Eric Akis: And the winner is ... antipasto

Eric Akis

The 90th Academy Awards air on Sunday and my wife and I have cooked up a tasty tradition for enjoying the show. Hours before it begins, she finds a comfy spot in the living room, turns on the television and views the pre-Oscar programs, in which movie stars stroll the red carpet, are interviewed and get critiqued on what they are wearing.

Viewing that part of the proceedings is not my cup of tea, so I finish preparing the gourmet snacks we’ll eat when the real show begins. Just before it starts, I set out the food and pour sparkling wine, and we make a toast and say: “Hooray for Hollywood!”

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In past years, I’ve fussed around and made fancy canapés, crostini and other decadent finger foods, both hot and cold. This year, though, I’ve decided to make the food a little less formal, opting to create a board filled with antipasto that serves two and combines homemade items with prepared foods.

Antipasto is normally a first course of little bites designed to stimulate one’s palate before the main dishes are served. But in this case, I’ll make it substantial enough to act as dinner, as the Oscars always end well past our normal suppertime.

Here are the foods I plan to serve. Feel free to adjust suggested amounts and make substitutions, based on your taste preferences.

Enjoy the show and buon appetito!

Antipasto Board for Two

Enjoy this Italian-style feast for two while you watch the Academy Awards and sip sparkling wine. If you have any leftover antipasto, eat it the next day or two, perhaps tossed with pasta or in a salad or stuffed into a sandwich, depending on what you have.

Preparation time: About 60 minutes

Cooking time: About 30 minutes

Makes: Two generous servings

8 balsamic-soaked figs (see recipe below)

1/4 cup kale pesto, or to taste (see recipe below)

• Parmesan toasts, to taste (see recipe below)

• roasted cherry tomatoes and olives (see recipe below)

1 (120 gram or similar sized) can sliced octopus, in ragout sauce or in olive oil (see Note 1)

140 grams Salt Spring Island soft goat cheese (or other source)

6 paper-thin slices prosciutto

1/4 to 1/3 cup toasted walnuts (see Note 2)

• slices of ripe pear, to taste

Prepare figs, pesto, Parmesan toasts and roasted tomatoes and olives. Set out a large board (or platter). Place the figs, pesto, tomatoes and olives and octopus in separate small bowls. (You could also serve the octopus right from the can.) Set these items on the board. Set the cheese, proscuitto, walnuts and pears on the board and serve, with the Parmesan toasts.

Note 1: You’ll find small cans of sliced and ready-to-eat octopus at Mediterranean-style food stores, such as Fig Delicatessen and Ottavio Italian Bakery in Victoria.

Note 2: To toast the walnuts, place them in a skillet set over medium heat. Cook and stir until lightly toasted and aromatic, about four to five minutes.

Eric’s options: Instead of the Parmesan toasts, serve the antipasto with sliced baguette. Instead of goat cheese, serve another cheese, such as Gorgonzola or aged asiago. If desired, serve another type of thinly sliced meat with the prosciutto, such as salami. If you would like to serve a salad with the antipasto, toss two cups or so of baby arugula or baby salad greens with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper, to taste. If you don’t care for octopus, replace with canned tuna or smoked B.C. oysters.

Balsamic-soaked Figs

In this recipe, sweet dried figs are infused with the tangy taste of balsamic vinegar. For a nice bite, top a fig with creamy goat cheese and wrap with some prosciutto.

Preparation time: A few minutes, plus soaking time

Cooking time: Two minutes

Makes: Eight figs

8 dried figs

1 cup balsamic vinegar

Place figs in a small pot (mine was 6 in. wide), pour in vinegar and set over high heat. Bring to a rapid boil, boil two minutes and remove pot from the heat. Put the lid on the pot and let the figs soak in the vinegar for 60 minutes. Lift figs out of the vinegar and set in a bowl. Drizzle figs with some of the vinegar in the pot and serve at room temperature. (The figs can be prepared hours before needed — cover until ready to serve.)

Note: When cool, pour the vinegar in which you soaked the figs into a jar. Put on the lid, refrigerate and keep this now fig-flavoured vinegar for another use, such as adding to salad dressings, sauces, glazes or marinades.

Kale Pesto

This earthy-tasting twist on pesto sees kale replace most of the basil I would normally use. The recipe makes more than you’ll need, but the leftovers will keep a while or could be frozen, to later thaw and use in and on such things as soups, pizzas and pasta dishes.

Preparation time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: None

Makes: About one cup

2 1/2 cups torn and packed fresh kale leaves, tough centre rib and stems removed

12 to 16 fresh basil leaves (see Note)

1/3 cup sliced, blanched almonds

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

2 large garlic cloves, sliced

1/2 tsp sea salt, or to taste

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Place all ingredients, except oil, in a food processor and pulse until chopped. Add the olive oil through the food tube in a thin stream and process until well blended. If your pesto is too thick, add a bit more olive oil. If it’s too thin, blend in a bit more kale. Transfer the pesto to a tight-sealing jar and keep refrigerated until needed. It will keep about a week. You can also freeze this pesto in ice-cube trays, then transfer the cubes to a resealable plastic bag and set back in the freezer, ready to thaw and use when needed.

Note: A 28-gram plastic container of fresh basil, sold at most supermarkets, yields the amount needed here.

Eric’s options: For a tangy accent, you could add a squeeze or two of lemon juice to the pesto.

Parmesan Toasts

Olive oil- and cheese-flavoured toasts you can top with some of your antipasto.

Preparation time: Five minutes

Cooking time: Six to eight minutes

Makes: 12 to 16 toasts

12 to 16 (1/4-inch) thick baguette slices (see Note)

• extra virgin olive oil

• chunk of parmesan cheese

Preheat the oven to 400 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and place the baguette slices on it. Brush or drizzle each baguette slice with olive oil. Finely grate and sprinkle Parmesan cheese generously on each baguette slice. Bake for six to eight minutes, or until bread is lightly toasted. The toasts can be made a few hours before serving. Cover and keep at room temperature until needed.

Note: The baguette used for this recipe was about 6 to 7-cm wide.

Roasted Cherry Tomatoes and Olives

Roasting cherry tomatoes and olives with such ingredients as garlic, orange zest and oregano enhances their already fine flavour and creates a wonderful aroma as they cook.

Preparation time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: 15 minutes

Makes: About 3/4 cup

1 Tbsp olive oil

1 small garlic clove, minced

1/4 tsp dried oregano

• pinch crushed red pepper flakes

1/4 tsp finely grated orange zest

2 tsp orange juice

8 cherry tomatoes

1/2 cup mixed olives (see Note)

Preheat the oven to 450 F. Combine the oil, garlic, pepper flakes, zest and juice in a bowl.

Poke each tomato once with a paring knife (this will allow steam to escape during cooking and help the tomato hold its shape). Add tomatoes and olives to the oil mixture and toss to coat.

Transfer the tomatoes and olives to a small ovenproof skillet or baking dish, just large to hold them in a single layer. Bake for 15 minutes, shaking the pan once or twice, or until the tomatoes have softened. Serve the tomatoes and olives warm or at room temperature.

Note: Tubs of mixed olives, containing a nice selection of types, are sold in the deli section of many supermarkets and at Mediterranean-style food stores.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section on Wednesday and Sunday.

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