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   You Made All
   This Yourself?

   by Amanda Hesser

  Lots of things can happen at a dinner party. People can show up late, or never. Guests can mix like lemons and cream. The heirloom platter can break. But there is one thing you should be able to count on: a good meal.

  There are experts on entertaining who will encourage you to surprise guests, to prepare individual tarts to make your guests feel special or to serve them something they would never cook at home.

  To these, I would like to add my own: I call it the cut-your-losses theory of entertaining. Serve guests delicious things — especially at the beginning of the meal — that you can prepare ahead of time. Guests are always delighted to be served good food, no matter how simple it is. They will be surprised that you are not stressed out or sequestered in the kitchen, and they will naturally feel special because they don't have to cook it.

  You may have a few last-minute preparations for the main course, but the first course should leave you untethered and your kitchen uncluttered. Oddly enough, a perfect solution lies in what Italian restaurants have been doing for ages and what some of the latest to arrive in New York, like Otto and Gonzo, have turned into something of an art form: the antipasto.

  If antipasti bring to mind thick slices of salami and provolone layered on a platter with canned peppers and olives, read on. Antipasti in the modern American sense — although I wouldn't say the true Italian sense — are an assortment of small tastes that stimulate the palate without filling you up. This could mean something as simple as a gently boiled egg, covered with a plump anchovy fillet, or a spoonful of roasted cauliflower coated in a dressing of lemon, olives and capers.

  In "Cooking the Roman Way" (HarperCollins), David Downie, the author, explains: "The ancient Romans often started a banquet meal with a gustum, an appetite-stimulator or appetizer, what contemporary Romans would refer to in standard Italian as an antipasto or a stuzzichino." But antipasti long remained a fixture exclusively of wealthy tables.

  Mario Batali, in the kitchen at Otto last week, said it was not until after World War II that such dishes moved to the tables of the working class. And even so, he added: "There's a big difference between where workers eat and where people in the cities eat. Where the workers eat, they don't expect to see a wine list and they don't expect to see antipasti other than a plate of salami."

  Even in Italy, it is generally the chefs in cities who have taken a creative interest in antipasti. In New York, where prosciutto and melon had long been the extent of experimental antipasti, there is now salsify braised in saba (cooked grape must), chicken liver and onion bruschetta, sweet white runner beans simmered with sage and garlic, and housemade headcheese.

  Excepting the headcheese, much of the same can be done at home. If you are having a party for six, you can prepare four or five antipasti. They may be cooked in stages in the days leading up to the party, put in the refrigerator and left to warm to room temperature in their serving dishes. There is no time pressure. If they sit out for an hour extra, no harm is done.

  While antipasti were actually meant to be eaten before the first course, at a dinner party it is perfectly fine to serve them as the first course. Arrange them separately on plates or in bowls, so there is a feeling of plenty. Guests can pass them and choose the ones they wish to taste, and by passing and sharing, conversations will soon be skipping along.

  If the party is very casual, or is a lunch party, the antipasti can be the entire meal. In this case, I would plan about six choices, so there is enough variety to invite guests back for seconds.

  Not all antipasti can be prepared ahead of time. Dishes like Roman-style fried artichokes and fried zucchini flowers must be finished at the last moment, and so are best enjoyed in a restaurant. But there are plenty of fried foods, like fried eggplant, fried fish and croquettes, that can be served at room temperature.

  Most antipasti contain just a handful of ingredients. At Otto, for instance, there is a dish of marinated anchovies served simply with croutons, scallions, lemon juice and olive oil.

  "You just want to make sure you don't obfuscate it with anything," Mr. Batali, the chef, explained, as he stirred the anchovy salad. "The main event is the protein. The other stuff is clothing it. You can dress it up a lot or keep it simple."

  The same goes for dishes like his cauliflower antipasto, in which cauliflower is roasted and then coated with lemon, capers, olives and garlic. If you chose not to dress the cauliflower, Mr. Batali pointed out, it would still be a perfectly acceptable antipasto. He reached into a two-foot-wide bowl filled with roasted cauliflower and popped a large floret into his mouth. "It's so good I could eat a whole bowl of that," he said, adding: "That bowl."

  Flavors should be robust, but the dishes should be light. Cesare Casella, the chef at Beppe, serves a bean salad, brightened with red-wine vinegar and marjoram. In Marcella Hazan's "Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking" (Knopf), there is a recipe for ricotta and anchovies mashed together with butter, olive oil and black pepper and spread on toasts. You could make a coarser version with buttered bread topped with an anchovy.

  Parmigiano-Reggiano can be broken into chunks and sprinkled with a fine balsamic vinegar. Onions can be sautéed with sugar and vinegar; eggplant and olives can be blended into caponata. Panzanella, the bread salad with tomato, would make an excellent antipasto. And there is always prosciutto with melon, which may be the only dish on earth never to be protested by man.

  Begin by thinking of a small spread. A plate of cured meats like coppa, prosciutto or mortadella, bought from the best source you can find. (Shopping is a crucial part of any good cooking, but especially here, where a bottle of excellent olive oil, salt-cured capers, fresh sea salt and pecorino from Sini Fulvi can make an enormous difference.) The meats may be served alone. If it's late summer, place a pile of ripe figs nearby. When figs are out of season, use dried (but moist) figs and prepare a preserve with orange peel and pepper to eat with the meats.

  You can fry meatballs scented with porcini and serve them at room temperature. Then consider a fish or shellfish. Mr. Batali prepares a brilliant antipasto with swordfish, although any firm-fleshed fish would work. The fish is cubed, then covered completely in olive oil. The oil is seasoned with salt and sugar, and chili peppers and lime zest are added to it. The fish is then baked at 225 degrees. It doesn't so much cook as percolate, as the flavors in the oil infuse the fish. When serving, the cubes of fish are sprinkled with olive oil, coarse salt and lemon juice.

  Small salads are a good way to add texture to a mix of dishes. Fold shrimp with white beans and basil and a fruity olive oil. Use a vegetable peeler to shave the season's first asparagus into ribbons, then mix them with tiny beads of pecorino, coarsely ground pepper, olive oil and salt. When fava beans arrive, and if you have the patience, shell a bunch and serve them with the same dressing.

  I like to have a few salads, one or two meat dishes and perhaps a fish or shellfish antipasto. I may add a bruschetta as well. This can mean marinated chickpeas with red onion or simply the toasted bread rubbed with garlic and a fresh tomato, and sprinkled with olive oil. The latter, when tomatoes are in season, is tough to beat, and a good reminder that it doesn't take much to excite someone who loves to eat. Just think how pleased your guests will be when you prepare it, and then are able to sit down and calmly enjoy it with them.

  • Recipe: Slow-Cooked Swordfish
  • Recipe: Roasted Cauliflower With Lemon, Capers and Olives
  • Recipe: Porcini Meatballs
  • Recipe: Fig Preserve for Cured Meats
  • Recipe: Shrimp With Beans and Basil

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