“Man (and woman) cannot live by bread alone,” was always the truth. Even the very best of bread, which is some of the most wondrous and healthy food in the world, must have its topping, its gilding, its raison d’être–its reason to exist. Bread bakers, feel free to chime in disagreeing here.
Add wine, of course. How about other necessities like song and laughter? That would mean a party and the most memorable parts of the current season (the touch of hot summer sun lingering on glistening skin, a crash of sudden wild storms cracking open in the distance, the heady sniff of freshly cut grass, hot orange day lilies along the path, sleazy dog-eared paperbacks sporting just such language) all call out for such a gathering to occur at night and out of doors.
If you’re game, you can have just such a little piece of heaven in your own backyard one night with a summer wine party featuring all of the above–starry, starry night, friends, bottles of cold vino, crostini (grilled baguette slices), a couple of great Mediterranean vegetable toppers, freshly-made cheese, crunchy vegetables, and salty, chewy Prosciutto. Don’t wait too long. Summer is always over too soon.
HERE’S THE MENU:
- Grilled Baguette: a bear-sized basket full of crispy, crackling crostini and another with gluten-free crackers or bread. Find a bakery with great baguettes ahead of time and buy one yard-long loaf for every 3 people. (To make: slice into 1-inch pieces, brush both sides with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, grill 2-3 minutes over medium heat, turn over and grill on other side.)
- Fresh Ricotta: a teeming bowl full, homemade if at all possible, though specialty shops may carry it, too, if you’re in a rush. Garnish with fresh ground pepper and a little woody herb like rosemary or thyme. (Recipe below) Read up on fresh cheese here.
- Tiny grilled tomatoes on skewers with a tangle of shredded fresh basil. Recipe here, though there’s no need for marinating unless you so choose. Don’t forget to soak the wooden skewers a half-hour ahead of grilling to prevent burning. You’ll need about a cup of julienne basil (fresh basil shredded into matchstick-sized pieces).
- Caponata or Ratatouille: a big crock of piquant Sicilian or French cooked summer vegetables. One reason? It is now the time for eggplant–buy shiny, firm, unblemished specimens that are creamy white all the way through when sliced. (Recipes below)
- Prosciutto–Fine and dear Italian ham. Purchase imported, though domestic is available. Ask for a pound to be sliced thinly and then on the morning or afternoon of the party, layer it on a flat platter or board garnished with bright parsley/basil and cherry tomatoes/chopped red peppers at the center. More here.
- Tapenade: an addictive marriage of chopped olives, herbs, capers, garlic, spices, anchovies, olive oil, and red wine vinegar all heaped high in your best wedding or birthday gift pottery bowl (Recipe below)
- Crudités…fresh veggies for crunch and a nod to the balanced meals your mother always talked about
- Wine …your choice, but I favor icy whites, rosés, and sparklers in warm weather. A light Italian red might be in order for those who would enjoy it with the caponata or ratatouille. (Chill it an hour.) HOW MUCH WINE TO BUY? If your friends are light drinkers who come and go in an hour or two, lowball figure a bottle for every two guests plus lots of water, no matter what. Should they be those who choose to stay long into the night or truly love wine, it’s best to have a bottle per person. I guesstimate at 4 pours per 750ml bottle. No need for high priced vino here. Ask the wine shop for suggestions within your budget or do a little googling for a list of possibilities. Another idea is to ask each guest to bring a “chilled summery bottle” to share, though you take your life (and your party) into your own hands here.
- Sparkling water–feels festive without the alcohol. Buy the store brand and put out some sliced lemons and lime, if you like. Have pitchers of tap water and ice, too, but don’t forget to set out regular glasses, even if they’re plastic. If you don’t, people will continually ask you for a glass of water.
- Dessert? Up to you. If so: Ice cream w/ berries, or high-end ice cream bars, or a big bowl of butter cookies. Do serve coffee toward the end of the evening, even if you skip the optional dessert.
It might look something like this. Or better, I hope, as I put this out in about five minutes with a few dozen much-loved people talking and drinking around me. I typically need a bit more quiet to accomplish things, as might you, but we don’t always get what we need! Plunge ahead. (Hoping for better photos from someone who used a real camera at this party. Will share if available.)
(Is it crostini or bruschetta? Find the answer here.)
