For some reason I am constantly getting pegged as the queen of appetizers, often by my sisters-in law, occasionally by my dinner guests, and most recently by my Mother-in-law (as this post comes by way of her request). When asked off-the-cuff, “What are good appetizer recipes?”, certain favorites come to mind quickly, but I can’t say I easily give a reply. As with all food served for gatherings, large or small, calculated orchestration is in order for the most thoughtful results. Who is the audience, what is the context, what is the purpose (formal dinner, family gathering, cocktail party…), how much time do you have to prepare? These are a few of the questions you should be answering when constructing a menu.
I happen to be writing this in December, not December 1st, but December 21st (however, I’m posting this on December 24th (‘cuz I was… carefully o r c h e s t r a t i n g my own feast), so by nature I am going to be predisposed to thinking about holiday food here; I hope that’s okay.
Admittedly (full disclosure), “carefully orchestrated” sometimes means, the thought was there, time ran out and, “oh shit” the guests are arriving soon, what do I have to serve first, need to make it up quickly, very quickly and with at least a little bit of grace)!
All of the above in mind, consider these rules:
Rule #1: Try to keep (some) ingredients stocked in the fridge.
Rule #2: Always keep (a good selection of) ingredients stocked in the pantry.
Rule #3: Never ignore rules #1 and #2 (because you never know when this will save you from saying, “oh shit”!).
Rule # 4: Improvise while you shop; your best thoughts might come at the market.
Rule #5: Seriously, improvise, creativity is free-flowing and FUN!! (Go with the gut and use your instinct).
Rule #6: Presentation, presentation, presentation – even shoe leather would be complimented if it looked good (okay, slightly extreme, but I can’t emphasize this enough).
Rule #7: Cook what you know, or at least know that you understand how to pull off what you cook, and more importantly, that you will have fun doing it.
Rule #8: Quality is your friend. Don’t be a cheapskate unless you just can’t afford not to be (and even then, go for quality over quantity).
Rule #9: Always know when and how to break the rules, or for that matter, how to make the rules.
Rule #10: Be a good host/hostess and have a good time. It is not all about the food (did I actually say that?). It is about the gathering, so breathe and have a good time so your guests will too!
SOME BASICS + one or two extras
CHARCUTERIE: Smoked, cured or prepared meats, often heavily influenced by pork). Add some nice cheeses, olives, cornichon, thick, chunky mustard and a baguette for a respectable feast.
Go to a good market and ask for an assortment or pick out the meats you like or look good to you. Pâté can (and should) be part of the mix. I often prepare my own pâté, but there are many readily available for purchase, and often can be purchased in small or large quantities so you can tailor it to your needs. Set out neatly but casually on a nice platter and it will look quite impressive, but take little effort.
ANTIPASTO PLATTER: Italian translation is “before the meal”; an antipasto platter houses an array of little treats to wet the palate. At it’s most basic, you could even purchase many of the items from an olive bar already prepared (such as roasted tomatoes, marinated mushrooms, pickled carrots and so on), and from the deli counter.
To make it easy, yet impressive, I like to do a mix of things that can simply be set out and things I prepare. Many of the small bites, especially finger food, could be considered for the platter, but I find it more elegant to set these on/in their own serving vessel, and keep the antipasto platter for foods that one might like to top onto slices of bread or crostini. My antipasto platter might look something like this:
SLICES OF PROSCIUTTO: Folded neatly or wrapped around steamed or grilled asparagus.
SLICES OF COPOLA & BRESAOLA + ONE HARD & ONE SOFT CHEESE
MARINATED MUSHROOMS: 1/2 lb of Crimini mushrooms cut into halves or quarters, sautéed 5 minutes in olive oil, then tossed with 1/2 clove chopped garlic, pinch of crushed red pepper and sea salt, 2-3 TB chopped shallots, the juice from 1/2 a lemon (Meyer if available), a mix of chopped parsley and thyme. Adjust flavors as desired and store in a jar.
ROASTED EGGPLANT & RED PEPPER: I like to use Chinese eggplant but regular will do. If using regular eggplant, cut approximately 3 cups worth of 1″ chunks, if using Chinese eggplant, cut 2-3 of them in half lengthwise then into 1″ slices. Toss lightly in olive oil then sprinkle with sea salt and chopped jalapeño. Roast in a 400 degree oven until tender (15-20 minutes) then squeeze over juice of 1/2 lemon and 1 tsp aged balsamic. Fold in a little chopped mint and drizzle with some good quality olive oil (alternatively, a few crumbles of French feta instead).
