My Birthday Feast From Italy

Next week is my birthday. Traditionally, we’ve gone to the same wonderful Italian Restaurant for dinner. The food is delicious. While not a “fancy” place, we’ve always enjoyed the atmosphere, the service and the people. Unfortunately, our little place closed. Last year we had a wonderful French Supper at a spectacular Bistro. Very small, very intimate seating for no more than 30 guests total. While the meal was to-die-for (one of the top ten in the nation), I truly missed my little Italian Supper Club. Besides, I’ve reached an age when getting all dressed up for a nice meal requires more effort than necessary. I want a gourmet meal that I can eat in my pajamas.

This year, I’m making my own wonderful supper. A few appetizers, three “main” attractions, a few sides and a luscious cake. Since I’d rather not spend my entire birthday morning in the kitchen, I’ve picked out an assortment dishes that can be prepared in stages, some a day ahead of time, others that are complicated in flavor with very little effort. The main entrees and sides will hold well until party time, while the cake can be baked in the morning for dessert that evening.

My guys are great assistants. While Hubby requires more supervision, with Kiddo I can just hand over a recipe and let him go for it. I know what you are thinking – cooking my own birthday dinner? Yep. I’m getting exactly what I want – home cooking and being with the people who matter most – my family.

Since we’re making so much food, the serving portions and size will be down-sized. Just a sampling size or so of each delicious dish. Since we will be cooking for 10 people, the total ingredients should be just about right (most of the dishes would be enough for 6 if that were the only thing being served).

To say that I arrived at this menu easily would be untrue. There were nearly 30 different recipes in various categories up for consideration. It was time to begin the whittling process – after all, I’m not running an Olive Garden, just making dinner for my family. Even then, once the final selection had been made, changes began to creep in. Originally, Veal Piccata was to be one of the three “main” featured dishes. Veal Piccata is my all-time favorite of the Piccata variety. While Hubby, Kiddo and I had no qualms about eating veal, the rest of my family most assuredly would. Rule #1 when planning a dinner party is cook something your guests will enjoy. If you have no doubt that an entrée will be greeted with turned up noses, don’t make it. Out with the veal, in with pork cutlets. The side dishes also needed revamping. Originally Italian Roasted Potatoes made the grade. But then, I began to realize the sides lacked a vegetable selection. Besides, roasting potatoes would heat up my tiny kitchen, and that was something I wished to avoid. Out with the potatoes, in with Italian Summer Squash Saute. At last, the menu was complete.

Let’s Get This Party Started – Aperitivo
Red Tomato Gazpacho Shooters with Serrano Chilies
Bruschetta with Italian Relish and Feta Cheese

Portata Principales – The Main Attractions
Meat – Pork Piccata Cutlets
Poultry – Chicken Marsala
Seafood – Shrimp Scampi with Scampi Butter

Supporting Roles – Contorno
Italian Summer Squash Saute
Creamy Herb Risotto
Spaghetti with a Sassy Marinara Sauce

Insalata con Condimento – The Salad
Leaf Salad with Home-made Dressing

Dolce – Sweet Dessert
Vanilla Cake with Blueberry Filling and Italian Meringue Butter Cream Frosting

Red Tomato Gazpacho with Serrano Chilies
8 large red bell peppers
2-1/2 lb. tomatoes
1 English cucumber, peeled and cut into large chunks
1 yellow bell pepper, seeded and cut into 1/4-inch dice
3 Serrano chilies, seeded and minced
2 small red onion, finely chopped
2 garlic clove, minced
4 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
2 Tablespoon sherry vinegar
2 teaspoon salt
2 avocado
2 Teaspoon snipped fresh chives
1 teaspoon dried oregano

Preheat a broiler.

Arrange the red bell peppers on a baking sheet and place in the broiler about 6 inches from the heat source. Broil, turning with tongs, until the pepper skins are blistered and charred black on all sides, about 15 minutes.

