Although I spend most of my day in the kitchen – to test recipes, photograph them, write about food, but above all to wash dishes, to clean and to clear up all the mess I make even when I try to be organized – I still get a chill of excitement when I turn on the burners because there are friends for dinner. I as as thrilled as when I was allowed to invite a friend for lunch after school. I still study the menu splurging on details, I foretaste the moment when we will sit around the table sharing those dishes I had in mind for days.
I love to entertain guests at home, whether for a cozy dinner inside, for a lunch in the garden or for an afternoon tea with cake and cookies. I discovered this fondness for entertainment early on, when I was still living with my parents. Slowly I would carve out some space for me in mum’s menù, introducing one or two dishes that I could manage from start to finish, often a dessert or a side dish, the most mistreated courses in my family. Nothing could match the thrill of bringing to the table something that would completely depend on me. In those moments I could finally recognize that I was gifted with a creative talent that I could not express otherwise. I was the protagonist of a small miracle, a successful alchemy of smells and flavours.
During the summer I would invite my friends over and I would claim the table in the garden hours in advance, dancing in the kitchen with the usual clumsiness and disorganization typical of the beginnings of every aspiring chef. While my friends were already sitting at the table with hopeful expressions, I would be still juggling in the kitchen in between pots and pans, enjoying little or nothing of that dinner I had waited for so long. Those hitches could not cloud my enthusiasm, and while I was up late cleaning up piles of dishes and cookware, I was already dreaming about the next dinner, painting it in bright colours.
Fast forward a couple of years and I finally learnt to handle dinners with friends, as I realized the importance of simplifying the menu and choosing recipes which could be made in advance, even better if they could improve while resting. I left aside those dishes which required hours of constant effort and attention and the vanity to surprise at all costs. I have embraced with transport a new philosophy that focuses on the pleasure of spending time with friends: I prepare the food a few hours in advance or choose dishes that look after themselves, I wash pots and bowls that are no longer needed, and when it’s time for dinner I almost feel like I am a guest myself.
I became a lively supporter of meat which required a long marinade before a quick cooking, of stews, lasagna, meatballs in tomato sauce, steaming soups which only required a last minute decoration with croutons, bean and cereal salads.
Some weeks ago Samurai sent me a box with their products – all made with natural wood – to dress with creativity an ordinary recipe that you would cook on a daily basis. It looked like a good excuse to throw a dinner party with friends, one of those dinners I really love: a pinch of organization, a bunch of fresh ingredients, some help from the pantry but, most importantly, simple, tasty food prepared in advance to be shared with calm and joy.
I came out of the pantry hugging a dozen jars: green and black Sicilian olives, the tomato paste I made during summer, baby artichokes in olive oil from the last season, spices and seeds I always forget to have, as they have this tendency to hide behind packets of pasta and bags of beans.
This menu was born shuffling the cards: some ingredients fished out of the pantry, treasured there over the months to preserve seasons, aromas and memories, and a few fresh ingredients that you can purchase at the last minute or that you will most likely already have in the fridge. You will also need fresh parsley and lemon zest for the olives, chicken breast, mozzarella di bufala, prosciutto crudo, eggs, butter and cream.
Playing with these ingredients I prepared a dinner for four people with two appetizers, marinated green and black olives with lemon zest and coriander seeds and skewers of buffalo mozzarella, prosciutto and artichokes, a main of a clever version of chicken cacciatora and as a dessert a lemon and poppy seed pound cake.
But let’s go step by step. If you start a few hours in advance, you will find yourself at the table without effort, without having to do anything but grilling the chicken skewers at the very last minute.
Marinated green and black olives with lemon zest and coriander seeds
On a cutting board collect some parsley, the lemon zest, a touch of chili and a clove of garlic. Chop finely with a knife and inhale the aromas. Resist the urge to start eating, you’ll need to be patient. Scrape into the olives, add the coriander seeds, drizzle with your best olive oil, give it a stir and set aside for a few hours.
- 150 g of black olives
- 150 g of green olives
- Zest of ½ lemon
- 1 bunch of parsley
- 1 clove of garlic
- Dried chili pepper
- 1 tablespoon of coriander seeds
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Drain the olives and collect them in a bowl.
- Chop the lemon zest parsley, chili pepper to taste and garlic, scrape them into the olives along with the lightly crushed coriander seeds. Drizzle with enough extra virgin olive oil to make the olives shimmer.
