You gather with family and friends in the evening as the heat of the day starts to fade. The bright white light of afternoon gradually dims to twilight’s shades of blue and gray. In the air hang the garden smells of earth and herbs.
There’s no better time to sit around the backyard to talk a lot and eat just a little.
If you can toast bread, chop tomatoes and slice sausage, a small-bites feast is a breeze. Call it “antipasti,” “mezzes” or “tapas” or just plain old appetizers, this spread is the perfect way to eat throughout the evenings of September and early October.
Plan a filling dish or two to serve as anchors — a rice salad or a frittata — then at the last minute assemble an assortment of accompaniments based primarily on staples you have on hand, such as spiced almonds, bruschetta, home-finished olives, stuffed peppers and dried sausages.
Do the cooking in the morning, then the only thing you need to do before serving is let the food warm to room temperature.
The menu can be elaborate enough to rival a small tapas bar, or it can be as simple as sliced sausage, spiced almonds, cured olives and a room-temperature frittata.
To make a good assortment of small plates, stock up on high-quality pantry goods, grab fresh and seasonal ingredients and master a few basic techniques that can be adapted in a mix-and-match way.
Can you make toast? Good, you’re halfway to bruschetta or crostini (hint: when you’re doing a bunch of toast, it’s easier to bake the bread slices in a 400-degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes). The light but sturdy texture of sourdough works best, but whether it comes from slicing a long, thin baguette or cutting pieces of a round boule is up to you. The list of ideas for toppings is almost endless: marinated fresh cheeses, flavored spreads, chopped tomatoes or vegetables either raw or cooked, little bits of canned anchovies, sardines or tuna.
The first step should always be to rub the hot, toasted bread with a cut piece of garlic and then to moisten it slightly with olive oil. In fact, if you’re planning a big spread with lots of other dishes, you can stop right there. There’s nothing more elegant.
Spiced almonds are another almost-instant appetizer. The classic Spanish technique calls for deep-frying them in olive oil. Nuts cooked this way taste wonderful but are often a little too greasy.
Instead, moisten a cup of raw almonds with one-half teaspoon of good olive oil and stir-fry them in a dry skillet over medium-high heat until they begin to crackle and send up a toasty aroma. This will take only about two or three minutes. Remove them from the heat and sprinkle with salt.
They’re good just like that, but also try flavoring them with a little cumin and a dash of “pimenton,” the smoked Spanish paprika. Instead of pimenton (or in addition to it), use ground chile. Or toss the almonds with minced, fresh sage, rosemary or thyme, or all three.
Every refrigerator should contain a jar of home-finished olives. Take commercially cured black or green brined olives, give them a good rinse and pat them dry. Season them, finishing with a healthy shot of good olive oil, and lemon or orange juice or red wine vinegar.
This takes five minutes and makes even canned olives taste like a million bucks.
They’ll last for months in the refrigerator; just let them reach room temperature before serving.
The simple technique of marinating adapts to variations. Try marinating the olives with different combinations of orange or lemon peel, sliced garlic and spices such as black pepper, cumin, fennel seed or red chiles, as well as fresh herbs such as bay leaves, rosemary, oregano or thyme.
Piquillo red peppers are another canned food that’s handy to have in the pantry. They’re small enough to make perfect bite-sized containers for fresh mozzarella or goat cheese or even canned tuna and mayonnaise. Arrange the stuffed peppers on a plate and garnish with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of minced garlic and parsley. Serve on toast or spear them with toothpicks so they’ll be easy to handle.
For the meal’s centerpiece, choose rice salads and frittatas, which have the heft of main courses but are light enough to serve as part of a small-bites dinner. Both are almost infinitely variable and can be made in advance and served at cool room temperature.
Making good frittatas takes practice, but once you master the technique, you’ll find yourself cooking them all the time. There are several approaches, but here’s the one that seems to work best: Cook the vegetables just enough to soften. Stir them into beaten eggs along with grated Parmesan cheese. Pour into a medium-hot nonstick skillet (stir the top gently to distribute the ingredients, but not the bottom or you’ll risk sticking).
Reduce the heat to low and cook the eggs slowly until they are almost set. When there is just a thin layer of uncooked egg on top, stick the pan under the broiler just long enough to finish the cooking, and brown the top slightly. Let the frittata cool briefly before removing it from the pan.
You can make a great frittata with shredded zucchini, sautéed onions and red bell peppers, asparagus or mushrooms — there are so many possibilities.
Rice salads are just as flexible but even easier to make. Here’s a trick: Cook the rice as if it were pasta, in plenty of rapidly boiling water. This way the grains won’t be coated in sticky starch and clump together; they’ll stay light and separate. Cook it a little longer than you might think, because the rice will firm up as it cools.
Dress the warm rice with oil and lemon juice or vinegar because once it cools, its waxy starch hardens and prevents the seasoning from penetrating the grains.
Rice salads can be baroque or simple, made with slivered prosciutto, diced salami, cooked vegetables, pieces of firm cheese, chopped tomatoes and fresh herbs — just about anything you can think of. To prevent wilting, fold in the raw ingredients right before serving. Taste for salt and vinegar and don’t be shy.
