- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 20, 2007

We all entertain for different reasons, and a few days ago, my husband and I hosted a small dinner for a very special purpose. Our guest of honor was one of his college students whose help we desperately needed.

As the proud new owners of a flat-screen HD television (my husband’s belated Christmas gift), we found ourselves totally in the dark about how this slick, space-age set functioned.

Even after a visit from the cable guy and several hours spent poring over the manufacturer’s manual, we still couldn’t get all the buttons to work. That’s when we thought of Nick, a techno-savvy twentysomething student who, we hoped, could straighten out the mess of cords behind the shiny black screen. A deal was agreed upon: a home-cooked meal in exchange for a consultation.

It was a cold, blustery night, so I decided to make a big pot of ribollita, a Tuscan minestrone that is served over slices of toasted bread. Our young guest had spent a semester studying in Rome, where he had fallen in love with Italian food, so this seemed like a good choice.

Along with bowls of the steaming soup, I served a salad of mixed greens tossed in a red wine dressing and followed that with warm vanilla-poached apricots.

The latter made a perfect, yet simple finale. I poached dried apricots in water along with a split vanilla bean. Halving the bean allowed the minuscule little seeds to escape into the poaching liquid, adding a distinctive flavor to the fruit.

The warm apricots can be served in martini glasses or wineglasses and are delectable topped with swirls of mascarpone whipped cream and chopped hazelnuts. The fruit can be poached and the cream whipped ahead so that at serving time all that is necessary is to reheat the apricots and assemble the dessert.

Our evening was a success. Nick ate with abandon, delighted to be avoiding the dreaded dining hall fare, and in just a few minutes, he had our HDTV up and working.

Vanilla-poached apricots topped with mascarpone whipped cream

12 ounces dried apricots

1 vanilla bean, split in half lengthwise

1 cup water plus more if needed

2 tablespoons honey

Mascarpone whipped cream (recipe follows)

1/4 cup hazelnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped (see Note)

Place apricots in a medium, heavy saucepan. Add vanilla bean halves and 1 cup water. Bring mixture to a boil over high heat. Then reduce heat to a gentle simmer, cover pan, and cook until apricots are tender and water has evaporated, 20 to 25 minutes. Stir the apricots a couple of times while they are simmering, and if water evaporates before the apricots are tender, add up to cup or more extra water.

Remove pan from heat and stir in the honey. (Apricots can be prepared 1 day ahead; cool, cover and refrigerate. Reheat in saucepan over low heat, stirring, until warm.)

To serve, divide the warm apricots among 4 martini glasses or wineglasses. Garnish each serving with a generous dollop of mascarpone cream and a tablespoon of hazelnuts. Pass any extra cream in a small bowl. Makes 4 servings.

Note: To toast hazelnuts, spread on a rimmed baking sheet and bake in preheated 350-degree oven until lightly browned, about 8 minutes. Watch carefully so they do not burn. Remove, and when cool enough to handle, put a few nuts at a time in a clean kitchen towel, and rub to remove any excess skins. Repeat until all the nuts have been rubbed.

MASCARPONE WHIPPED CREAM:

cup heavy or whipping cream

1/4 cup mascarpone cheese

1 tablespoon sugar

With an electric mixer on medium-high speed, whip the cream until it just starts to thicken. Lower speed and whip in the mascarpone and sugar. Continue beating until just firm. Mascarpone cream can be made 4 hours ahead. Cover and refrigerate.

Betty Rosbottom is author of “Big Book of Backyard Cooking” (Chronicle Books).

TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES

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