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Inspiration for the 19th century French writer Marcel Proust came in the form of that dainty mini-cake called a madeleine. For the author, this childhood favorite triggered what was called an “involuntary memory,” and this became one of the catalysts for his seven-volume work of fiction called Remembrance of Things Past. Some of you English majors might actually have read parts of it.
In my case, my memory was recently jogged when, in trying to de-clutter, I uncovered a yellowing newspaper article from the local Corning newspaper dated Wednesday March 4, 1981. I had to use my calculator to note that thirty-two years of chopping garlic and onions had somehow flown by.
It was my first newspaper food column in the Crystal City’s publication. I’d been involved with ads in magazines for Corning Glass (as it was then known) since ’78, but now I could also write without trying hard to sell something. I wrote about the food and recipes I picked up on my travels and faxed the precious prose to The Corning Leader, or I’d telephone the paper and dictate the copy, just as Pat O’Brien did in the original 1930s filmThe Front Page (or Jack Lemmon in the ’74 remake).
A Classic Favorite
The reason I bring up this bit of trivial nostalgia is the recipe that I included in that ’70s story. A dear friend, whom I had met years earlier at an Oregon cooking class presided over by cooking guru James Beard, invited me over to meet her San Francisco foodie friends (that was before the coining of the word “foodie”). I was unsure about when I would arrive for dinner since my early evening cooking demos at department stores —in this case San Francisco’s Macy’s—[or was it the Emporium?]—might run overtime. Undaunted, she planned her dinner around an informal, make-ahead, serve-at-room-temperature dish.
I was so impressed by this colorful creation that I’ve made it at least twice in every one of the ensuing years. I am pleased to reintroduce it because it’s perfect for spring or summer entertaining, graduation and anniversary parties—and terrific for picnics. It can be served as a main dish, a vegetable dish, a salad, or an hors d’oeuvre (with small plates and forks).
If you serve the antipasto to accompany a main course of meat or poultry, use mashed anchovies or tuna in the mixture. If you are serving a fish dish, try a julienne of salami for variety’s sake. For a special fillip add cheese —Italian Gorgonzola, thin shavings of Parmesan or Pecorino, crumbled Greek feta, or nutty Swiss (the cheese I mean, not a zany yodeling native). And serve this, as my friend did, at room temperature, with plenty of crusty bread.
Photo by Kai Schreiber
Please don’t be discouraged by the long list of ingredients. You’ll find, as I do, everything is readily available in cans or jars in your market. Just line ‘em up and measure. And there are six vegetables to chop, although markets nowadays present these, precut, in packages. What are you waiting for?
In a very large heavy pot with a lid, such as a 7-quart. Dutch oven, add:
- Olive oil to cover the bottom
- 4 stalks celery, sliced, and include a few chopped leaves
- 4 to 6 carrots sliced on the diagonal into bite sized
- 3 medium onions, coarsely chopped
- 1 head of cauliflower cut into bite-sized florets
- 1 to 2 fennel bulbs trimmed of stalks, cut in quarters and cored, then cut in bite-sized pieces
Stir it up and then cover and cook over medium heat for about five minutes or until the onions begin to wilt. Remove the pan from the heat, uncover and add 2 to 4 zucchini, sliced. (Use half zucchini and half yellow squash if you wish.)
Return the pan to the range, cover and cook an additional five minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, uncover, and add the following:
- 1 (12 to 16-oz.) can tomato sauce
- 1 (6 oz.) can tomato paste
- 1 cup chopped parsley leaves (preferably Italian)
- 1 to 2 tablespoons each of dried basil and dried oregano
- 1/4 cup capers, rinsed
- 2 (8 oz.) jars small cocktail onions, drained
- 1 (16 oz.) jar mixed sweet pickles, drained and sliced (more is okay)
- About 1/2 cup each pitted Kalamata olives and pimento stuffed green olives
- 1 (16 oz.) jar of cherry peppers, drained (choose mild or hot)
- 1 (14 oz.) jar peperoncini, drained
- 2 (6 oz.) jars marinated artichoke hearts, quartered but undrained
- 1/2 cup red wine vinegar (taste after 1/4 cup is in; add more if needed)
- 1/4 cup sugar
- Salt to taste (use sea salt if possible)
- Lots of freshly ground pepper
Then add your choice of one of the following:
6 oz. anchovies, chopped or 2-3 cans of tuna fish packed in olive oil and flaked in large pieces, or 1/2 lb. salami or prosciutto cut in thin strips (buy it in a chunk, cut in 1/4-inch thick slices, then stack and cut in strips.
Stir gently to mix, put the pan back on the stove and simmer the mixture for about 4 minutes just to blend the flavors.
As you can see, the amounts of ingredients are very flexible. A little more or less of each ingredient—why worry? Just keep tasting and adjust this mélange to suit your taste.
Refrigerate the antipasto for two days—or three—to let the flavors blend. Remove from the refrigerator to allow it to come to room temperature for serving.
This serves eight as a main dish, twenty as a vegetable side dish, salad, or hors d’oeuvre. Leftovers will keep for several days in the refrigerator. Play a Rossini opera as background and serve this with a good Chianti—or a Moretti or Peroni or other good Italian beer. And add a bit of Gallic flair by serving madeleines for dessert with fruit. Guests will remember this meal.