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swirl and savor

Antipasti for Nic's Birthday

Beth Ribblett

Our friend Nicole celebrated a birthday yesterday and we were lucky enough to be invited to dinner.  Other friends in from Atlanta were doing the cooking, so I offered to bring some appetizers and of course, the wine.

We've been eating so much Indian food lately, I was happy to dive back into Italy and do some real traditional bites.  All of these are simple and take little preparation but pack a lot of flavor.  The key, as in all good cooking but especially Italian, is fresh, good quality ingredients.

Fichi con Formaggio e Speck

The first was Fichi con Formaggio e Speck (figs with cheese and speck).  Speck is a smoked, cured meat from the Alto Adige region of Italy that looks similar to prosciutto as it is from the same cut of meat, the hind leg of the pig.  To make speck, a boned pork leg is cured in salt, and spices like laurel and juniper, then intermittently slow-smoked, using pine or juniper wood for several months. I get it from St. James Cheese, but I'm sure Whole Foods probably carries it as well.  If you can't find it, you can substitute Prosciutto, but be sure it is freshly sliced.

Take fresh figs and slice in half length wise.  Add a small spoonful of a fresh goats cheese, I used one of the Cypress Grove Chevre from the shop, a sprinkle of chopped, fresh rosemary, a dollop of honey and short piece of speck (about a third of a slice) scrunched up and sat atop the cheese. A wonderful bite of salty, sweet, creamy deliciousness, I served these with the Avissi Prosecco for a nice little starter...
Grilled lemon leaves with mozzarella, Da Adolfo Positano

Next up was our first attempt at recreating one of our favorite appetizers from our trip to the Amalfi Coast.  Due to the abundance of lemon trees and the fact that Campania is THE home of the Mozzarella di Bufala DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta, or Protected Designation of Origin), Foglie di Limone alla Griglia con Mozzarella (Grilled Lemon Leaves with Mozzarella) is on the menu of almost every restaurant in the region, but really never seen elsewhere in Italy or anywhere for that matter.

As simple as this is, the key is fresh lemon leaves and good quality mozzarella.  When grilled for a quick 30 seconds, give or take a few, the lemon leaves impart the most delicious citrus flavor to the mozzarella.  But the older the leaves, the less flavor you are going to get.  We have a Meyer Lemon tree in the backyard so I picked a handful of the biggest leaves I could find just an hour or so before we would use them.

Hand tossed mozzarella and fresh lemon leaves

 I got some really nice hand tossed mozzarella from Whole Foods that was not as good as the buffalo version, but the fact than it was handmade gave it a really nice flavor.  The cheap, stringy, everyday mozzarella you buy in the grocery will just not give you the same outcome.  Again, the food you make is only as good as your ingredients...

All you do is cut about 1/4" thick slices of mozzarella, place it on a lemon leaves, and then put over indirect heat on a grill using a grill pan to place the leaves in.  It literally takes about 30 seconds for the cheese to start melting.  But be careful, our fire was too hot and our first attempt, while still tasted delicious, did not get to spend enough time on the fire.  Guess I'll just need to practice this one more...

San Marzano tomatoes on the vine @ Villa Le Sirene, Positano
We also needed the grill for our Bruschetta al Pomidoro (Tomato Bruschetta), another staple on the Amalfi coast since Campania is also the DOP of San Marzano tomatoes.  You know, those delicious, deeply flavored plum tomatoes that we are only fortunate enough to get in cans.  But a quick lesson on bruschetta; it is pronounced bru-SKE-ta and bruschetta refers to the bread, not the topping.  The best bread for bruschetta is a stale, dense loaf like a sour dough or country style bread. The bread is cut into slices, grilled, and brushed with good quality olive oil then rubbed with fresh garlic cloves.  There are many recipes you can make to top your bruschetta, but the pomidoro is a classic.

To make the topping:
-4 medium sized ripe tomatoes cut into 1/4" dice
-2 cloves of garlic minced
-10 fresh basil leaves torn into small pieces
-1/2 to 1 teaspoon coarse salt
-few turns of the pepper grinder
-a pinch or two of peperoncino
-2 tablespoons of good quality extra virgin olive oil

For the bruschetta:
-12 slices of dense, stale bread, no more than 1" thick, and about 3-4" long
-olive oil 
-1 clove of garlic cut in half

Mix the topping ingredients, stir to combine and set aside.  Using indirect heat on a grill (again ours was a bit too hot...) quickly toast the bread slices until the edges get slightly dark.  Remove from heat, brush on some olive oil and rub with the clove of garlic.  Add the topping and consume immediately!

I served the lemon leaves and bruschetta side by side and poured the perfect wine, the Caggiano Devon Greco di Tufo.  An unbelievable wine that brought our all the best flavors of the dishes!

Now the Atlanta cooks were at the grill and in the kitchen, making a fabulous beef tenderloin, gorgeous salad of avocado, fresh tomatoes and mozzarella, rosemary roasted potatoes and grilled asparagus.  We brought the 1997 Manzoni San Stefano Barolo to have with the meat, and they were about as perfect together as a pairing could be! 

We ate like Italians, slowly, taking time to savor each delicious bite of food, sip of gorgeous wine and enjoy each other's company.  A truly delightful evening, thank you Nic for inviting us to celebrate your birthday!