The Coliseum, Parthenon, Duomo, Mona Lisa, David, Sistine Chapel, Trevi fountain, The Birth of Venus and pasta. The Italians blessed the world with some of the greatest artistic achievements known to man. Although I am about as close to being Italian as I am to being Japanese, I feel a kinship with Italian culture that I’ve never felt with any another one except the British.
My love affair with Italy began when I stumbled off an overnight train at Rome’s Termini station, a weary, bleary-eyed mess. I spent a sleepless night being bounced around the couchette like a ping pong ball on steroids and keeping vigilant watch over my luggage like a soldier at Fort Knox. However, I instantly forgot my cares when I spied a blanket of purple wisteria hanging over a wall. The stunning floral visual was enough to lift my spirits but its life-sustaining perfume was so intense I could smell it over the stench of an urban train station. I knew I was someplace special. The whole trip was a feast for the senses-the art, the architecture, the Roman traffic, the Mediterranean coastline, the passion of its people, and the food. Who knew one could feast like a king on a college student budget? Ah...bliss.
Since I became a serious cook, Italian-inspired food with its produce centricity is never far from my table. One of the simplest appetizers to make for holiday entertaining or special meals is crostini (“little toasts” in Italian), thinly sliced toasted bread brushed with olive oil. Like Greek phyllo or Asian wonton cups, you can top it with just about anything and it tastes divine.
Puréed Cannellini Bean Crostini with Sautéed Fennel, Leeks & Arugula
1 cup dried white beans
1 artisan baguette
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 medium onion, peeled and thinly sliced
1 celery stalk, diced
1 ½ Tbsp. chopped fresh rosemary
3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 bay leaf
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh thyme
salt, to taste
freshly ground pepper, to taste
Garnish (recipes follow):
Sautéed Fennel, Leeks, & Arugula
toasted pine nuts
Yield: 2 ½ cups puree; 35-40 crostini
Pick over the beans and discard any stones. Place beans in a work bowl or wide pot and cover with water by at least 3 inches. Soak for 8 hours or overnight (the longer the beans soak, the less cooking time). Drain beans in a colander and rinse well.
Preheat oven to 375° F.
Slice bread into ½” slices and place in a large work bowl. Drizzle olive oil over the bread and gently toss. Place bread in a single layer on a sheet pan. Bake until golden brown, about 7-10 minutes. Let cool. Crostini may be made 1 day ahead and stored in an airtight container.
Preheat a wide, heavy-bottomed pot over medium high heat. Add olive oil. Add onion, celery and rosemary. Cook until vegetables soften, about 4-5 minutes. Add garlic; stir for 30 seconds. Add beans and enough water to cover beans by 2 inches. Bring to a boil, skim off any foam (protein, caused by the agitation of the water) that rises to the surface, then turn heat down to medium low. Add bay leaf. Simmer gently until the beans are tender and melting, about 1 ½ - 2 hours. All the water should be nearly evaporated. (The older and drier the beans, the longer the cooking time)
Remove the bay leaf. Add the parsley and thyme. Using an immersion blender, stand blender or food processor, purée the bean mixture into a smooth paste, adding the olive oil as it purées. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Spread a layer of bean purée over crostini. Top with sautéed fennel, leeks & arugula and sprinkle with toasted pine nuts.
Crostini can be served warm or at room temperature.
Note: Two cups canned beans may be substituted for dried beans. If using canned beans, drain and rinse. Make the following modifications: Preheat a large sauté pan over medium high heat. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil. Add onion, celery and rosemary. Cook until vegetables soften, about 4-5 minutes. Add garlic; stir for 30 seconds. Add beans and cook until just heated through, about 5 minutes. Stir in parsley and thyme. Proceed to pureeing and finish the recipe as indicated above.
Sautéed Fennel, Leeks & Arugula
Make a vegetarian or vegan version by substituting 2 tablespoons of olive oil for the pancetta. Use as a side dish and garnish with some freshly grated parmesan cheese.
¼ lb. pancetta, diced
3 leeks, white and light green parts only, thoroughly cleaned and thinly sliced
1 fennel bulb, cored and thinly sliced
1 shallot, peeled and thinly sliced
5 oz. baby arugula leaves
1 Tbsp. fresh chopped Italian parsley
1 Tbsp. fresh chopped thyme
zest of 1 lemon
Cook the pancetta in a large sauté pan over medium high heat until crisp, about 5-7 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and place on a paper towel-lined plate.
Add fennel, leeks and shallot to pan. Cook until vegetables soften and turn golden brown, about 6-9 minutes. Stir in arugula, parsley and thyme. Cook until arugula is just wilted. Turn off heat and stir in lemon zest.
Toasted Pine Nuts: Preheat oven to 350° F. Place pine nuts on a baking sheet. Bake until nuts smell nutty and turn golden brown, about 6-9 minutes.PSST:
Here are two simple crostini appetizer ideas:
Spread crostini with quince (tart fruit related to apples and pears) paste Top with a paper-thin slice of Serrano ham (Spanish version of prosciutto) and shredded or thinly sliced Manchego (to-die-for Spanish sheep’s milk cheese). Place under oven broiler until cheese melts and begins to turn golden brown. Garnish with chopped Marcona almonds (almonds lightly fried in oil). Find these products in grocery retailers’ gourmet cheese departments or at specialty cheese purveyors.
Spread crostini with a plain creamy goat cheese (let sit out at room temperature to reach spreadable consistency). Garnish with a mixture of pomegranate seeds, orange zest, a little freshly squeezed orange juice and some toasted walnut pieces.
---Authored by Wendy