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Photos courtesy of Paulette Licitra
Paulette Licitra fell in love with Italy as an undergraduate student in Rome and completed her professional culinary studies in New York City at the Institute of Culinary Education and publishes the food literature journal: Alimentum-The Literature of Food. She teaches Italian cooking classes in Nashville, and does cooking segments on WSMV TV, Channel 4, Nashville.

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F eature Story

Buon Estate! What to Do with the Summer Bounty - Italian Style!

By Paulette Licitra

I talians love to linger at the table. In the summer they love to stay even longer. I had the chance to linger at a summer Italian table under an arbor of kiwi fruit in the Riviera. At a flower-ensconced Roman restaurant patio overlooking the Pantheon. At a cafe clinging to a cliff in Positano, with grapes and grapevines dripping overhead. At a table canal-side in Venice while the blue lagoon sparkled. And at a private home in the Piacentini hills where a three–story fig tree laden with fruit loomed outside the window.

quote It’s not so hard to echo the passion of Italian summer cuisine right here at home. Simply fill your menu with vegetables, cook with love in your kitchen, and, perhaps most importantly, linger at the table...

Of course, the focal point of lingering is the food. And the wine. The fruit and the cheese. The summer vegetables transformed into gems and jewels for the taste buds. The pasta fragrant with fresh herbs. I once tasted a roast of meat cooked in an outdoor, wood-fired brick oven. The salient flavor came from a branch torn from the adjacent laurel tree ...fresh laurel leaves: the dream-intensity flip side of flavorless dried bay leaves. Dessert that day, out on the terrace that overlooked the Mediterranean and the distant light of Portofino, was a fresh peach, peeled and sliced in hand with a paring knife, peach slices slipped into a small glass of white wine. The peach soaked up the flavor of the wine and, while we ate each piece slowly and savoringly, conversation meandered from food to weather to news to daydreaming. Just below us, gardens grew on terraced plots that scaled the hills. Zucchini and basil, string beans and tomatoes, peppers and rosemary.

Italian cuisine tends to move vegetables front and center. Not only as a side dish, vegetables take on a starring role. Meat is the side dish, the portion of the meal often used more as a flavor than a main course. Yes, there is the Florentine bistecca, a he-man of a steak, but it is a phenomenon, not the norm. Why else is the Mediterranean diet so lauded as healthy eating? Lots of fruits and vegetables, olive oil, legumes, unrefined flour …what's not to like?

So, just what do those Italians do with their summer bounty?

Take zucchini (we will all be taking a LOT of zucchini): shred it on a grater and add ricotta, eggs, lemon zest, a bit of flour, and herbs and seasoning. Fry it up into fritters. Or,: using a potato peeler, strip thin slices of zucchini, toss them with olive oil and lemon juice, add grated Parmigiano and, slivers of mint, and eat like a vegetable spaghetti.

Basil? Pesto sauce is not just limited to pasta. It’s a flavoring sauce. Add a spoonful to soups, spread on bread instead of mayo, or use as a salad dressing. And pesto doesn’t have to be confined to basil. Make a pesto with any assortment of herbs. Add garlic and olive oil. Make a pesto with arugula. With broccoli rabe. With spinach.

The nightshade triumvirate—tomatoes, peppers, eggplant—may as well be the colors of the Italian flag (they’re close). These three vegetables find their way to the Italian table in a multitude of guises.

Tomatoes? Italians embraced the New World “fruit”- with wide-open arms. They make fresh tomato sauces, dry tomatoes in the sun, roast them to caramelized perfection, slice them to flavor pizza.

Peppers are roasted black, then peeled, so the silky flesh can be added to pasta and rice dishes, to wrap cheeses, or all alone with a drizzle of olive oil and a few capers.

The Sicilians and eggplant got married in the kitchen! Cubed and sautéed for the famous “pasta Norma,” layered and baked with tomato sauce and cheese, rolled around in cheeses, herbs, and other veggies for eggplant rollatini, or simply dusted with flour and fried.

Sicily loves fennel, too, where it also grows wild. The famous Sicilian dish Pasta con le Sarde is a blend of all the cultures that have ruled the island over the centuries: Spanish, French, Arabs, Italians. The dish includes wild fennel, pine nuts, sardines, capers, currants, and garlic over bucatini pasta (thick spaghetti with a hole in the middle). Superb!.

It’s not so hard to echo the passion of Italian summer cuisine right here at home. Simply fill your menu with vegetables, cook with love in your kitchen, and, perhaps most importantly, linger at the table.

Roasted Red Peppers Stuffed with Ricotta

4 sweet red peppers
¼ cup olive oil
A drizzle of red wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
2 cups fresh ricotta, seasoned with salt and pepper

Place the peppers on a hot grill and cook until the skins are browned or blackened on all sides. Place the cooked peppers in a bowl and cover with plastic. Let rest for about 15 minutes.

Peel or rub off the skin. Cut the peppers in half and discard all the seeds. Lay the peppers out on a work surface cut side up. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Drizzle with olive oil and a little vinegar. Stuff each pepper with the ricotta.

Classic Tuscan Panzanella Salad

1 small crusty peasant loaf (day- old is best)
3 large ripe tomatoes, diced
1 cucumber, sliced into half- moons
1 small red onion, thinly sliced into half-moons
1 cup basil leaves, roughly torn
1 tbsp. Dijon mustard
1 tsp. red vinegar
½ cup olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Tear the bread into bite-sized pieces and place in a large mixing bowl. Add the diced tomatoes, sliced cucumber and onion, and basil leaves.

Drizzle dressing on salad. Toss to coat and taste to adjust seasoning. Let salad seit a bit before serving so the bread can absorb the dressing and tomato juices.

Farfalle with Basil-Almond Pesto and Grilled Summer Vegetables

For the grilled vegetables:
2 zucchini
2 yellow squash
1 eggplant
2 peppers, red, yellow, or orange
¼ cup olive oil
Salt and pepper

For the Pesto:
2 cups basil leaves
½ cup parsley leaves
2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
¼ cup blanched, peeled almonds
½ cup olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
½ cup grated Parmigiano or pecorino

Other ingredients:
1 lb. farfalle pasta, or your choice
Olive oil for drizzling
Salt and pepper to taste
¼ cup grated Parmigiano or pecorino

Grill the vegetables: Cut the zucchini, yellow squash, and eggplant into large, oblong, ¼inch slices, cutting on the diagonal. Lay them out on a sheet pan, brushed with olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Grill vegetable slices on a greased grill until nicely colored with grill lines.

Place the peppers on the grill over medium heat. Grill, turning occasionally, until the skins are charred black. Place charred peppers in a bowl and cover with plastic. Wait 10–15 minutes until cool enough to handle. Peel off the charred skin, cut them open, and discard the seeds and stems.

Cut all the cooked vegetables into bite- sized pieces and set aside.

Make the pesto: Combine the basil, parsley, garlic, and nuts in a food processor. Pulse until finely chopped. Drizzle in the olive oil and process until the mixture is a smooth paste. Put the mixture in a large serving bowl. Stir in the cheese, season with salt and pepper, and combine.

Finish the dish: Cook the pasta in a pot of rapidly boiling, salted water until al dente. Add some of the pasta water to the pesto to create a looser sauce that will coat the pasta better …about ½cup. Reserve another cup of pasta water in case you need it later.

Drain pasta when cooked and toss with the pesto to coat. Add the grilled vegetables and toss to combine. Add some more pasta water if the dish looks too dry a. And/or drizzle some olive oil. Adjust for seasoning if necessary. Sprinkle with grated cheese.

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