I like to roast my red pepper over a flame until charred. I then put it into a paper bag to sit for 10 minutes, remove and rub off the skin, remove stem and seeds, slice into respectable sizes and toss with the eggplant.
ROASTED GARLIC: 2-3 heads. Cut off the tops to just expose the tip of the meat, peel the first few layers of skin, drizzle with olive oil then wrap in foil and cook at 350 degrees for approximately 1/2 hour or until the meat is tender and soft.
ALBACORE TUNA & RADICCHIO SALAD: Drain and mix the best quality can of albacore tuna you can afford and mix it with the juice of one small lemon (Meyer if available), 2 TB olive oil, 1 tsp chopped mint, 3 TB chopped shallot, 4 carefully diced mandarin orange segments, 2 seeded, chopped Castelvetrano olives, fold in a handful of shredded radicchio. Adjust with sea salt if needed. Serve in a large radicchio leaf on the platter. Alternatively, you could make into…
TUNA STUFFED PEPPADEW: Make the tuna salad, leaving out the oranges and radicchio, adding chopped parsley with the mint. Mix in some French feta and stuff the salad into the peppadew (available by the jar or from most olive bars, such as at Whole Foods).
VEGETABLE ARRAY: Please, not the kind you find at the super market, or worse yet, Costco. Remember to follow rules #6 and #8. I’m speaking of an artful array of seasonal, organic veggie’s such as kohlrabi, peeled and sliced thin; baby garden carrots, cut in half lengthwise but with green tip in tact; romanesco florets which are much prettier than cauliflower; and par-boiled haricot vert, sat upright in a nice little container. If these are good quality, no dips are required, offer sea salt instead. I like to put out separate plates of one or two types of vegetable. For instance, I might have a round platter with overlapping slices of kohlrabi and radish, sprinkled with sea salt and freshly chopped parsley. On a separate square plate will be the romanesco, two different colors, taking up 2/3 of the space; alongside sits a square bowl, tall enough to allow the haricot vert to stand up. A small square bowl of sea salt tucks in next to the beans.
SEAFOOD PLATTER: Something most-often acquainted with the holidays is a seafood platter. I would like to refer you here to my “A Crabby King” post. In addition, I will further elaborate in my next segment so stay tuned.
TOMATO & BASIL BRUSCHETTA: This might be easy (and obvious) but it is one of my favorite things. Yes, this is best in the summer when tomatoes are truly tomatoes, sweet, plump and rich with sun-drenched flavor that explodes on your tongue (the colors are quite festive though and you can feed a big or small crowd). If choosing to make this off-season (at least for us North of the equator), a little thoughtfulness will be required in choosing your source for tomatoes. Look for the sweet varieties such as Capri or Kumato (brown, can get at Trader Joe’s) or golden grape. Simply dice the tomatoes, removing their core (be sure to capture as much of their juices in the bowl that you put the diced pieces into). Add an appropriate ratio of chopped garlic (depends on how much you want the garlic to stand out; I usually do 1/2 clove when using 3-4 medium sized tomatoes). Sprinkle with good, chunky sea salt, crushing it over with your fingers (I use just a pinch or two and my hands are small). Grind over some fresh pepper, then drizzle with a little olive oil. If the tomatoes are not as sweet, I add a little aged balsamic vinegar (just a drizzle). Now, tear or slice some fresh basil and stir. I like copious amounts of basil, but again it is a personal judgement call.
Cut a nice quality bread that has decent crust (such as ciabatta or Como) into 1/4″ slices. Brush both sides with olive oil and grill. Alternatively, you can bake them on a sheet in the 350 degree oven until just slightly browned; turn and repeat. Be careful not to cook too long or they will become quite hard when they cool.
Right before serving, top the bread with the tomato mixture and line the pieces up on a platter. Alternatively, you can set out the bowl of tomato mixture and bread separately, letting the guest assemble their own (which I find some tend to not want to do, too hands on). I like to add fresh mozzarella or chèvre to the bread first.