Place the peppers in a paper bag and let stand until cool enough to handle. Remove the stem from each pepper and discard. Slit the pepper open, then remove and discard the seeds and ribs. Remove the blackened skin with a small knife.

Cut the tomatoes in half crosswise. Using the largest holes on a box grater placed over a bowl, grate the tomato halves. Discard the skins.

In a food processor, pulse the cucumber chunks until coarsely pureed. Add to the bowl.

Process the roasted peppers in the same way until coarsely pureed. Add to the bowl.

Stir in the yellow bell pepper, chilies, onion, garlic, the 2 tablespoons. olive oil, the vinegar and salt.

Cover and refrigerate until chilled. (This can be done up to 1 day ahead of time).

Ladle the chilled gazpacho into 8 individual shot glasses.

Just before serving, slice avocado in half, pit and remove flesh from skin. Dice avocado into small cubes, no larger than 1/4-inch.

Garnish each glass with the avocado. Sprinkle with the chives and oregano and drizzle with olive oil. Serve immediately.


Image result for image bruschetta with tomatoesBruschetta with Italian Relish and Feta Cheese
Italian Relish
¾ lb Tomatoes, seeded, chopped (Red Roma, yellow or combination)
¾ Cup Chopped Red Onion
3-4 Cloves of Garlic, chopped (about 1-2 tablespoons)
1 Tablespoon Chopped Fresh Basil or 1 teaspoon dried basil
2 Tablespoon Chopped Fresh Oregano or 1 1/2 teaspoons dried Oregano
1/3 Cup Red Wine Vinegar
Salt & Pepper to taste

Seed and chop tomatoes, place in a medium-size bowl. When chopping the tomatoes, leave some in larger chunks, some in smaller pieces for a less-uniformed appearance.

Chop Red Onions, add to tomatoes. If using fresh herbs (best) chop fresh basil and oregano. Add to tomato mixture. (If dried herbs, simply sprinkle over tomato mixture)

Pour Red Wine Vinegar over tomato mixture, toss to blend. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Let stand for 1-2 hours to allow flavors to mature and fully marry.

1 Baguette – French or Italian
2 Garlic Cloves
1/2 Cup Olive Oil
1 Cup Feta, Crumbled (Optional for serving)

Move the top rack of oven to the highest position. Heat oven to 450 degrees.

Slice baguette into rounds about 1 inch thick. Set aside until ready to use.

Peel garlic and slice in half lengthwise. Set aside until ready to use.

Lightly brush baguette rounds with olive oil. Gently rub with garlic (one slice at a time, replacing as needed). Place rounds oil-side down on a baking sheet.

Place in the oven and “toast” until crisp but not hard.

Toasted rounds can be made as much as a day ahead of time, then stored in an air-tight container until ready to serve.

When ready to serve, place relish in a bowl at the center of a serving platter. Arrange baguette toast around the relish. Place crumbled Feta in a second bowl next to the platter. Use a small slotted spoon for the relish and a small teaspoon for the Feta. Let guests pile on the relish and Feta as desired.

Pork Loin Piccata Cutlets
1 1 and 1/2-pound pork tenderloin, trimmed
6 tablespoons Dijon mustard
4 eggs
2 cups seasoned bread crumbs
6 tablespoons olive oil, divided in batches
½ cup chicken broth
½ cup white wine
2 to 3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon white pepper
2 to 3 tablespoons capers, drained
2 shallots, sliced into rings
1 large lemon, cut into 6 thin slices
¼ cup Butter

Cut pork against grain into twelve thin slices; press each to flatten slightly.

Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.

Whisk Dijon mustard and eggs in a glass pie pan. Place bread crumbs in another pie pan. Dip cutlets into mustard mixture, then into bread crumbs. Add cutlets to skillet and cook for 5 minutes per side or until browned and cooked through.

Remove the cutlets to a baking dish large enough to hold all the pork and Piccata sauce. Keep warm in a 300 degree oven. Add remaining olive oil to skillet. Repeat with remaining pork cutlets – dip; bread and brown. Place in oven to keep warm.

