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Not so long ago, fresh mozzarella was not something you could pick up at the grocery store. I’m talking about the fresh mozzarella that comes in a moist sack, whether the contents are little ovaline, bite-sized pieces or one elegant lump the size of a grapefruit. I know whereof I speak because I used hand-carry fresh mozzarella di buffala back to Los Angeles on my visits home to NY. There was a salumeria in Eastchester NY – just above Scarsdale, my home town – that carried it. I’d get two balls and they’d get put in a plastic bag with a layer of water on the bottom. Until I tucked it into another tupperware you might think I was transporting goldfish.

It’s a delicate cheese that loses its luster if not kept moist. These were pre 9/11 times I’m talking about because, of course, you can no longer carry anything swimming in liquid onto an airplane. The last time I flew from NY to California I dared to bring the Ardsley Diner’s award-winning rice pudding in my carry-on for a flyover snack, but it was confiscated at JFK. I am still sore about that because I hadn’t tasted it yet! But those were pre-pandemic times, Lord help us.

I don’t need to tell people how to use mozzarella any more than I’d have to list all the places you can use cheddar, it’s a staple. The base cheese for pizza, and all that. But I am thinking out loud that it’s a nice idea to get that ball of mozzarella in the house (for those who can enjoy dairy) as it’s a nice ‘fast food’ to have in the refrigerator to inspire some springtime diversions from the usual dinner repertoire. Who among is us isn’t at their wit’s end planning enticing meals after 369 (but who’s counting?) days of lockdown.

I grew up loving Italian food and it was the favored dinner out in my family growing up. Westchester County had fantastic restaurants. I will name my favorites though they have mostly faded into memory – La Stazione, in Elmsford, Reggio Morelli on Central Avenue in Yonkers, and Il Sorriso in Irvington. More often than not on these festive occasions we would get the antipasto plate to start. It’s literal translation is before the meal or repast. The plate was a beautiful thing, and we divvied up harmoniously. Marinated cherry peppers, mushrooms and artichokes, rolled slices of prosciutto or mortadella, maybe a couple of stuffed clams oreganata, a slice of eggplant parmesan, and a few rounds of the Caprese combo, fresh mozzarella atop a tomato slice, anointed with basil, balsamic vinegar and olive oil. This came with slender breadsticks too. Anybody else getting hungry here?

After the contents of the platter were dispatched and we contentedly waited for our entrees to arrive, one of my parents would invariably joke, “well, I’m ready for coffee and dessert.” Yes, we’d eat those entrees when they arrived, but there was always that moment of wondering – should we skip that main course one of these days? As we’ve all reined in our portion amounts, having the platter as the main attraction of the meal definitely has its appeal. We can always add a mixed green salad or cup of soup to round it out.

It’s an easy dinner to throw together and a nice break in the monotony. (And if you are not experiencing monotony in your meal rotation, please share some ideas in the comment section below!) Best of all, it can be anything you want it to be, catered to your dietary profile. Vegetarian or kosher, with emphasis on veggies like marinated fennel or some roasted asparagus spears that you prepped in the toaster oven, or if you eat meat you can wrap that asparagus in prosciutto and bring out the slices of genoa salami. For the vegans, I would break out the marinated fennel, spinach or roast pepper hummus and put it on baguette rounds. (The first time I had spinach hummus, it was served on baguette rounds with a lightly roasted asparagus tip on the top. It was a delicious combination.)

Lately I’ve been thinking more about New York and live theater, probably because I haven’t been able to get there, but my parents took us to a lot of performing arts events when we were growing up. They had a subscription to the Boston Symphony as well as the Metropolitan Opera. We kids went along to some of the concerts and when we got older, the opera too, now and then. Their Boston Symphony subscription seats were in the second row and I often would get dozy and felt mortified that perhaps I could be seen nodding off because I was so close to the front. I loved the variety of restaurants that we would go to before the concerts, and the one that had the antipasto bar must have been closer to Carnegie Hall because I remember also going there on occasion before a Broadway show or two. I’m guessing that the days of the antipasto bar will also be a quaint memory, but walking around a table loaded with 20 different shining white bowls filled with all these delicate and colorful tidbits is a happy memory. As I recall, the table was not self-serve and you’d point out to the waiter which 5 items you wanted, so perhaps there is hope that this tradition can return.

I will sign off with the spinach hummus recipe that I got from my daughter’s wonderful kindergarten teacher and have made many times since first enjoying it at a volunteer appreciation tea at her elementary school. But you could do the whole thing as a store-bought affair if you truly want a fast and easy alternative to cooking or takeout. Maybe you can slice up the mozzarella and tomatoes to assemble your Caprese salad if you feel like it. Or serve it with some fresh tortellini tossed in butter or oil and garlic if you want something heartier. Some grocery stores even have nice marinated mushrooms and peppers and olive bars in their deli department even though you can buy all of these in jars too.

Spring is here! Buon appetito!

Spinach Hummus

1 can garbanzo beans, drained (low sodium preferred)

1 clove garlic (I use 2-3)

1 tbsp. lemon juice

1/2 tsp ground cumin

1/2 tsp. curry powder

1/3 cup olive oil

1 cup washed and de-stemmed spinach, packed

salt and pepper to taste

Process the above in a food processor until smooth. While running the machine, add 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil. Adjust seasonings.