Saturday, August 13, 2011

Cena Fredda ~ Cold Supper

The Romans referred to the dog days of summer and associated the hot, sultry weather with the star Sirius (also known as the dog star.)  In Ancient Rome, the dog days lasted for a month, from July 24 to August 24, so the weather in Rome seems similar to the weather pattern here in Chicago. 

Ministrant Carrying a Tray of Food with Silenius Playing a Lyre and a Young Satyr Playing a Syrinx, North Wall, Oecus 5, 60-50 BC (fresco)Villa dei Misteri, Pompeii, Italy 
While we don't typically have more than a week or two of really hot, muggy days, those that we do have will occur during this period.  So when the dog days are upon us, I turn to another Italian tradition for my cooking inspiration, "cena fredda" or the traditional cold supper.   Of course, much of Italy lies south of Rome, where no doubt the weather is even hotter in the summer time.  As such, the Italians have invented a special set of serving dishes for this meal. 

The cena fredda service is typically an ornate set of segmented serving pieces usually with the main meat dish placed in the center dish, and surrounded by cheeses, fruits, olives, marinated vegetables, and other antipastos.  All the plates fit together perfectly yet can be easily pulled apart.  You see these throughout many of the shops in Italy, although I'm told that most Italian families just use regular dishes while enjoying their cold supper. 
My Mother (child) and Grandmother
As you may know, my mother was 100% Italian, and as such she regularly prepared a cold supper during the hottest days of summer.  I remember rising from my bed to the smell of fried or roasted chicken as she prepared much of the evening meal very early in the morning, before it was too hot outside.  While we had air-conditioning, this was a tradition she knew well and continued to follow despite the modern cooling convenience. 
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In addition to a room-temperature roasted meat, poultry or fish, there were typically slices of tomatoes, cucumbers, cheeses and hard-boiled or deviled eggs.  We'd have green onions, carrot sticks, cold green beans with dressing, olives (usually Greek style), and always wine (and yes, the children drank small portions of wine too and no one became an alcoholic.)  Perhaps as much as the good food, which we would consume on the back patio, I have great memories of these dinners, often with aunts and uncles dropping by for an evening of good food, lots of conversation, uproarious laughter and enjoying the family until well into the night.  It seems we could be quite self entertaining!
If I'm preparing a smaller more formal cold supper, I often start with a cold tomato basil soup, gazpacho or vichyssoise (a soup made of puréed leeks, onions, potatoes, cream, and chicken stock.)  Cold salmon also makes a nice, refreshing main course and I provide you with the very nice recipe for that below, which you prepare the day before.

For the larger group, I prepare a buffet which most always includes a roasted or pan fried chicken.  I make the chicken in the morning and let it sit at room temperature until serving time.  I know in this day of refrigeration and health department regulation this is not how things are done, but it worked for my mother and thus it is good enough for me.   

If you are not into cooking, this is one meal that can easily be picked up at your local Italian deli or any good fresh-food market.  The important thing is to enjoy a cold supper after the heat of the day with friends and family and marvel at how wonderful life really is... La Dolche Vita!
Cold Supper Buffet
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Cold Supper Salmon (Serves 6)
2 pound salmon filet, skin on
1 medium onion, sliced
1 lemon, sliced thin
2 teaspoons pickling spices
3 stalks fresh dill, pulled from the central stem
3 cloves garlic, minced
Salt and pepper

1/4 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup Dijon mustard
1 cucumber, peeled and sliced very thin
Sliced black olives (optional, to garnish)
Fresh dill (optional, to garnish)

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Arrange onion and lemon slices, spices, dill and garlic on the bottom of a well-greased casserole or foil-lined baking sheet.  Place salmon skin side up on top of the seasonings.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper.   Cover tightly with foil and bake at 350F for 1 hour.  Remove from the oven and let cool.  Refrigerate until well chilled.  When ready to serve, place the salmon fillet on a serving platter and carefully remove the skin. Mix mayonnaise and mustard and spread lightly over salmon.  Garnish with cucumber slices and olives.  

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