To the now empty skillet; add chicken broth, wine, lemon juice, capers, butter, salt, pepper and red onions to skillet. Bring to a boil, scraping up browned bits. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes or until onions are tender. Pour over cutlets. Place lemon slices on top of pork.

Cover cutlets with foil, leave in oven until ready to serve. It’s best to allow cutlets to sit in liquid for at least 15 minutes to soak in flavors before serving.


Chicken Marsala
6 chicken breasts, boneless, skinless
3 Tablespoons Flour
1/2 Tablespoons Oregano
Salt to Taste
Pepper to Taste
4 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup sliced Portobello or brown mushrooms
½ cup Marsala wine (more to taste)
¼ Cup Chicken Broth
1/2 Tablespoon Brown Gravy Mix (yeah, the powder stuff)

Place chicken between two pieces of plastic wrap. Pound with meat hammer (smooth side) until ¼ inch thick. (You can also use thin sliced breasts in place of “pounding” chicken thin).

In a shallow dish combine flour, salt, pepper and oregano. Coat chicken pieces in flour mixture.
In a large skillet, melt butter in olive oil over medium heat. Place chicken in pan and lightly brown on both sides.

Add mushrooms. Pour in wine and chicken broth, cover and simmer chicken 10 minutes, turning once, until chicken is no longer pink and juices run clear.

Taste and adjust sauce as needed – if too sweet, add small amount of Chicken Broth, if not sweet enough, add small amount of Marsala Wine.  Remove chicken from the pan and transfer to a rimmed serving platter.  Tent and keep warm.

Add Brown Gravy Mix and continue to cook an additional 10 minutes to allow sauce to reduce and thicken.  Return chicken to the pan, roll to coat with sauce.

Place chicken on serving platter, spoon sauce over and around chicken.


Shrimp Scampi with Scampi Butter
Scampi Butter
½ cup Butter, room temperature
3 Cloves of Garlic, pressed
1 Green Onion, diced
2 Tablespoons Parsley Flakes
1 Tablespoon Lemon Zest
1 Tablespoon Lemon Juice

Note: Scampi Butter needs to be made 1 day in advance.

In a shallow bowl, garlic and onion into butter. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

When ready to serve: In a small sauce pan over low heat, melt garlic butter. Add parsley, lemon zest and lemon juice. Heat through. Transfer to individual bowls and serve with shrimp as a dipping sauce.

Shrimp Scampi
2 lbs Jumbo Shrimp (21-25 count), peeled and deveined, tails intact
½ Cup butter
6 Cloves of garlic, pressed
4 Tablespoons White Wine
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
4 Tablespoons Parsley Flakes
2 Teaspoons Arrow Root (can used flour)
1 Tablespoon lemon juice
Salt and Pepper to Taste
1/2 Cup Chopped Flat Leaf Parsley for garnish

Rinse, peel and devein shrimp under cold water. Leave tails intact. Dry on paper towels.

Add butter and olive oil to a skillet over medium heat. When butter has melted, add parsley and garlic. Sauté 1-2 minutes. DO NOT allow garlic to brown.

Add wine, then shrimp. Increase heat to medium-high and cook shrimp until pink, stirring frequently, about 3-5 minutes.

Transfer shrimp to serving platter, tent to keep warm.

To the now empty pan, add Arrow Root or flour to thicken sauce. Add lemon juice and cook an additional 1-2 minutes. Pour scampi sauce over shrimp. If desired, garnish with fresh parsley for color.

Serve with scampi butter for dipping.

