Tasty Standbys for Any Season
Antipasti, hors d’oeuvres, tapas, appetizers – it doesn’t matter what language you’re cooking in, it’s always nice to have a few trusted standbys to serve with drinks, for a light lunch, or even a picnic. We’re quite spoiled living in San Francisco and Provence, being able to picnic and eat outside most of the year. Some of our favorites dishes are good for all these occasions: Grilled peppers with hard boiled egg and anchovies (or grilled peppers with just about anything), radis au beurre, Catalonian tomato bread, and a take on a Turkish eggplant dish, imam bayeldi. But let me stop there. No need to unleash all our favorites in one fell swoop. And at this time of year with all its rich traditional food, it’s good every now and again to have something light and earthy, beyond the holiday mold.
Radis au beurre
This is an appetizer much beloved by the French, usually served with a pre-dinner apéritif or glass of wine.
The easiest way to present them is to generously butter slices of baguette and to arrange sliced and salted radish on top (see picture). You can of course serve the radish, bread, butter and salt separately and let guests make their own.
Peppers with Eggs and Anchovies
Peppers – red, maybe yellow, but definitely not green – grilled over a wood fire, under a broiler, or even on a gas burner and then peeled, dressed with your best olive oil, minced garlic and a drop or two of vinegar, is a purely sensual eating experience. If you’re doing them on the barbeque, you need to grill them whole until blackened (but not unrecognizable balls of charcoal). We mostly cook them in our toaster-oven close up under the broiler. We find that instead of trying to grill them whole, it’s a lot simpler to lay them pointing away from you on the cutting board and more or less slice them into 3 pieces, leaving the seeds and center behind (trim off any white, inedible interior stuff). It also helps to have peppers that are not seriously deformed so that they present a smooth, flat surface. Broil on a foil-lined tray until most of the surface is blackened and blistered. You can then put them in a plastic bag, as most recipes suggest, but we find that if they’re blackened over most of their surface, the skins peel off easily as soon as they’re cool enough to handle. Cut them into 1/4″ strips, add some good olive oil, some chopped garlic, a few drops of balsamic or red wine vinegar, salt and pepper and you’re all set.
As to what you do with the peppers, you can hide them in the back of the fridge until they rot (as my husband, the pepper-cooker, often does), or they’re also great loaded onto bread or toast that has been spread generously with goat cheese. Our favorite way is to pile them in a dish (2-3 red peppers grilled and dressed as above) sprinkle them with the yolk and white of a hard-boiled egg chopped separately, and then criss-cross several anchovies on top. If you’re not fond of anchovies, you can always substitute capers and/or parsley. A nice addition is to surround them with dressed arugula. We’re always delighted at how complex such a simple dish tastes.
Pa Amb Tomàquet
This is Catalan for bread with tomato. Ever-present in the tapas bars of Barcelona, it is so popular (and so good) that it is found far beyond Catalonia. There is a lot of deliberation about whether it should be oiled and toasted on both sides, whether it should be rubbed with garlic and whether it’s even worth doing when tomatoes are not at their summer ripest. Provided you can find a tomato that isn’t winter-tasteless, it’s worth trying at any time, particularly if you have some serrano (or any prosciutto-style) ham to serve it with.
Here’s how I make it: Cut a good quality baquette into about 6″ pieces and halve them. Rub lightly with garlic (optional, and easy to over do) and sprinkle with good olive oil. Broil until lightly browned. Cut your tomato in half and rub it into the toast, discarding the skin. Or you can first rub the tomato on a box grater, spreading the tomato on the bread, again discarding the skin. This is great with cured ham, with anchovies, or with the pepper salad above.
Turkish Eggplant Salad
The eggplant, or aubergine, is such a wonderfully versatile vegetable. It combines well with meat as in moussaka, with vegetables as in ratatouille, in purees and salads, and is much used in Indian and Chinese dishes. While I like to make caponata and baba ganouj, this Turkish salad is probably my very favorite.
The quantities below will make enough appetizer for at least 4, but it’s so good that you might want to double the recipe.
1 large eggplant
1 medium onion, finely chopped
7 oz. canned diced tomatoes, or 2-3 peeled and chopped
1 large clove garlic
1 tsp. cumin pounded
1/2 tsp. allspice
Salt, pinch cayenne
1 tbs. currants or yellow raisins
1 tbs. each chopped mint and parsley for garnish
Cut the eggplant, unpeeled, into 1/2″ cubes. Put them in a colander, salt them, weigh them down with something heavy (I use my mortar) and leave to drain for at least 30 minutes to remove the bitter juices.
Dry them on paper towels. I don’t like to fry eggplant as I think it absorbs too much oil, so I put the cubes on a foil-covered tray, toss them in about a tablespoon of olive oil, and broil them in the oven (or toaster oven) until well cooked – this will take 10-15 minutes. Undercooked eggplant is truly awful.
Meanwhile, fry the onion in a little olive oil over low heat about 5 minutes until softened. Add the canned tomatoes, garlic, spices and currants or raisins and continue to cook until most of the liquid has been absorbed and your kitchen is filled with the wonderful smell of garlic, oil and spices.
When the eggplant is well-cooked (have I made my point?) add it to the tomato mixture and continue to cook it for about 5 minutes until well blended. Add the chopped mint and parsley and let cool. Serve at room temperature with crusty bread or as part of a buffet with the above dishes.
**The peppers and eggplant dishes have been adapted from Simon Hopkinson’s charming book Roast Chicken and Other Stories.
I enjoyed trying an unusual dish and I was so pleasantly surprised. The balance of the sweet of raisins with the earthy flavor of eggplant and the freshness of mint was wonderful. My husband definitely wants me to make this again. Wonderful. Try something new!