Hey presto, it's Nonna's antipasto.
If there is one thing I have been raised to love it is the concept of 'a snack'. Or in Italian layman's terms - any excuse to eat.
I spent all my primary school holidays at my Nonna's house with my sister and two of my cousins. I am the oldest grandchild, so of course I demanded certain privileges, and one of these was being allowed to have 'nap time' on the couch positioned directly in front of the television. My sister and younger cousin were relegated to the spare room, with no television, while my cousin second-in-line to my throne got to to have nap time on the couch adjacent to TV, where you could only see 50% of the screen.
My parents and aunty and uncle were always so impressed that my Nonna singlehandedly managed to get four children under 5 to semi-obediently take a nap at the same time every day. And years later I can finally uncover her secret with absolute clarity. It is because by 1pm, we had already been fed three times. We were in food comas, exactly when back-to-back episodes of Days of Our Lives and The Young and the Restless were about to start on Channel 9. And so, today I introduce you to the Nonna Corso Snack Station - guaranteed not only to be delicious, but also siesta inducing! If we want to sound epicurean and a little posh, we would call this style of dish antipasto.
Antipasto is pretty much the Italian version of a pre-meal chip 'n dip, except infinitely better because of the variety, plus everything is drenched in olive oil. Antipasto is a essentially lots of mini dishes, often accompanied by store bought items, and thrown together to make the ultimate snack or pre-cursor / accompaniment to a family dinner. Every Italian family would have their own variation of antipasto, but this is the stock standard Corso way, with fried melanzane (eggplant), rapini (more on this illusive green below), roasted peppers and bread, olives, salami and cheese. My Nonna still serves something like this with every meal even today, and yes, I still fall asleep on her couch afterwards.
For the roasted peppers
3 red capsicums
2 green capsicums
1 small clove of garlic (or if want to kill the entire cast of Twilight and/or love a bit of garlic action, use 2 cloves)
A handful of fresh basil
Salt and pepper to season
For the rapini
2 bunches of rapini (you will not find this at the supermarket, go to your local fruit and veg shop, the indecisive nature of the Italian language means that this vegetable has a few names, so buy anything green that is called either rapini / rabe / or raab)
1 large chilli
1 large clove of garlic
For the melanzane
2 large eggplants
2 eggs whisked
Good quality breadcrumbs
Salt and pepper to season
Additional things to pimp out your antipasto
1 loaf crusty bread (try pasta dura for extra crunch or olive bread, we used bread from Mediterranean Wholesalers for this shoot)
Mixed olives (try green Sicilian olives, or marinated black olives. Both my Nonna and Dad actually make olives from scratch, but that recipe would involve a Lord of the Rings style trilogy to document)
Salami (buy the 'log type' you can get from your local Italian deli)
Wedge of cheese (I suggest Provolone or Parmigiano-Reggiano)
For the roasted peppers
Now warning, while you'll be rewarded with the most delicious tasting peppers you've ever eaten after making these, your kitchen is going to STINK hardcore. The act of aerating your kitchen in this instance is just as important as the cooking process itself. Open every window, make sure you have a tea towel ready to wave matador style as the smoke detector blasts, and if there was ever a time to invest a scented candle now would be that time.
With clean air circulating through the kitchen we can continue. Get your capsicums and prick them with a fork a few times. Now pop them under a grill on high heat and close the grill door. Check the capsicums every now and then. We are aiming for the skin of the vegetable to be completely black and charred. When one side of the capsicum is black, flip it over, until all sides are equally blackened. Your capsicums will soften and reduce in size. This is good!
When the capsicums are 90% black take them out of the grill. Be careful, these bad boys will be hot. Now we need to peel the charred skin off. A trick I learnt is to put the charred capsicums in one of those snap lock sandwich plastic bags (a biggish one) and snap it shut. Let the capsicums sweat for about 5 minutes. After this, take each capsicum out one by one and peel off the charred skin which should easily rub off between your fingers. You will be left with clean and sweet, slightly smokey flavoured flesh.
After you've cleaned all capsicums and removed seeds / stems, cut the flesh into thin strips and put in a bowl. Add salt and cracked pepper, olive oil to dress peppers, a handful of torn fresh basil and paper thin slices of fresh garlic.
For the rapini
Rapini for me is LIFE. Out of all of the things my Nonna can cook this would be in the topfive. I describe rapini (or as my nonna calls it, rabe) as the Italian version of Chinese broccoli. It is a delicious green leafy vegetable that is kind of a cross between broccoli and spinach, and has the most fragrant bitter taste to it, but none of that powdery aftertaste you get with spinach. If Gwyneth Paltrow knew about rabe, I am certain she would dub it the new kale on GOOP, it's that good.
This dish takes longer to clean then to actually cook. First we get our two bunches of rabe and wash it, and chop it into medium size pieces (i.e. cut one stem in half, no smaller). Add olive oil to a large pot and put on medium heat, when the oil has heated add a clove of quartered garlic and a whole chilli chopped in half (add half if you prefer your food more mild). We are flavouring the oil here, and our goal is for the garlic to look lightly browned.
Next step add all of the rabe, it will fill the entire pot, but don't worry it will soon wilt spinach style. I have not duped you into using the wrong sized pot! Pop the lid back on the pot on a slant, allowing the rabe to steam with the garlic oil. Check every few minutes as the rabe wilts down in size and give the pot a gentle toss. This will take approx 5-10 minutes in total.
For the melanzane
Fried melanzane. Two words that should always sequentially follow each other.
Get two large eggplants and slice them horizontally so you have lots of eggplant-shaped circles. Now here is where my Nonna would get very old school and laboriously lay all of the slices on a tray and add salt to them to absorb excessive moisture / reduce bitterness before cooking. BUT being the Gen Y grandchild I am, I skip this step and go straight to the fun bit and crumb the eggplant slices. (It really tastes good either way).
Get two eggs and whisk them in a shallow bowl, and add some salt and cracked pepper. In another shallow bowl add some good quality breadcrumbs - you can leave them plain or add some grated parmesan cheese and dried oregano to flavour them. Now it's time to DIY assembly line and coat each individual eggplant slice in the egg mixture, then dip it in the breadcrumb mixture and pop it on a clean plate. It is a little laborious, but worth it.
Once all eggplants have been coated, using a mid-based fry pan add olive oil to the pan (a generous amount) and let that oil get HOT. Do a test eggplant, if it doesn't immediately sizzle when you place it in the pan, the oil isn't hot enough. Once oil is hot, start frying the eggplant in batches (3 minutes or so each side). When the eggplant is cooked, layer them on top of a Nonna's favourite kitchen accessory – the paper towel.
To assemble, Nonna style
You'd think our three 'cooked' antipasti dishes would be enough. But no, my Nonna will add fresh crunchy bread, cheese, salami and olives to her famous snack station. For added authenticity, schedule eating time during your favourite daytime television show.
This recipe was originally published on The Design Files as part of my Nonna Corso recipe series with photos by Eve Wilson. Yes, all of these recipes are certified nonna approved.