Generation upon generation of Italians have loved outdoor dining. With beautiful weather and majestic sweeping views, there are few pleasures that compare with enjoying family, friends and fine food alfresco.
A great way to spend a summer afternoon is with simple Jersey Fresh selections, a fine way to ensure that you are using the best products that will create memorable dishes. Additionally, if you have not been to an Italian specialty grocer in a while, it’s time to return and add the unique and authentic ingredients to your dishes. You’ll be sure to get inspiration, ideas and plenty of delectable items from your visit. Start with a selection of cheeses. Fresh mozzarella with Jersey tomatoes, olive oil and basil make a simple, delectable Caprese Salad. Add some favorites such as homemade rice balls, fried long peppers, olives, artichokes, eggplant and mushrooms. For the breads, choose a nice semolina for your bruschetta. As you prepare a variety of healthy dishes, consider my recipe for artichokes below. You may even want to use first-press olive oil, which shimmers like the rays of the sun through its beautiful green hue. So gather with friends, relax outside and enjoy the long hours of daylight with some summer Rosato Wine (Rosé) until the stars come out.
Carciofi alla Romana
On my many visits to Rome, I always try to stop at Piazza Navona for some good ‘people watching.’ Loving artichokes as I do, they are the best in Rome.
Roman-style artichokes are one of the most popular dishes using this versatile vegetable. They are made with little more than olive oil, wine, garlic and herbs. Gently cooking the artichoke hearts in olive oil with white wine both steams and poaches them until they’re supremely tender. Combining oregano and mint creates the flavor and aroma of nepitella, an herb Romans use for this dish. It is better than the mint alone.
2 whole lemons
3 lbs artichokes (about 6 or 8)
1/4 cup flat-leaf parsley, minced
2 tbsp fresh mint leaves, minced
2 tbsp fresh oregano leaves, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 cup dry white wine
coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
Fill a large bowl with water; halve and squeeze 2 lemons into it. Trim the artichokes by cleaning them down to the hearts – using a serrated knife, cut off top of artichoke and bottom most part of stem. Then take a paring knife or sharp vegetable peeler and trim away the tough outer leaves to expose the tender inner leaves and heart. Trim away the fibrous outer layer around stem to expose tender inner core. Using a spoon, scrape out the inedible prickly choke in the center of each heart. Transfer the cleaned artichokes to bowl of lemon water as you work, covering them with a clean kitchen towel to keep them completely submerged.
In a small bowl, stir together parsley, mint, oregano and garlic. Rub the concave side of each artichoke heart with herb mixture, packing it into any leafy crevices. Set aside remaining herb mixture.
Add olive oil and wine to a pot just large enough to hold all the artichokes closely side by side, so that they can sit flat with their stem sides up. Arrange artichokes in pot and season with salt and pepper.
Bring pot to a simmer over medium-high flame, then lower heat to a bare simmer, cover and cook until artichokes are fork-tender, 20 to 30 minutes. Remove from the heat and transfer artichokes to a platter, stem sides up. Drizzle with cooking juices, along with some fresh olive oil and a light sprinkling of reserved herb mixture. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Boil the asparagus until tender. While it is still warm, season and toss with olive oil and freshly squeezed lemon. Add some fresh arugula and then place onto the bruschetta. Shave Parmigiano on top.
Cut the zucchini lengthwise into 1/4” slices. Place in a roasting pan and season. Drizzle with olive oil and bake at 400°F in the oven until crisp. Place chopped hot red pepper and mint onto the bruschetta and drizzle with olive oil.
Boil the spinach until tender. Drain and press out the water. Season and toss with a generous amount of olive oil. Place onto the bruschetta with slices of prosciutto.
Cut the figs into quarters or eighths, depending on size. Season and toss with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Add arugula. Place on the bruschetta and drizzle with olive oil.
Roasted Stuffed Chicken with Lemon and Mushrooms
In Italy, chicken is often served sliced over a leafy vegetable. Another way to prepare a chicken is to stuff it using the same ingredients as one would use in bruschetta. The dish not only brings a refined air of elegance to your outdoor dining, the flavors blend beautifully. Try using bread that is a few days old, but has never been encased in a plastic bag. You will find that the juices from the chicken will soften the bread with delicious results!