Italian Summer Squash Saute
4 to 5 Small Zucchini (About 1 Pound)
4 Summer Squash (About 1 Pound)
1 Pint Cherry Tomatoes
3 Tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 Garlic Cloves, Minced
2 Tablespoons Fresh Oregano, Chopped
2 Tablespoons Fresh Basil, chopped
2 Tablespoons Fresh Italian Parsley (flat leaf), chopped
1/2 Red Chile Pepper, Finely Chopped (Optional)
Sea Salt
Cracked Black Pepper

Cut the zucchini and squash crosswise into 1/2 inch slices. Set aside

Slice cherry tomatoes in half. Set aside

In a large frying pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat and add all the squash rounds.

Cook, stirring frequently until fork tender, about 10 minutes.

Add the garlic, tomatoes, and fresh herbs.

Stir to mix and continue to cook until the tomatoes soften.

Season with salt and pepper and serve warm or at room temperature.


Creamy Herb Risotto
5 cups Chicken Broth, warmed
¼ Cup Olive Oil
½ cup Yellow Onion, Finely Chopped
1 ½ cup Arborio Rice
½ Cup White Wine
2 Tablespoons Butter
½ Cup Parmesan Cheese
Salt & Pepper to Taste
1 Tablespoon Fresh Chopped Parsley (1 teaspoon dried)
1 Tablespoon Fresh Chopped Oregano (1 teaspoon dried)
1 Tablespoon Fresh Chopped Basil (1 teaspoon dried)
Fresh Parsley, chopped for garnish

Hold broth warm in a sauce pan.

In another sauce pan, heat olive oil.  Add onions and rice, cook over medium heat until rice becomes slightly translucent, about 3 minutes.

Add white wine to rice, stirring constantly until wine has evaporated. Slowly add warm chicken broth, 1/2 cup at a time, to rice, stirring constantly and allowing broth to evaporate between additions. Continue to add broth and cook rice over medium heat until desired doneness. Rice will begin to swell and become creamy as it cook. Do not rush the risotto. In all, it takes about 25-30 minutes to cook tender and creamy.

Once all the liquid has been added and rice is cooked, remove from heat. Stir in butter, Parmesan Cheese and all the herbs. Fluff, cover and let sit about 5 minutes. Fluff again, transfer to bowl and garnish with additional parsley, if desired.


Spaghetti in a Sassy Marinara Sauce
Sassy Marinara Sauce
1 (28-oz) can whole San Marzano tomatoes, certified D.O.P. if possible
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
7 garlic cloves, peeled and silvered
Small dried whole chile, or pinch crushed red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 large sprig fresh basil
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano, more to taste (optional)

Pour tomatoes into a large bowl and crush with  your hands. Pour 1 cup water into can and slosh it around to get tomato  juices. Reserve.

In a large skillet over medium heat, heat the oil. Once heated, add garlic.

As soon as garlic is sizzling, add the tomatoes, then the reserved tomato water.

Add whole  chile or red pepper flakes, oregano (if using) and salt. Stir to blend.
Place basil sprig, stem and all, on the surface of the sauce. Let the basil sprig wilt, then submerge into sauce.

Simmer sauce until  thickened and oil on surface is a deep orange, about 15 minutes. (If  using oregano, taste sauce after 10 minutes of simmering, adding more  salt and oregano as needed.) Discard basil and Chile (if using).

Spaghetti Pasta
1 lb Spaghetti Noodles

Bring a large pot of salted water to a rapid boil. The pot should be tall enough to submerge pasta strands without breaking into pieces and wide enough to allow pasta to dance about freely.

Cook pasta according to directions, stirring several times to prevent pasta from balling up in the pot. About two minutes before the recommended cooking time, check pasta for doneness. (Pluck a noodle from the pot and eat it. Be careful, pasta will be hot to the touch and hot in your mouth. The noodle should be cooked through, yet firm to the bite.)

Drain well, place in a large serving bowl and immediately pour Marinara sauce over the noodles. Toss well to coat pasta in sauce to prevent sticking.