How to do it all? Here’s a game plan:
- A week or two ahead— Invite 20 people you like to be with. Borrow the chairs, tables, wine glasses, and lanterns if need be. (Or just have everyone bring a chair. and a flashlight!) Count your tiny (bread) plates and serving utensils. Find beautiful napkins, a very large wooden cutting board or other sort of tray, and an outsized basket at the thrift store. Nothing needs to match and you can surely just pick up great small paper plates and napkins if that’s more your style. Try your music system out of doors or beg a friend with a great play list, phone, and blue tooth speaker. How about the soundtrack from “Ratatouille” or Pearl Django downloaded or on Pandora? Buy the wine, store it in a cool spot, and shop for shelf-stable ingredients. Think about PLAN B, which means figuring out what you’ll do if it pours rain. Consider your fridge space. Plan on borrowing coolers and purchasing ice if need be. Pray for a moonlit night.
Below: caponata in process
- The day before, or the day before that–Shop for fresh ingredients. Make the caponata or ratatouille and the tapenade so the ingredients have a little time to get used to one another in your fridge. 3-4 hours cooking time needed. If it’s really warm you might choose the early morning as the eggplant does go into the oven. Chill the wine.
- Day of of the party, part 1, MORNING–Begin the ricotta in the morning, remembering there’s a happy free hour in the middle of making it where the cooked milk and vinegar must drain through cheesecloth. Below: covered bowls of draining ricotta.
You can run to the bakery, buy the bread, come home, slice and grill it. (No grill? Carefully –it burns too quickly– toast baguette slices brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with salt and pepper under the broiler on both sides.) Let it cool on racks or sheet pans and throw it into a big clean garbage bag, all tied up tight until you need it.
- Day of the party, part 2, AFTERNOON: Slice fresh vegetables and store them in the fridge separately. Layer the prosciutto onto a flat platter or board, garnish it, cover it tightly with plastic wrap and store it, too, in your now very full fridge. Your white wine, rose, and sparklers are there, too, right? Grill (or oven roast) the cherry tomatoes near the end of preparations, though an hour or so ahead won’t hurt. (No time to grill? Just chop ripe tomatoes, drain a bit on paper towels, and place in a bowl.) Set out plates, napkins, lanterns, glasses, and so on. Take out the tapenade, caponata/ratatouille, and let them come at least close to room temperature.
- One and a half hours before guests arrive: Clean up kitchen, shower, and get dressed; put a clean apron on. Time to gather the ingredients for the wooden tray of goodies. Put your creative brain on and arrange the food, giving yourself ample time to do so. Add the food to the wooden cutting board beginning with larger bowls (caponata/ratatouille, tapenade, ricotta) and stuffing smaller, more flexible items (vegetables, chopped basil) into the leftover spaces, nooks, and crannies.
- See photo below– one of my antipasti platters to prove the point, “We eat with our eyes first.” Worth the time and thought for an artful presentation that keeps individual elements together. Can’t manage it? Don’t worry; people will eat no matter what is my experience. Put the crostini and GF crackers/bread in the baskets and take out the platter of prosciutto to warm a bit.
- Just before folks arrive: Put the wine out, open a few bottles, light the lanterns, take off your apron, turn on the music, and ahi estás, eureka, et voila, there you are. Have fun!
Recipes below, as needed. Try this and enjoy summer at night…
Above: I use tapenade for many things (garnishing big bone-in pork chops is a favorite), but this salad from my book SOUPS & SIDES FOR EVERY SEASON is simple and filling: TAPENADE SALAD WITH GOAT CHEESE CROSTINI- a mound of tapenade at the center, and next a ring of fresh greens topped by quickly sautéed cherry tomatoes with a bit of a kick–all circled with goat cheese crostini.
Makes 2 cups or 32 tablespoons
Tapenade comes together very quickly and will keep for several days in your fridge, but you can also buy it at the olive bar in the grocery, in delis, or in jars at Costco. If you buy yours, bring it home and put it into a bowl; taste and re-season if necessary.
