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Service à l’Italienne

Two centuries ago gourmands and gluttons were heatedly debating the style of service at formal meals.  Should dishes be brought out together (service à la française) or as separate courses (service à la russe)?  Anyone who has been to a wedding reception, diner, or formal restaurant in the last eighty years knows which side won. Sure, we still see the occasional buffet but this kept-warm and replenished system is not the true a la francaise one.

In our Anglo-American culture and my home growing up in particular there .  Meals generally started with a green-heavy salad and were followed by a course which is protein, a starch, and at least two vegetables all on one plate.

Along with other influences my recent experience with Massimo Bruno’s supper club has me considering the Italian idea for larger family meals.  As I perceive it this means a meal proceeds from antipasto to a starch course of pasta or sometimes pizza or risotto, to the protein course of meat or fish, and then a green vegetable secondi. A sweet dessert, or dolce, concludes the meal.

I think a lot people are stopped from trying this method of cooking at home by the idea that it is too difficult to organise and they won’t get to eat themselves.  Rest assured, I am not a very good cook and I pulled it off after a whole day of laying bricks for our pizza oven project.  The advice I can offer is just to be prepared.  Lay out all the washed ingredients in the dishes they will be served in (obviously separating raw meat).  Also, be a little flexible about certain timing aspects; it’s not going to hurt anything if the grill preheats for twenty minutes instead of the recommended fifteen or if the pasta water comes to a boil ten minutes early.  Err on the side of early.

Garden produce

My antipasto course was a fritto misto or mixed fry of garden vegetables.  Bright Lights Swiss Chard, Witkiem broad beans, and a variety of zucchini and their blossoms all came straight from the garden in our backyard at the cottage.  So long as the batter is on the light side and you don’t fry them for too long this strikes me as a perfect method of serving garden vegetables.

Fritto misto di giardino

The recipe for the batter, flour sifted into soda water until it reaches the consistency of sour cream and lightly seasoned, is, I believe taken from Marcella Hazan.  Process is just as simple, heat about an inch of oil (I used canola but olive oil would be more authentic, I guess) over medium-high heat until you can just barely smell and a tester crouton browns quickly but not immediately.  Deal with each vegetable separately by dipping it into the batter, gently wiping excess on the side of the bowl, and then carefully into the hot oil.

The tomatoes in my garden aren’t nearly ripe and while some local ones are starting to show up in farmers’ markets the best ones for pasta–sun-ripened, field-grown, plum tomatoes–are still a few weeks away. The best substitute in my view is oven-roasted cherry tomatoes.  I halved a couple handfuls and put them into a 300°F oven in a pan (with a splash of olive oil and salt and pepper) big enough to finish the sauce.  They would have been ready in twenty minutes but were just as happy to wait patiently in the oven.

Spaghetti with oven-roasted cherry tomatoes, black olives, and torn basil

Between the juices the tomatoes exuded, a couple glugs of olive oil and some pasta cooking water I had the perfect base for my sauce.  Stir in the almost al dente spaghetti, two handfuls of black olives and some torn garden basil and serve.

Marinated beef heart

Sometimes I push the boundaries of what those I cook for will eat.  Pickled fish, lambs’ kidneys, and brawn all come to mind.  The beef heart was met with some raised eyebrows but also got just as many rave reviews post taste. I adapted Fergus Henderson’s recipe (from Nose to Tail) by slicing the trimmed heart and marinating it overnight in a couple glugs of inexpensive balsamic vinegar, fresh thyme and rosemary, and salt and pepper.  It really does resemble beef tenderloin in texture and also doesn’t have much fat so tastes relatively mild.  I was surprised by how long the heart took to reach medium rare on the grill–upwards of four minutes a side.  Try to slice evenly and test before you serve.

Asparagus, red onions, and beef heart straight from the grill

Grilled asparagus and red onions were cooked at the same time as the heart and I admit that I wasn’t a stickler about serving them as a separate course.

For dolci we had fresh Ontario berries on rice pudding.  The President’s Choice rice pudding in a can is quite good and by the time you make it to course number five everything doesn’t have to be made from scratch.

Upcoming post: The wine paired with our meal was the 2008 Inniskillin Winemaker’s Series Barrel Aged Pinot Gris.

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Posted in: Frying, Meat, Uncategorized, Vegetables.


  1. That speghetti looks perfect. Just the right combination of sun-dried tomates, olives and basil leaves. It makes me somewhat think of the pasta A la putanesca served at Bacci in Ottawa/Hull.

  2. foodwithlegs says:

    Thanks, Marc-André for the heads-up on the spelling of a l’italienne. It does look better this way. You’re right that the pasta is partway to puttanesca and I would have added anchovies and garlic (two ingredients that I think are essential for that dish) except that when I planned the meal I was trying to accommodate a vegetarian diner and someone who is allergic to garlic.

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  4. Bonita says:

    Absolutely gorgeous! I’m so, so jealous of your vegetable garden.

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