- Stir and set aside, in the refrigerator or in a cool place until dinner time.
- Keep the leftovers in the refrigerator covered with clingfilm and bring to room temperature before serving.
Italian appetizer with baby artichokes, prosciutto crudo and mozzarella
Does your heart skip a beat when, dining out in an Italian osteria, they bring you a platter of cold cuts and cheese? Mine does. The sinuous ribbons of prosciutto, the milky curves of a mozzarella, the tiny bowls of glistening vegetables preserved in olive oil, winking at you from the board. In this case, buffalo mozzarella, prosciutto and baby artichokes are nicely aligned on a skewer. Quickly grill the baby artichokes for a few minutes on a hot grill until they acquire the full flavour and aroma of a summer barbecue.
- 8 baby artichokes in oil
- 4 slices of prosciutto crudo
- 8 bites of buffalo mozzarella
- 8 skewers
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Black pepper
- Drain the baby artichokes, pat them dry with a kitchen paper, then grill them on both sides on a hot pan until golden brown. Let them cool down.
- Cut each slice of ham lengthwise in a half.
- Pierce through a skewer a piece of mozzarella, a ribbon of prosciutto and the baby artichoke. Season with freshly ground black pepper and a drizzle of olive oil.
Chicken cacciatore skewers
This chicken is worth a digression. The chicken cacciatore, slow-cooked pieces of chicken in a thick garlicky tomato sauce, embellished with a handful of black olives, is one of those dishes that mark indelibly my childhood memories, along with the piece of bread I would use to mop that rustic sauce and perfectly clean the dish.
These skewers wink at those memories. Cut the chicken breast into pieces and marinate for a few hours with tomato paste, chopped garlic and olive oil. When the chicken turns the colour of a summer sunset, prepare the skewers, alternating the meat with pitted black olives. You will need just a couple of minutes to grill the chicken and give it that smoky sweet taste of summer tomatoes cooked long enough to become a thick sauce. Lick your fingers without shame.
- 400 g of chicken breast, but you can also use the more flavorful meat of a thigh
- 2 tablespoons of tomato paste
- 1 clove of garlic
- Extra virgin olive oil
- About 30 pitted black olives
- Cut the chicken breast into bit-sized pieces, gather them in a bowl and add the tomato paste, the minced garlic and a few tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Stir with a spoon to dress the chicken with the marinade, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for a few hours.
- When you are almost ready for dinner, take the chicken out of refrigerator and prepare 8 skewers, alternating chicken pieces and pitted black olives. Bring to room temperature and grill on a hot pan, until golden on each side.
- Sprinkle with salt and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil.
Lemon and poppy seed pound cake
This pound cake is as classic as you can imagine, a reassuring mix of lemon zest and poppy seeds. How I love poppy seeds, they make everything more cheerful, just like when you spot vanilla seeds in the whiteness of a pannacotta.
Bake the cake until golden and lightly moist inside. You can either serve the cake in its familiar round shape, covered with a dark chocolate ganache, or cut it into cubes and make it more eye catching. Either way, you are going to close your dinner on a sweet citrusy note.
- 180 g of caster sugar
- 180 g of butter, at room temperature
- Zest and juice of 1 organic lemon
- 3 medium eggs
- 180 g of plain flour
- 8 g of baking powder
- 1 pinch of salt
- 3 tablespoons of poppy seeds
- 150 g of dark chocolate
- 80 ml of fresh cream
- Preheat oven to 180°C.
- Beat butter, sugar and lemon zest until creamy. Inhale the lemon aroma, which will then permeate your cake.
- Add eggs, one at a time, and finally the flour sifted with baking powder and salt.
- Stir in the lemon juice and the poppy seeds.
- Grease and dust with flour a 18 cm round cake tin. Scrape the batter into the tin and bake for about 30 minutes, or until golden and dry inside. Test it with a toothpick.
- Let it cool down completely, then cut into cubes. You are allowed to eat the trimmings.
- Prepare the chocolate ganache. Melt the chocolate in a double boiler, then stir in the cream and whisk until smooth.
- Dip half of the cake cubes into the chocolate ganache with the help of a toothpick, then let them dry on a wire rack.
- When the chocolate is solid, alternate white and black cubes on skewers and decorate with a few mint leaves. You can store them in the refrigerator for a day or two. Remember to bring them back to room temperature before serving.