Before the meal

Author: Brigitte Hafner
Photography: Antonia Pesenti

A table bounteous with quality antipasti is a feast for the eyes, a pleasure to eat, and one of the high points of entertaining at home. I love sitting at a table full of colourful plates of salumi, seafood, olives and eggplants glistening with fruity olive oil.

If your experience of antipasti has been soured by too many brushes with dull, flavourless, oily stuff from the supermarket deli counter, I hope you'll bear with me, because when made correctly, antipasti can be a real delight.

Antipasti should be a celebration of what the season has to offer. More than ever, the key is to use the very best ingredients. When you're at the market, choose things that catch your eye - spring asparagus, bright red capsicum, firm young eggplants. As for cured meats, look for handmade salumi from a good producer who uses meat with real flavour. And think beyond pork. Air-dried beef fillet makes a nice variation on the classic salumi, and the sweet richness of wagyu bresaola is particularly impressive.

Abundance is key, and the more variety the better, but a well-made antipasto table is constructed with an eye to balancing flavours and textures. Serve salty olives and cured meats with a delicate cheese, such as Shaw River buffalo mozzarella, That's Amore burrata, or roasted wedges of ricotta topped with fresh grapes, sprigs of rosemary, olive oil and a scattering of salt. Add to this an array of vegetables - grilled, fried or stuffed. Pile up beautiful marinated grilled capsicum, zucchini, eggplant and artichokes stuffed with mint, garlic, parmesan, breadcrumbs and olive oil.

The wonderful thing about making antipasti for a party is that many of the dishes benefit from being prepared in advance and having time to marinate. Vegetables can be grilled or barbecued ahead of time, and they should always be dressed while they're still warm so that the salt and oil have time to penetrate and enhance the flavours. Zucchini needs particular attention - there is an art to making a plate of zucchini sing. Use only zucchini that are super fresh, small (young) and sweet. Slice the zucchini, toss them with olive oil and grill them on the barbecue, or sauté them in olive oil in batches on the stovetop. Scatter over a touch of Murray River salt, finely chopped garlic and torn mint or basil leaves, and drizzle the lot with the best extra-virgin olive oil.

Temperature is very important, so while some antipasti benefit from chilling, many do not. I recently had the misfortune of attending a buffet lunch at a country club where the antipasti looked as though they had spent a long time in the fridge: the vegetables were limp, pale and undressed. I think chilling completely dulls the flavours.

Of course, this isn't true of all antipasti. Some even improve with a day or so in the fridge. Vitello tonnato is a striking example - even though you see it sauced to order in restaurants, it's traditionally left overnight to mature. The veal, lightly poached in white wine and mirepoix, then cooled, is sliced and layered in a homemade mayonnaise flavoured with tuna, anchovies, capers and lemon. I follow Marcella Hazan's recipe in The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.

If you want to step it up a notch, try octopus salad for your next party. Cook the octopus until it's tender in salted water and white wine, then cut it into neat segments and dress it generously with red wine vinegar, olive oil, garlic and plenty of chopped parsley.

Another favourite is lobster, boiled, chopped and mixed with a little homemade mayonnaise, crème fraîche, lemon juice, baby capers and diced boiled waxy potatoes, then slathered on baguettes. One of these baguettes in one hand and a glass of Champagne in the other is hard to top for perfect party food.

Stuffed mussels are always a winner: steamed in their shells, stuffed with a filling of breadcrumbs, grated parmesan, garlic, parsley and olive oil, gratinated briefly under the grill until lightly coloured and then served warm.

And finally, the showstopper, especially for a larger crowd: porchetta. Roasted rolled pork loin stuffed with crushed fennel seeds, pepper, garlic, parsley, lemon zest and chopped rosemary is excellent hot from the oven, at room temperature or even cold the next day with bread.

The only thing left to think about is what to drink: crisp dry whites, rosés or light-bodied reds. And plenty of them. Enjoy!







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