Sick of Cooking? Skip Takeout and Try This Classy Dinner Instead

Go ahead: Skip dinner. Italians do this often, particularly on carefree summer evenings when hovering over a stove is the furthest thing from anyone's mind. Of course, no one goes hungry. Not with an irresistible array of light, bright antipasti to choose from. These appetizers bear little resemblance to their American descendants, those ho-hum platters of salami and provolone. Italian antipasti, in all their delicious guises, are colorful quilts of diminutive dishes -- leafy salads, fried fish, marinated vegetables and olives, and countless other eye-catchers -- that blanket restaurant bars and call out to early-evening cravings.

In Italian homes, too, a social snacking ritual gets under way at the twilight hour. The official role of an antipasto is to spark the appetite (the word means "before the meal"). But consumed to the tune of conversation and clinking glasses, the morsels can morph into a marvelous meal of their own. Friends drop by, wines are uncorked, pantry and refrigerator doors are opened, and antipasti -- a little of this, a little of that -- are enjoyed in casual, convivial settings, be it a crowded kitchen or a twinkling garden.

Small plates play a role in many of the world's cuisines, but few countries have embraced them quite like Italy, where the tradition stretches back to the time of the ancient Romans. In her 1954 book, Italian Food, Elizabeth David wrote: "Among Italian antipasti are to be found some of the most successful culinary achievements in European cooking." There are several regional variations. In Emilia-Romagna, aperitivo hour is a moveable feast that sees wine-bar hoppers indulging in stuffed olives, raw-milk cheeses, and bite-size sandwiches. In the Veneto, restaurants present cicchetti, such as marinated sardines with raisins, saffron-tinged arancini (stuffed balls of risotto), and codfish puree on grilled polenta -- all infused with the worldly flavors the merchants of Venice brought to the table centuries ago.

Below, you'll find subtly varied classics that capture the antipasti spirit. Small plum tomatoes mingle with lemon thyme, fried sage leaves overlie fried anchovy fillets, rounds of summer squash band with bits of young pecorino. Additional nibbles to serve alongside could include chunks of crusty bread, ribbons of prosciutto, or a selection of Italian cheeses, such as La Tur, Taleggio, and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Antipasti are also traditionally paired with drinks that tickle the taste buds. Prosecco spiked with Campari and lemon is just right, as is a simple glass of white wine. And because antipasti are frequently served at room temperature, summer cooks can prepare them hours in advance, then dive in with their guests.

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Summer-Squash Salad with Herbs and Pecorino Fresco

1 pound small young summer squashes (about 8), cut into 1/4-inch-thick rounds (halved if large)
2 tablespoons fresh oregano or thyme leaves
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground pepper
6 ounces pecorino fresco, crumbled (about 1 1/2 cups; www.murrayscheese.com)

1. Toss together squashes, herbs, and oil in a large bowl; season with pepper. Add cheese; toss. Let stand at room temperature 15 minutes before serving.

Zucchini "Carpaccio"

2 medium zucchini
4 ounces watercress or baby arugula
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Juice of 2 lemons
Sea salt flakes, and freshly ground pepper
2 ounces Parmesan cheese, shaved

1. Prepare an ice-water bath; set aside. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add zucchini, and cook 2 minutes. Plunge zucchini into the ice-water bath to stop the cooking, and let cool completely.

2. Arrange watercress on a platter, reserving some for garnish. Drizzle with about half the oil and lemon juice.

3. Using a mandoline or a box grater, very thinly slice zucchini into rounds. Arrange over watercress. Drizzle with remaining oil and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper. Top with Parmesan, and garnish with reserved watercress.

Preserved Tomatoes with Lemon Thyme

2 pounds small plum tomatoes
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
1/4 cup fresh lemon thyme leaves
1 tablespoon sea salt flakes
Extra-virgin olive oil, for filling jar

1. Preheat oven to 275 degrees. Prepare an ice-water bath; set aside. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add tomatoes, and cook 2 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer tomatoes to the ice-water bath to stop the cooking; let cool completely in ice-water bath. Transfer to a plate lined with paper towels, and let drain.

2. Slit tomatoes lengthwise, leaving halves attached along 1 edge. Open each tomato like a book, and arrange on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Roast until edges have shriveled slightly, about 40 minutes. Let cool completely.