- 2 cups pitted, well-drained kalamata olives or a mixture of green and kalamata olives
- 1 cup fresh parsley leaves, chopped
- 1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, thyme or basil, minced, optional
- 2 anchovies–don’t skip
- 1 tablespoon capers, drained, chopped
- 1 large garlic clove, sliced
- Pinch crushed red pepper
- 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar (or substitute lemon juice and white wine vinegar)
- 6 tablespoons your best quality extra-virgin olive oil
- Kosher salt and pepper, to taste
Mince olives, parsley, rosemary, anchovies, capers and garlic. Stir together with a pinch of crushed red pepper, red wine vinegar and olive oil. Mix well, taste, and season with just a tiny pinch of salt and pepper. (You might need no salt at all as the olives are quite salty.) Or place all ingredients except salt and pepper in a food processor fitted with a steel blade and pulse carefully until a finely chopped paste forms–you don’t want this puréed. (Still quite edible if the food processor has its way and you have puréed tapenade!) Refrigerate for several hours or overnight for best flavors.
ABOUT THE RICOTTA:
Different cooks make ricotta different ways, but most of them are fairly similar and use a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio of whole milk to heavy cream. The amounts of acid (vinegar or lemon juice) and salt added are somewhat up to your own taste, but the cheese will not curdle (which means you won’t have cheese) without a certain amount of acid and it will be sweeter if you use less salt. As always, taste and adjust as the crux of taste is in the balance of acid and salt. Use organic milk if possible.
HOMEMADE RICOTTA CHEESE
Makes 2 cups. Doubles easily, which you’ll need done for a group of 20.
Read though recipe before beginning. While you can buy fresh ricotta at some stores, it’s dicey-pricey–perhaps $8-$10 a pint or more. Of course you can buy commercially-made ricotta in plastic containers, but that is not fresh ricotta. Fresh cheese just lasts a few days and the cheese in plastic containers is usually a lot older than that. Fine for your grandmother’s lasagna recipe, but not for appetizers or lathering on sweet, tender peaches, say. This is easy and there’s an hour downtime in the middle. I double or triple this for larger parties, but make no larger than a double batch at a time.
EQUIPMENT: You’ll need a non-reactive pot (stainless steel or enameled cast iron—not aluminum), cheesecloth–available at grocery or hardware stores or cheese-making suppliers, and a fine mesh sieve.
- 2 cups whole milk
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 2 ½ tablespoons plain white vinegar or lemon juice
- Salt to taste
Stir together milk and cream in a heavy 2 or 3-quart pot. Heat over medium heat until just beginning to bubble around the edges, but not boiling (180 degrees F at altitude, 190 degrees F at sea level). Turn off heat and stir in vinegar or lemon juice. Remove from stove, cover with a clean dishtowel, and let sit 45-60 minutes.
Pour slowly through a fine mesh sieve lined with 2-3 layers of cheesecloth set over a bowl so that it drains easily. Let drain an hour (or overnight in fridge for thicker cheese), turn out into another bowl and stir in a pinch or two of salt to taste. The watery liquid that’s left is called whey. (See Cook’s Note.) Discard cheesecloth. Use within an hour or two or refrigerate, tightly covered, up to 4 days.
Cook’s Note or YOUR WAY WITH WHEY: Now you’ll know what Little Miss Muffet did while sitting on her tuffet, eating her curds and whey. By the whey, cook potatoes or pasta in it or drink some yourself as it’s quite tasty. What else? Refrigerate overnight and use it in your smoothy or for pancakes.
Why might you want to make homemade ricotta?
- It’s fresher than anything at the store and fresher is better.
- You know what’s in it because you made it.
- It’s a simple and inexpensive hors d’oeuvres (appetizer). Spread on grilled baguette slices, top with chopped tomatoes—quickly sautéed or fresh– and fresh basil or just sprinkle with salt and pepper and eat on crackers. Season and use for a protein-heavy veggie or chip dip.
- Stir into hot pasta for a quick vegetarian dinner you’ll love. (This is the adult version of macaroni and cheese!)
- Less expensive than fresh ricotta in the store—if you can find any
- It’s fun, easy, and you perhaps never did it before.
