It's Italian for Comfort

Nothing makes me happier than an assortment of antipasto dishes eaten as a meal. Some of my favorites are cannellini bean salad, roasted red peppers, greens (usually escarole, with garlic and lemon) and grilled mushrooms. Eating these with fresh mozzarella cheese, some dried tomatoes, intensely flavored black olives and toasted bread, I think I am dining in heaven.

There are quite a few elements in these recipes for the cook to contend with, but they can be made ahead, and even then they are easy to prepare.

Although I almost always use cannellini beans (I keep some cooked on hand in the freezer), canned beans are certainly acceptable in a pinch, especially when they are gussied up with extra-virgin olive oil, fresh herbs and slivers of red onion. The peppers can be prepared in minutes and then left to slowly roast in the oven while the greens and mushrooms are cooked and the mozzarella, dried tomatoes and olives set out. One advantage of antipasti is that the dishes are excellent served warm or at room temperature.

As the dishes are prepared and arranged on platters, I line them up along the center of the table where they can be admired before we eat.

Perhaps it's my Italian genes, but a meal of antipasti is my idea of comfort food. It certainly is a delicious alternative to meat and potatoes. For dessert, I yearn for a steaming cup of espresso and a crunchy almond biscotti from an Italian bakery.

ROASTED SWEET RED PEPPERS WITH THYME

4 large red bell peppers, halved lengthwise, seeds, stems and ribs removed

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped

2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

Fresh thyme sprigs

Place peppers, cut side up, in 13x9-inch baking dish. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with garlic, 1 teaspoon thyme and salt and pepper to taste. Roast peppers at 400 degrees, turning occasionally as they begin to brown, until tender and blackened here and there, about 45 minutes. Transfer to platter.

Pour oil in pan over peppers. Sprinkle with remaining 1 teaspoon thyme leaves. Garnish with fresh thyme sprigs.

Makes 4 servings.

GREENS WITH OLIVE OIL AND LEMON

1 large head escarole, stems trimmed, rinsed and drained

Salt

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 clove garlic, sliced thin

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Freshly ground pepper

Stack escarole leaves and cut into 1-inch pieces. Bring large pan of water to boil. Stir in escarole and 1 teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring, until tender but still bright green, about 10 minutes. Drain in colander. Rinse with cold water. Drain well.

Wipe out pan. Heat oil in pan. Add garlic and cook, stirring, just until garlic begins to sizzle. Add escarole and stir to coat with oil, about 1 minute. Remove from heat. Just before serving, toss with lemon juice. Season to taste with pepper.

Makes 4 servings.

WHITE BEAN AND FENNEL SALAD

2 cups cooked or canned cannellini beans, rinsed and drained

1 cup thin-sliced fennel, or 2 stalks celery

1/2 cup thin-slivered red onion

1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley

1 tablespoon fine-chopped fresh oregano leaves

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

2 tablespoons chopped fennel tops

Combine beans, fennel, onion, parsley and oregano in bowl.

Whisk oil, vinegar and salt and pepper to taste in separate bowl. Add to beans and toss to coat. Sprinkle with fennel tops.

Makes 4 servings.

GRILLED MUSHROOMS

2 to 4 large portobello mushrooms, stem ends trimmed, or other mushrooms

1/4 cup packed Italian parsley

1 teaspoon fresh oregano leaves

1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

1 clove garlic, chopped

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

Finely chop stems of mushrooms and set aside.

Combine parsley, oregano, thyme and garlic on cutting surface. Finely chop mixture together.

Heat oil in large nonstick skillet. Add mushrooms, smooth side down, and cook without turning until mushrooms are lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle reserved chopped stems and herb mixture over mushrooms. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Carefully turn mushrooms and cook, adding tiny bit more olive oil if mushrooms seem dry, until mushrooms are tender, about 5 minutes more.

Makes 4 servings.

MOZZARELLA, DRIED TOMATOES, OLIVES AND BASIL

1 (10-ounce) piece fresh mozzarella

10 to 12 large fresh basil leaves

10 to 12 reconstituted dried tomatoes in olive oil

1/2 cup brine-cured black olives, such as Kalamata

Extra-virgin olive oil

Cut mozzarella into slices and arrange slightly overlapping on platter. Tuck 1 basil leaf between slices and top each with piece of tomato. Garnish platter with olives. Drizzle thin stream of olive oil to taste over top.

Makes 4 servings.

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