3. Meanwhile, stir together garlic, red pepper flakes, lemon thyme, and salt in a small bowl. Sprinkle one side of each tomato with about 1 teaspoon of the seasoning mixture; fold over other side.

4. Layer tomatoes in a sterilized, dry 1-quart jar. Pour in enough oil to cover tomatoes. Place a round of waxed paper on surface to keep them submerged. Refrigerate at least 24 hours; let stand at room temperature 1 hour before serving.

Marinated Baby Artichokes

2 lemons

10 baby artichokes, or 6 small artichokes
6 garlic cloves, skins split but left intact
1/2 cup Kalamata olives, halved and pitted
4 sprigs fresh rosemary
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for filling jar
Sea salt flakes, and freshly ground pepper

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Prepare an ice-water bath; add juice of 1 lemon. Trim stems of artichokes, leaving 1 inch intact. Remove tough outer leaves, and trim sharp tips of remaining leaves with scissors. Halve baby artichokes lengthwise, or quarter small artichokes; scoop out fuzzy chokes, and discard. Add prepared artichokes to lemon water as you work.

2. Arrange artichokes in a nonreactive 12-by-16-inch baking dish. Using a vegetable peeler, peel 4 strips of zest from remaining lemon, and add to baking dish. Add garlic, olives, and 2 rosemary sprigs. Squeeze juice from zested lemon over artichokes. Drizzle with oil, and season with salt and pepper. Toss to combine. Cover dish with parchment paper, then foil. Bake 30 minutes. Uncover; stir, and cook until tender and browned in places, about 10 minutes. Serve the artichokes as is, or continue to step 3.

3. Let artichokes cool completely. Transfer contents of baking dish to a sterilized, dry 1-quart jar; add remaining 2 rosemary sprigs. Add enough oil to cover artichokes. Place a round of waxed paper on surface. Artichokes can be stored on the top shelf of the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. Let stand at room temperature 1 hour before serving.

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Fried Anchovies and Sage

Whole milk, for soaking
18 best-quality anchovy fillets
36 small to medium, narrow, fresh sage leaves
1 to 2 tablespoons instant flour (such as Wondra)
1 large egg, lightly beaten
Extra-virgin olive oil, for frying

1. Put milk into a shallow dish. Add anchovy fillets; soak 10 minutes. Drain on paper towels, and pat dry. Cut fillets to be the same length as the sage leaves. Lay each sage leaf face up on a large cutting board. Place an anchovy fillet on half of the sage leaves; crush with fork tines, being careful not to tear leaves. Sandwich with another leaf, face down. Press with the back of a spoon to seal.

2. Preheat oven to 200 degrees. Put flour into 1 bowl and egg into another. Heat 1/4 inch oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Coat 6 of the anchovy-sage sandwiches with flour, shaking off any excess, then with egg, allowing excess to drip off. Fry, turning once, until golden, 45 seconds to 1 minute per side. Drain on paper towels. Transfer to oven to keep warm. Repeat with remaining anchovies in batches. Serve immediately.

Summer Bagna Cauda

Set out a dish of peppery extra-virgin olive oil with a dash of aged balsamic vinegar, Vincotto (sweet Italian vinegar), or verjus for dipping.

Whole milk, for soaking
2 ounces anchovy fillets
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
6 young garlic cloves (or regular garlic), finely chopped
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Sea salt flakes, and freshly ground pepper
4 pounds fresh vegetables, such as celery, Belgian endive, young wild fennel (halved lengthwise), Persian cucumbers (halved or quartered lengthwise), purple scallions, and Romano beans, plus Calimyrna figs, for serving

1. Put milk into a shallow dish. Add anchovy fillets; soak 10 minutes. Drain on paper towels; pat dry. Coarsely chop.

2. Put 1/4 cup oil and the garlic into a small saucepan over low heat. Cook until garlic softens but does not brown, about 5 minutes. Add anchovies. Cook, whisking constantly, 1 minute. Add butter. Cook, whisking, until butter has melted.

3. Remove pan from heat. Whisk in the remaining 1/4 cup oil in a slow, steady stream until mixture thickens and comes together. If the mixture separates at any point, add 2 ice cubes, and whisk until mixture comes together; remove partially melted ice cubes.

4. Whisk in lemon juice, and season with salt and pepper. Serve warm or at room temperature with the vegetables.

More from Martha Stewart:
35 Beyond Delicious No-Bake Dessert Recipes
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Martha Stewart's All-Time Favorite Dessert Recipes

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