- Now you can say you’re a cheesemaker.
below: cleaning Japanese eggplant, basil, and yellow zucchini in my sink
I don’t make caponata often enough to have created my own recipe and so use this one from Chef Anne Burrell. While the recipe was just about perfect, I’d caution you to read though it carefully. While it appears simple, and is, you’ll need to pay extra attention to seasoning the dish–especially if you’ve doubled or tripled it, as did I. It truly needs overnight in the fridge for marrying of flavors and is then good for about 3 days. You can live on its leftovers while you recover from the party. Fill an omelet with caponata or use as a topping for fish, chicken, sliced pork, rice, or pasta. Best of all, eat it just like it is.
You might also read David Tanis’ (NYT) take on caponata and other eggplant dishes here.
Here’s my own ratatouille recipe, which is similar to caponata in many ways. Note a couple of significant differences: there is no vinegar, nor any sweetness like sugar or raisins in ratatouille.
Give yourself 1.5 – 2 hours. While this cooks quickly, the chopping takes time. This makes 6-8 main course servings or about 16-18 appetizers portions. Double if necessary.
1/4 cup olive oil (divided)
3-4 Japanese eggplant (skinny long ones) or 2 medium eggplant, cut into 1″ cubes
1 teaspoon salt, divided
3 zucchini and 3 yellow squash, cut into 1″ cubes
1 each: red bell pepper and green bell pepper (or yellow), cut into strips
2 large onions, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup each: chopped Italian (or curly) parsley and chopped fresh basil
1/4 cup chopped fresh dill (or 1T dried dill)
1 tablespoon dried oregano, optional
1 28 oz can Italian tomatoes, drained (reserve juice) or 1.5-2# fresh tomatoes, peeled and chopped*
1 6-ounce can tomato paste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper, optional (or to taste; be careful)
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Place chopped eggplant on a baking tray, sprinkle lightly with salt and let sit while the oven preheats. When the oven is hot, blot the eggplant lightly on both sides with paper towels and drizzle lightly with olive oil. Cover the tray with foil tightly and bake about 40 minutes or until the eggplant is tender. Remove from oven, remove foil, and set aside.
- Meantime, in a large, deep skillet (or heavy soup pot), cook in the remaining oil the onions, peppers, and zucchini until they begin to soften, about 10 minutes. Add garlic, herbs, tomatoes, and tomato paste. Season with about 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 1/4 teaspoon of black pepper. Stir well, heat through and taste. Add crushed red pepper and taste again. Adjust seasoning if necessary.
- Let simmer 15 -20 minutes over low heat. Add eggplant and warm through. Add some of the reserved tomato juice if the mixture becomes too thick and is sticking or if you’d like a looser consistency.
- Serve as is (hot, warm or cold) with crostini, with Parmesan, over pasta, beneath fish or chicken, or in an omelet. (A big bowl of this and a hunk of bread folks can tear and dip into it is perfect August food.)
- Store tightly covered in frig 2-3 days or freeze for 3-6 months, well-wrapped.
*To peel fresh tomatoes, cut an X in the bottom and top. Plunge into boiling water for a minute or two. Pull out, let cool briefly (til you can handle them without being burned) and peel off skins using a small sharp knife or your fingers. Chop coarsely before adding to ratatouille.
About the recipes: There are many recipes for bread with cheese and tomatoes. Check them out. If memory serves, while living in St. Paul, I think I originally saw a FINE COOKING recipe for bruschetta with fresh tomatoes and mozzarella that I tried instead with ricotta, as that’s what I had. We served them to dear friends Kim and Dan Craig, who were crazy about that super summer offering. (Dan did the illustrations for my book, you might remember.) We later grilled (or sautéed?) tomatoes (chopping them afterward) and even later still grilled small tomatoes on skewers for that same app– liking each new version better. Sometime afterward I saw the the famous and fine bloggers White on Rice Couple had written up a gorgeous post about Grilled Tomato Lollipops that are served with bread and ricotta–which feature marinated tomatoes. Other recipes indicate roasting or broiling tomatoes for crostini like this beauty from SAVEUR. Do enjoy the linked recipes or search for even more; they’re all lovely when tomatoes are at their best. There’s nothing new under the sun! Thanks for reading and cooking.
Big thanks to my friend, Jill Robinson, for turning 50 and affording me the opportunity to make these wondrous things! And thanks even more to her fab husband Drew for planning the whole shebang.
Below: sweet friend Kara Sloan taking Jill and Drew’s photo on a wine trip we took to Walla Walla
Sing a new song; make like a party in a happy summer night,