ROASTED BEETS WITH CHÈVRE (or feta) & BASIL (or mint): This is a slightly more advanced vegetable tray but is effective in it’s simplicity, festively colored and delicious to most. Simply roast off some beets, the best you can find (chioggia beets are pretty at the holidays, mix them with red beets and your platter will be stunning). Remove the skin and slice 1/8″ thick. Put onto a round platter, overlapping slices, then squeeze over a little lemon juice, drizzle with good quality olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt. Now you have a few choices – You can dollop on fresh goat cheese (chèvre), in which case you might also choose to sprinkle with fresh basil, but you could also choose mint. Or, you can crumble over feta, where as I would likely choose mint. In either case, the quality of the cheese is important (rule #8); French feta is my favorite because it is softer and milder in flavor, which melds nicely with the strength of the beet. For a final (and festive) touch, sprinkle over chopped pistachios and grated orange zest.
SEARED AHI TUNA WITH ROASTED RED PEPPER MUSTARD: This one is actually pretty easy too and can be done, mostly, in advance. The trick here is to, once again, follow rule #8; the best quality tuna available to you should be used. I am lucky to have Gemini Fish Market nearby so this is not a problem for me. If you can get block-cut tuna, all the better.
Always give your fish a cool rinse and a pat dry before storing or proceeding (wrap tightly in plastic wrap). Sprinkle with sea salt and fresh pepper to two sides (I use a mixture of roasted sea salt, peppercorn and coriander seeds that I grind to season my meat and some fish). To provide a better sear, I also sprinkle over just a little natural sugar, then drizzle with olive oil and rub evenly over all sides. It is best to sear this right before serving, but if the guest list is large and the to-do tasks are plenty, it can be seared early in the day or (gasp) one day ahead; cooled and wrapped tightly in plastic wrap for storing in the fridge. Always bring to room temperature before serving. To sear, I like to use a grill. I use my outdoor grill year-round, even though I have a Wolf indoor grill too. Tuna is one of the things I grill indoors because; 1. It gets hotter than the grill outside this time of year; and 2. Tuna cooks quickly if you want to keep it rare (which you do), so the likelihood of the smoke alarm going off is low; plus brrrrrr… baby, it’s cold outside! Sear one side until brown, but no more than that (2-5 minutes), turn and sear the other side one-minute more. It should be crusted on the outside and rare in the middle. You can let rest a few minutes, then slice and serve right away. Or, you can let cool completely, wrap in plastic and keep refrigerated up to one day in advance. Let it come to room temperature before serving.
ROASTED RED PEPPER MUSTARD SAUCE: Roast one red bell pepper as described above under ANTIPASTO. Put the pepper into a food processor and add 2 TB Dijon mustard and 1 TB crème fraîche, 2 shakes of cayenne. Turn on the processor, and while running, add a drizzle of olive oil.
okay, not the best depiction (the sauce should be under the tuna) but you get the idea
On a long skinny platter, drizzle with the sauce then layer the tuna slices lengthwise in two rows. Put a row of cilantro down the center, between the rows. Serve a small bowl of additional sauce alongside (I’ve had guests eat the sauce by the spoonful).
SMOKED SALMON POTATO BITES: Smoked salmon is a common (in our neck of the woods), but great thing to break out at the holidays. Here is a festive way to serve it. Using good-quality smoked salmon (not lox, and hopefully king), put approximately 1 cup, flaked apart, into a bowl. Add 2 TB crème fraîche, 1 tsp prepared horseradish, 2 tsp grated orange zest, 2 tsp chopped green onion, 1 TB finely diced cucumber, 1TB finely diced golden beet (roasted and optional), 2 tsp micro celery greens (available at Whole Foods), or chopped celery leaves. With a rubber spatula, carefully mix all together without breaking the flakes down too much; the mixture should just barely hold together but not crumble apart. Top 1/4″ slices of potatoes that have been cooked in salted water until tender but firm and not falling apart. It is nice to use a variety of red, purple and gold potatoes; sizes can also vary for added interest.
Whew!…….So, above is a (not so) quick brain dump of ideas. I will follow with Part Deux before the New Year, outlining a few traditional things that I equate with the festivities that December 31st can bring. Until then, cook well, eat well and enjoy the holidays with family, loved ones and friends!