2 three-pound chickens
1 loaf Italian bread
10 oz mushrooms, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, large
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
zest of 2 lemons, finely minced
1 tbsp fresh sage, chopped
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Wash and slice the mushrooms. Try to choose a fragrant variety, not the tasteless white button mushrooms. Slice the bread into thick pieces, about 3/4″ and grill until golden brown. Rub each slice with garlic, then cut them into cubes of about ½”. Place the cubes into a bowl and drizzle with 6 tablespoons of olive oil and ½ teaspoon of coarse salt. Add chopped sage, mushrooms, lemon zest and mix well.
Spoon the mix into the cavities of the chicken. Make sure that the stuffing is firm, but not too tightly packed. I prefer to sew the cavities shut using butcher’s twine, as well tie the legs together, but you can also use toothpicks to keep the stuffing from leaking out.
Rub each chicken with a tablespoon of olive oil and season with salt. Transfer the birds to a large roasting pan and cook for 1 ½ hours, until the temperature reads 185°F at the thickest part of the thigh. To serve, remove the stuffing, carve and enjoy! This is a change from just grilled chicken.
Always use fresh flowers on your dining tables inside or out. They make every table look beautiful and appetizing.
Spaghettini with Zucchini Blossoms
This is a wonderful dish that captures the ingenuity of Italian cuisine by using simple ingredients. The blossoms of the zucchini create an unmistakable aroma and will certainly bring about a heightened level of anticipation for all.
4 ¾ cups olive oil
1 ½ lbs zucchini
1 ½ lbs spaghettini
1 tbsp garlic, coarsely chopped
1 ½ tsp crushed red pepper
5 fresh zucchini blossoms, roughly chopped
1/3 cup flat leaf parsley, chopped
freshly crushed black pepper
salt to taste
additional parsley and zucchini blossoms for garnish
In a large pot, heat four cups of olive oil over a medium-high flame until very hot, but not smoking. Working in batches, fry the zucchini for 4 to 5 minutes, until golden brown. Remove from the oil and blot on paper towels. Cook the pasta in a large pot of lightly salted water for 5-6 minutes, until al dente. Drain; reserving 2 cups of the cooking water and set aside.
In a large sauté pan, heat the remaining ¾ cup of olive oil over a medium-high flame and sauté the garlic and red pepper flakes for about 30 seconds until the garlic has softened, but not yet browned. Add the pasta and 1 ½ cups of the reserved pasta water to the pan and toss to coat. Raise the heat to high and cook for 6-8 minutes, tossing until the pasta is tender and the liquid has evaporated. Add the remaining pasta water if necessary to ensure that the spaghettini is tender.
Add the fried zucchini, chopped zucchini blossoms and parsley. Toss for a minute until the blossoms have wilted and the ingredients have become well-mixed. Season to taste with salt and a generous amount of freshly ground black pepper. Serve garnished with parsley and whole zucchini blossoms.
Lobster and Shrimp Salad over Dandelions
A seafood salad is ideal for a summer backyard get together. My recipe combines the sweetness of lobster with the bitterness of dandelion for a remarkable combination of flavors. The crispness of the string beans and tang of the lemon juice bring a unique freshness to the dish. Also note, I prefer using chervil rather than Italian parsley in this recipe.
6 small lobster tails
12 large shrimp, deveined
1 large bunch of dandelions
12 oz string beans
2 fennel bulbs
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
freshly crushed black pepper
1 tbsp chervil
Prepare the fennel by cutting off the leafy tops, then cut the fennel into 1/2” slices and make rings. Snip off the tips of the string beans and boil the whole beans for five minutes until al dente and crisp, then chill. While the beans are chilling, remove the shells from the shrimp and boil with the lobster tails until the shell of the lobster tail turns pink (about 3 minutes). Take the lobster tails out of the shells and cut into thirds. Chill the shrimp and lobster.
Thoroughly clean the dandelions and cut off the large stems. Juice the two lemons. Combine the extra virgin olive oil with the lemon juice and chervil, then toss with the dandelions, fennel and beans along with a bit of salt and freshly crushed black pepper. You can place into a large serving bowl, but ideally, serve in individual salad dishes. Place the greens onto the dish. Top with three pieces of lobster and two shrimp.