Italian Green Leaf Salad with Home-Made Dressing
The Salad
2 bunches romaine, torn
2 cups grape tomatoes, halved
1 can (2-1/4 ounces) sliced ripe olives, drained
1 small red onion, thinly sliced and separated into rings
8 pepperoncini
1/2 cup Italian salad dressing
Italian Croutons
1/4 cup Shaved Parmesan cheese

In a large bowl, combine the romaine, tomatoes, olives, onion and pepperoncini. Chill until ready to serve.

Just before serving, add croutons, drizzle with salad dressing; toss to coat. Serve with additional Parmesan cheese and dressing on the side.

The Dressing
1/2 Cup mayonnaise
1/3 Cup white vinegar
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
2 tablespoon corn syrup
2 tablespoon Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoon Romano cheese
1/4 teaspoon garlic salt
1/2 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1/2 teaspoon parsley flakes
1 tablespoon lemon juice

Mix all ingredients in a blender until well mixed. Transfer to small serving pitcher and chill until ready to use.

This dressing can be made a day ahead, covered and refrigerated.

Vanilla Cake with Blueberry Filling and Italian Meringue Buttercream Frosting
The Cake
1 Box French Vanilla White Cake
3 Eggs
1/4 Cup Vegetable Oil
1/4 Cup Melted butter
1 Cup Water

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Place eggs in a mixing bowl. Beat with paddle until pale, about 2 minutes.

Melt butter in a microwave safe dish. Add to eggs. With paddle running, slowly add vegetable oil and water until light and frothy.

Add cake mix, blend for 30 seconds on low, then 2 minutes on medium high.

Prepare 2 round cake pans with Wilton’s Cake Release.

Divide batter between pans. Tap gently to release any air bubbles.

Bake in oven for about 20 minutes, check for doneness. If necessary, bake an additional 10 minutes, checking every 5 minutes. Cake should be “just done” since it will continue to cook in the pan after being removed from the oven.

Place cake while still in the pan onto cooling racks. Let cool 10 minutes.

Remove from pans, and allow to cool completely on racks, about 2 hours.

The Filling
2 1/2-pint baskets blueberries
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

In a large bowl, mash blueberries. Combine berries, sugar, and lemon juice in heavy small saucepan and heat over high heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves.

Reduce heat to medium to maintain a rolling boil and continue to cook, stirring constantly until berries are reduced to about 3/4 cup. This should take about 15 minutes.

Pour mixture into a bowl and allow to cool, stirring occasionally. Once cooled, cover with plastic wrap to prevent “skin” from forming on top. Refrigerate until ready to use.

The Frosting
1-1/4 Cups Sugar
2/3 Cup Water Room temperature
5 Large Egg Whites
Pinch Cream of Tartar
2 Cups Unsalted Butter Room temperature, cut into tablespoons
1 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract

In a small saucepan over medium heat, bring sugar and water to a boil. Continue to boil until sugar syrup reaches the soft-ball stage, 240 – 244 degrees on a candy thermometer. As the syrup cooks, start the meringue.

Separate eggs and place the whites in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat whites on low until foam begins to form, increase to medium until foamy. Add cream of tartar, and whip on medium-high-speed until medium to stiff peaks form. Do not whip to the point that the whites are dry.

With mixer running, add cooked syrup to whites in a slow but steady stream, beating at high-speed. In a steady stream, the addition of the sugar syrup should take about 5 minutes.

Add butter one tablespoon at a time, beating until smooth, approximately 4-5 minutes.

Beat in vanilla, scrape down sides gently and beat again for 1 minute.

Note: This frosting will keep up to 3 days at room temperature, 2 weeks refrigerated.

The Fruit Topping
1 Pint Blackberries
1 Pint Raspberries
1/2 Jar Current Jelly for Glaze (Apricot Jelly will also work)

Rinse berries, let drain well and pat dry if necessary.

Heat jelly in a saucepan over low heat until melted. Arrange berries on top of cake, brush with glaze.

Refrigerate finished cake up to 6 hours.  Remove from refrigerator about 30 minutes before serving.

Image result for image birthday party


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