Rice is slightly bland, so these salads should be highly seasoned.
Mound the salad in a bowl and surround it with small plates of almonds, sliced “salame,” olives, bruschetta and more.
Make sure the ice bucket is full of chilled rosé, and put Sarah Vaughan and Astrud Gilberto on shuffle.
Olives With Lemon and Rosemary
1 pound (about 2 12 to 3 cups) black, green or mixed olives
6 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 clove garlic, thinly sliced
4 strips lemon peel, removed with vegetable peeler
1 tablespoon chopped rosemary
2 whole small dried red chilies
1/4 cup lemon juice
Place the olives in a strainer and rinse under running water. Transfer them to a large nonreactive bowl.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a skillet with the garlic, lemon peel, rosemary and chilies and cook over medium heat until the garlic softens and the herbs are fragrant, about 3 minutes. Add to the olives.
Add the lemon juice and the remaining olive oil, seal tightly with plastic wrap and set aside to marinate, at least 1 hour. If tightly covered and refrigerated, the olives will keep for several weeks.
Yield: 12 servings (about 3 cups)
Per serving: 84 cal, 8 g total fat, (1 g saturated), 0 mg chol, 2 g carbo, 0 g pro, 308 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber
White Bean, Anchovy and Caper Spread
1 can (15 ounces) white beans (such as cannellini), rinsed well
2 to 4 anchovy fillets, rinsed well if salted
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, softened
1 tablespoon good-quality olive oil
2 tablespoons capers, rinsed if salted and chopped if very large
2 tablespoons minced parsley, plus additional for garnish if desired
1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste
Toasted bread or crostini
Pulse the white beans, anchovies and butter in a food processor until coarsely blended. Add the olive oil and purée until nearly smooth.
Transfer to a bowl and stir in the capers and parsley. Season with salt.
Serve at room temperature on crostini. Sprinkle with more minced parsley, if desired.
Yield: About 1 1/3 cups
Per serving: 40 cal, 3 g total fat, (1 g saturated), 6 mg chol, 2 g carbo, 1 g pro, 120 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber
Rice Salad With Shrimp and Arugula
2 cups medium-grain rice, such as arborio
3 tablespoons good-quality olive oil
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, divided
1/2 pound cooked small shrimp (about 1 1/2 cups)
1/4 cup minced red onion
1 cup diced tomato
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 1/2 cups torn arugula, loosely packed
3 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
Bring a large pot of liberally salted water to a rolling boil. Stir in the rice and return the water to a boil; reduce the heat to maintain a rapid simmer. Cook until the rice is tender, 15 minutes.
Drain the rice in a strainer and rinse quickly in cool running water. Line a large mixing bowl with a tea towel and empty the rice into it. Fold the tea towel over the top of the rice and set aside to cool, about 5 minutes.
When the rice has cooled slightly, add the olive oil, 2 tablespoons lemon juice and salt to taste, stirring lightly with a fork to avoid crushing the tender rice grains. (The rice can be prepared to this point a day ahead and refrigerated in a tightly covered container. Bring to room temperature before proceeding.)
When almost ready to serve, combine the shrimp, red onion and tomato in a medium bowl and season with red wine vinegar and 14 teaspoon salt, or to taste.
Add the shrimp mixture to the rice along with the arugula and pine nuts. Stir to combine well, taste and add more salt or lemon juice if necessary. (The recipe can be prepared to this point up to 30 minutes in advance.)
Transfer to a serving bowl and serve at room temperature.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Per serving: 300 cal, 8 g total fat, (1 g saturated), 55 mg chol, 45 g carbo, 10 g pro, 139 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber
1/4 cup best-quality olive oil, divided
1/2 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
3/4 pound zucchini (about 1 large), shredded
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 to 6 basil leaves, torn into pieces
Heat the broiler. In a 10-inch nonstick skillet, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until it softens, about 5 minutes.
Add the zucchini and cook until it’s no longer moist and begins to clump together, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat.
While the zucchini is cooking, beat the eggs with a fork until they are ropy and well-mixed but not foamy.(They should be somewhat light in color.)
Stir the cheese, salt and basil leaves into the egg mixture and then add the cooked zucchini. Stir for a minute after you’ve added the zucchini in order to cool it slightly.
Return the pan to the heat and add the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. When the oil is hot, pour in the egg mixture and immediately reduce the flame to medium low. The bottom of the egg mixture should set very quickly.
Gently lift the sides with a fork and pull them toward the center, allowing the loose egg mixture to run underneath. Cook this way until the eggs are almost set, about 5 minutes. The mixture should look like very loose scrambled eggs, with a little liquid remaining.
Place the pan under the broiler until the eggs are puffed and lightly browned, about 45 seconds. Cool slightly before carefully sliding the frittata onto a serving plate. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Per serving: 205 cal, 17 g total fat, (4 g saturated), 285 mg chol, 3 g carbo, 10 g pro, 344 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber