It’s time to make the most of outdoor gatherings in the summer heat. One of my favorite ways to feed people is to put together an array of appetizers. The core of warm-weather entertaining is to lean as much as possible on ready ingredients. It’s enough that you’re hosting. You don’t need to be a sweaty mess by the time people arrive. Everyone loves grazing, and for the cook, it’s a great way to use up pantry ingredients and condiments cluttering up your fridge.
If you’re like me, your pantry and refrigerator are filled hot sauces, pastes, pickles, and more. Here is your opportunity to use some up. As for drinks, I always ask friends to bring what they want to drink. There is such a range for people that it’s nearly impossible to have everything on hand. I’ve been back from Italy for a month and I’m still missing it, so here’s my way to still feel that casual sense of la dolce vita or “the sweet life” through food.
Pesto means paste, and you can make it from more than just basil, and toss it on more than just pasta. You can buy really good quality basil pesto in most gourmet shops or cheese stores. My current favorite is at Monsieur Marcel in the Original Farmers Market. If you’re making your own, don’t skimp on the quality of the olive oil, because it’s the heart of any blended herbal or condiment mix. But there are more pestos than the classic Ligurian basil variety. Try making a sun-dried tomato paste with arugula, pine nuts, and a bit of garlic, or a “pesto” of pistachio nuts, garlic, and parmesan. Or try the Sicilian pesto alla Trapanese made of fresh tomatoes, almonds, garlic, basil, and a mix of pecorino and parmigiano – the perfect summertime condiment for slathering or dipping in addition to tossing with pasta. Obvious candidates for seasoning with your choice of pesto are fresh mozzarella balls, from large to tiny, and small cherry or grape tomatoes cut in half. You can skewer them, or serve together in a small bowl with toothpicks. But if you make the paste thick enough, you can also just spread it on crostini or crackers. The pistachio pesto is particularly good for this. The new owner of The Cheese Store of Beverly Hills, Domenico, is famous for his pesto concoctions.
And about those crostini. You might want to use squares of focaccia instead for a softer treat. If the focaccia is thick, just cut it in half horizontally. Here in town we’re lucky to have Ceci’s Gastronomia for excellent focaccia.
Have you ever blitzed together canned tuna and butter? It’s a big umami bomb and nearly effortless to make. You can keep it simple with the two main ingredients or add an anchovy or two, a few capers, a squeeze of lemon, and some parsley. Once you have it, you can use it as a protein filled dip, dab it on crostini, cucumber slices, or a Belgian endive spear, or use it to stuff those sweet-hot peppadew peppers at your local grocery store’s olive bar.
Are you a person who loves fried baloney? Have you ever tried fried mortadella, the queen of baloney? My friend Elizabeth Minchilli, who is the queen of casual Italian entertaining, turned me on to these nuggets when we were in Venice together. Just ask for a slice or two of ¼ inch thick sliced mortadella at your local Italian deli or grocery. Quickly sear it in a hot pan so that it’s charred in spots, then slice into easily edible pieces. Insert toothpicks and serve. If you want to get fancy you can add a pickled yellow pepperoncino pepper to the toothpick.
Need a dip that will get some attention? Make one from labneh (the strained yogurt) and roasted beet. I prefer roasting my beets to boiling them because the color of the root remains more intense. I simply grate a small roasted beet into lebne, add a squeeze of lemon and a bit of grated garlic then stir. Expect a magical fuschia dip perfect for vegetable dipping. I love using roasted fingerling potatoes for this dip. Just drizzle the potato with olive oil, salt and pepper and roast at 400° until tender. If the potatoes are bigger than a couple of bites, cut them in half vertically before seasoning.
Did you know you can sauté that shelf-stable potato gnocchi and serve it on skewers? Or you can toss it with a great summer tomato sauce and serve a few piled up on baby romaine lettuce leaves with that Pesto alla Trapanese I wrote about earlier.
Good ricotta made in the true Italian style, like Bellwether Farms, is a fantastic canvas for a range of crostini. I love to add a few pieces of chopped walnuts to the ricotta topped crostini and drizzle honey over. Or you can settle a cut ripe strawberry atop the cheese and drizzle with that good balsamic you’ve been hoarding, or a drop or two of pomegranate molasses. It’s also great atop those fried pieces of mortadella.
If you’re up to grilling outside, make a treat of grilled marinated eggplant wrapped around fresh mozzarella. I’ve probably made thousands of these over the years. I like to marinate the eggplant after cooking with a young balsamic vinegar, garlic and fresh basil.
And it’s fig season. Just peel them and drape thin slices of prosciutto next to them and maybe a few marcona almonds too. Guests can wrap them or stud them with the nuts as desired.
Take your time preparing for people to come over. Gathering ingredients and making dishes over a couple days always makes me more relaxed so I can tidy up and prepare the table without stress.