Recipes For a Herbal Feast:
• Nana's Artichoke Frittata
• Sicilian Caponatina
• Roasted Sicilian Peppers
• Linguine con Pesto
• Polenta con Funghi e Formagio
• Pollo alla Frederico
• Nana Mirabile's Mint & Applecello Cake
A holiday get-together can be cause for much celebration. It also can become a stress-fest that brings out our worst fears and performance anxieties. This year, skip the tension. Enjoy your own party by following some sage—and basil—advice from Kansas City chef and restaurateur Jasper Mirabile Jr.
Namesake of the Mirabile family-owned Jasper’s Italian Restaurant, Jasper knows the joys and potential pitfalls of cooking for a crowd. He’s been immersed in food preparation for as long as he can remember. His father, Jasper Mirabile, opened Jasper’s in 1954. Family life revolved around the business of food. Jasper Jr. and his three brothers gravitated to the restaurant, spending time with their father and learning the restaurant business.
“It’s something all the boys did. If you wanted to see my father, you went to the restaurant,” he says.
Dining at Jasper’s feels like being admitted to a cozy club—a tucked-away spot for people who appreciate food and shun pretention, an apt atmosphere for a place where the emphasis is on food and family. The kitchen staff—sous chef, pasta and pastry chefs, sauté cooks—is composed of long-time employees who have been with the restaurant for decades. Three generations of Mirabiles test dishes together on Sundays.
When you meet Jasper Jr., his passion for the restaurant is obvious.
The 46-year-old executive chef is a congenial host, sharing favorite memories (“My first memory of cooking is being 6 years old on my grandmother’s counter, watching her prepare some homemade pasta and the delicate desserts she was known for.”) and explaining how he reaches out to local farmers (he founded and leads the Kansas City Convivium of Slow Food International) for the freshest possible produce.
His reputation for buying local produce is such that farmers know to pull up to the kitchen door in the morning for impromptu transactions. As an example, Jasper describes the delicious green onions, tomatoes, squash and lettuce a neighborhood vegetable gardener—a tailor by profession— occasionally drops by with. Jasper’s mission is simple: Delicious food made with old-fashioned attention to detail. Throughout the years, food authorities have taken note. Jasper’s has retained a Mobil Four Stars rating, AAA Four Diamonds award and membership in Distinguished Restaurants of North America (DiRoNA) since 1978.
Today, Jasper Jr., his brother Leonard and his nephew Jasper III work together in the kitchen and dining room to continue the Mirabile tradition. The policy of family presence (they call it MITH—Mirabile in the House) and the cheerful atmosphere make most nights in the restaurant a party of sorts. Follow Jasper Jr.’s tips to make your next soiree fun for everyone—including the cook! Best of all, herbs add the extra oomph to each of these Mirabile family-tested recipes.
Pacing your prep work out in advance is essential to avoiding the party-day rush. Set your menu early and then keep an eye on the fresh produce that is available in the market. By the time you are ready to do your shopping, you’ll have a good idea of what is in season and what’s scarce.
Three days before the party is the ideal time to do your grocery shopping and prepare any sauces on your menu. Then, prep your veggies the night before the party. The beauty of this plan is that you don’t have to set aside huge chunks of time at any point. While you’re preparing dinner the night before the party, take some extra time to rinse, chop, slice and dice. With a little music thrown into the mix, you can relax and reflect as you prep the vegetables. Hint: To retain maximum flavor from your herbs, Jasper says, be sure to add them toward the end of the cooking time.
Stick to the Plan
Jasper’s key to operating a successful restaurant can be your secret to a no-fuss, high-style party: The recipes are tried and true. “Everything is made the way my parents would make it. We don’t change a thing,” Jasper says.
The result is a smooth evening of food and conversation. “We’ll have a big night and it’s no big deal. Just another day,” Jasper says.
Recreate this laid-back approach at your own party by choosing simple recipes you are comfortable making. When setting the menu, stick with recipes you know—or have at least tried out before. Now is not the time to experiment with a new dish or an elaborate presentation.
While it may feel necessary to dazzle your guests with a breathtaking culinary display, it’s much more important that you attend to your guests during the party. Jasper recommends starting with easy appetizers so guests can mingle and get comfortable. “Don’t go crazy! What’s simpler than a cheese board?” he says.
Delight in the Details
You want your guests to feel special, so once you have a delicious, simple menu set, you can really focus on a few details. Use herbs to make your menu stand out. Nana Mirabile’s Applecello Cake is a bundt cake made with a box cake mix. But Jasper’s mother, who created the recipe, gave it unmistakable personality with the homemade applecello and fresh mint. The result is an unusual combination that is simply delicious.
Since Jasper’s dinner-party plan calls for simple food, tweaked with herbs to make it holiday-worthy, be sure to pay attention to the details. “Presentation is very, very important,” he says.
When you have a plan and are comfortable with the recipes on your menu, it is much easier to pull all the details together for a special evening. At home and in the restaurant, Jasper uses fresh herbs to effect a beautiful presentation—sometimes scattering herbs across the tablecloth for a splash of color and aroma.
Allison Martin is associate editor of The Herb Companion. She enjoyed tasting her way through this story.