Cook noodles according to package instructions. Rinse in cold water and set aside, separating the noodles so they don’t stick together. Stir together goat cheese, 1 cup of the Parmesan, parsley and basil. Stir in egg, 1 cup of the mozzarella, drained ricotta, and remaining 1/2 tsp. salt and pepper. Spread about 1/3 of the cooled sauce in the bottom of a 9 by 13-inch baking dish. Top with half the lasagna noodles followed by half the ricotta mixture, and another 1/3 of the sauce. Layer on the remaining lasagna noodles, remaining ricotta mixture, and remaining 1/3 of the sauce. Top with remaining 2 cups Mozzarella cheese and remaining 1/4 cup of Parmesan. Cover with foil and bake at 375 F for 30 minutes. Uncover and bake another 15 minutes, until bubbling hot and cheese is starting to brown. Remove from oven and allow to rest at least 15 minutes before cutting into squares.
Cynthia Stone is a writer, editor and teacher in St. John’s. Questions may be sent to her c-o The Telegram, P.O. Box 86, St. John’s, NL, A1E 4N1.