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Chef’s Alternative: A Dreamy Menu, Impressed by Italy

Here’s a menu I can get excited about, featuring some of my favorite foods. Fresh mozzarella! Radicchio! Pasta! Crucifers! Cookies! Sometimes, that’s a very good departure point — indulging your own whims, making what you like. And, this month, I’m leaning in an Italian direction, a wistful cook’s response to the urge to get on a plane.

We start with an antipasto, which, on a classic Italian menu, implies that a pasta course will follow (and one does). The antipasto is easy. You slice some fresh mozzarella, grill some radicchio and make a green sauce. But, as they say, the devil’s in the details.

You want a really good mozzarella. True mozzarella is made from water buffalo milk, and there are some U.S. producers. But, for an American mozzarella that’s excellent and more widely available, look for the cow’s milk type, known as fior di latte in Italy. Whatever you use, there are two caveats for the best experience: The mozzarella must be as fresh as possible, and it must not be served straight from the refrigerator. Allow it to come to cool room temperature, and it will taste a thousand times better. (This is true of most cheeses, by the way.)

In my hemisphere, it is not yet the season to serve mozzarella with tomatoes, so this antipasto pairs it instead with charred radicchio. The contrast is quite pleasurable: Sweet, milky mozzarella meets slightly bitter radicchio, still a bit warm, blackened and smoky from high heat. You cut the radicchio into wedges and cook it in a cast-iron pan, on the grill or under the broiler until well charred and slightly softened.

All that is left to concoct is an easy salsa verde, made with extra-virgin olive oil, hand-chopped fresh green herbs, capers and lemon. Spoon that over the dish to complete it.

For the main course, it’s a baked pasta with two kinds of cruciferous vegetables, cauliflower and broccoli rabe. For me, that’s a thrill. You may get more oohs-and-ahs if you call it rigatoni al forno. But please humor me, and don’t call it a “pasta bake.”

The vegetables may be humble, but the resulting dish is a luxurious affair, with two sauces. First, a creamy white béchamel sauce is employed to toss with the pasta and vegetables. The dish gets a generous showering of grated cheese before it heads to the oven. It emerges, bubbly and bronzed and crisp on top, and, finally, a bright, light tomato sauce adorns each serving.

Putting it together is somewhat like committing to building a lasagna — a little fussy, a lot of components — but once assembled, your labor is well worth the reward. No, it’s not a 30-minute kitchen session. But you can, and should, assemble it all in advance, then pop it in the oven when you please. Consider it a clever way to prepare dinner during daylight hours, so all the work is out of the way when you’d normally be in the kitchen.

And, though I always say I’m not big on dessert, I’m an utter fool for a good cookie, apt to devour at least two or three right off the bat. Chocolate chip doesn’t tempt me, but any cookie with nuts, especially almonds, does. The most delectable Sicilian almond cookies I know are made with just a few ingredients: blanched almonds, sugar and egg whites.

Similar to macaroons, they are crisp on the outside, with a perfumed chewy interior. They can be baked plain, or decorated with candied fruit or whole almonds. Or they can be made into thumbprint cookies, filled with a spoonful of good jam. Another good project to accomplish in advance, these cookies keep well in an airtight tin for several days, ready to serve at a moment’s notice. To be on the safe side, however, I’d advise hiding the tin.

Recipes: Mozzarella With Charred Radicchio and Salsa Verde | Rigatoni al Forno With Cauliflower and Broccoli Rabe | Italian Almond Cookies

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