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Easy Appetizers: Stock up for the Holidays


FoodStillLife2The phone just rang. It was friends announcing they were going to drop by. You just got off work and haven’t a thing to serve them. Or so you think. The following are easy appetizers that you can create out of items you may have in your refrigerator or pantry that will make it seem as if you were expecting company.

Some items to keep on hand:

  • Chips and salsa. This is San Antonio. Any questions? You can liven up the usual mix with a jar of black bean dip, but even that’s not necessary if your salsa and your chips are good.
  • Tins of anchovies, sardines, smoked oysters and other seafood favorites, as well as canned pâté, that some guests will enjoy.
  • Several types of crackers, including soda crackers, Wheat Thins and Triscuit, so guests have a choice.
  • Three or four distinctly different cheeses. These can range from a soft cheese, like a triple crème, to a harder cheese, such as Manchego. They don’t have to fancy, either. Aged cheddar, a smoky Gouda, a spreadable goat cheese from Texas, a block of Swiss, Colby and Monterey Jack all have their fans.
  • Sliced salami of various types, from pepperoni to Genoa to spicy Hungarian styles, and prosciutto or ham are great to have on hand. Also stock up on a couple of mustards you can offer to dip them into.
  • Bread of some sort: Cocktail rye slices, pumpernickel, pita bread, flour tortillas and baguette are among the easier styles to serve at a moment’s notice.
  • Popcorn. Try seasoning your popcorn with various flavors, from black truffle to Cajun spice to Parmesan cheese and pepper. It takes only minutes to pop a fresh batch in a Dutch oven, which tastes so much better than the stuff that comes out of the microwave.
  • Jars of pickled or preserved vegetables and fruits. Roasted red peppers, artichoke hearts, cornichons, giardinara and even pickled brussels sprouts are at most area supermarkets. The olive bar is a great place for easy snacks. Ethnic stores offer an even wider variety, including baby eggplants, grilled zucchini and radish.
  • A piece of ripe fruit to go with the cheeses. Pears, apples and oranges are all in season now and full of flavor.
  • Dark chocolates. Have a bar of 70 percent dark chocolate, another of 85 percent and a third with some sort of flavor. Break off a few pieces of each for a comparison tasting. Serve with dried cranberries, raisins or nuts on the side.
  • Good olive oil, good balsamic vinegar.
  • Dried fruit and nuts. Mix them together with a touch of coconut or serve them separately.
  • Chex Mix. Some snacks are classics for a reason. With this party mix, it’s the irresistible combination of Worcestershire sauce, butter and garlic powder on top of cereal, nuts and pretzels that make it so appealing.
  • Keep a bottle of white wine or sparkling wine in the refrigerator or a six-pack of beer, so you are ready with drinks. Reds are easier to have ready since they should be served at around 65 degrees or so; if the bottle is a little warm, pop in the refrigerator for a few minutes before opening.

Here are some quick appetizer ideas:

  • Wrap a radish with an anchovy. Skewer with a toothpick.
  • Drain assorted olives, rinse and warm in the oven with a little olive oil, your favorite spices, some citrus zest and a skewer of fresh rosemary.
  • Take slices of sour dough rye, layer with feta, then ripe tomatoes and fresh herbs. Drizzle a little olive oil on top and some freshly cracked black pepper. Or top the cheese with slices of pear and black pepper.
  • Top slices of cocktail rye or pumpernickel with butter, Swiss cheese and slivers of radish.
  • Roll and slice of prosciutto or black forest ham around a tender raw stalk of asparagus. The ham also works wrapped around a crunchy dill pickle.
  • Offer slivers of smoked salmon and cream cheese on cocktail rye or pumpernickel. Serve with diced onion or chopped hard-cooked egg and a touch of fresh dill.
  • Top toasted slices of baguette with hummus and crown with strips of roasted red bell pepper, herbs, toasted pine nuts, olive slices or a touch of spice, such as sumac or Chilean merkén.
  • Nachos, fresh from the broiler, are always welcome.
  • Baked brie in puff pastry is easy to assemble and always welcome. Just follow the directions on the package of brie. Serve with crackers and fruit. Or, just heat the brie up, either in the oven or microwave until it’s warm and softened and starting to ooze out of its casing. Top with a big handful of thinly sliced scallion.
  • Boil your own shrimp, which taste so much better than those processed shrimp rings, and serve with a homemade cocktail sauce that has just enough horseradish and lemon to give it a kick.
  • Another appetizer that can be made in a minute flat is to open up an 8-ounce package of Philadelphia Cream Cheese, mound on top of it as much fresh jumbo lump crabmeat as you can afford, then empty a jar of good (cold) cocktail sauce over the crab. Very good with crackers.
  • Bagna cauda is a quick-and-easy Italian butter dip that’s great with vegetables. Click here for a recipe.
  • Make bagel pizzas. Slice the bagel in half, top with your favorite pizza sauce and garnish with shredded mozzarella cheese. Pop under the broiler until the cheese melts, 2 or 3 minutes. Add pepperoni, bell pepper or mushrooms, to taste.
  • Make a dip mixing equal parts 8 ounces each of salsa and cream cheese at room temperature. Whip together until full incorporated. Top with a confetti of diced red onion and green and red bell pepper. Serve with bagel chips.
  • Make quick quesadillas by using shredded cheese between two flour tortillas and your choice of filling. Add cooked beef fajitas or grilled shrimp, and it’s so much the better.
  • If you have any leftover Holiday Cran-Raspberry Sauce or sweet-spicy jelly, pour it over cream cheese.
  • This recipe for crab dip comes from my late sister-in-law, Jeanne Servais: Clean 7 ounces crab meat, mix it with 8 ounces cream cheese softened at room temperature, 1 tablespoon sour cream, 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce and1 teaspoon Tabasco sauce. Mix well and bake in a greased, oven-proof dish at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until bubbly.
  • If you want to use your slow cooker, then here’s a good one to mix together. Grease the dish first, then add 2 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese softened at room temperature, 1 cup milk,2 1/4 ounces sliced dried beef and1 tablespoon dry mustard. Mix well. Heat on low for several hours until melted together. Serve with cubes of good bread on fondue sticks or wooden skewers as well as vegetable sticks.
  • If your guests like a mix of sweet and salty, then place individual butter pretzels (the little square kind)  on parchment paper on a cookie sheet. Then place a single unwrapped Rolo candy on each pretzel. Top each candy with pecan half. Bake at 250 degrees until the candy is melted.  Allow to cool or refrigerate before serving.
  • Don’t forget one of the simplest of all appetizers: A shallow bowl of extra-good, extra virgin olive oil, seasoned as you like it, with kosher salt and cracked pepper, herbs, a few hot pepper flakes. And, have slices of very fresh baguette to dip into it.

(Photo: Zsuzsanna Kilian)

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Cauliflower Popcorn. That’s No Typo.


Toss the cauliflower in olive oil and salt.

For those who are looking to give up or at least cut back on corn in their diet, this recipe from Bob Blumer’s “Glutton for Pleasure: Signature Recipes, Epic Stories and Surreal Etiquette” (Whitecap, $29.95) offers a good substitute for popcorn. The flavors are remarkably similar once you coat the cauliflower in olive oil and a good salt. (Add the mashed cauliflower to replace potatoes and you can cut back on carbohydrate levels.)

Surprised? You’re not alone. “Everywhere I go I sing its praises,” writes the star of the TV shows, “The Surreal Gourmet” and “Glutton for Punishment.” “Usually I am met with skepticism when I boast that it’s so good even kids devour it. After all, who woulda thunk that cauliflower could actually become addictive? But it’s true.”

It is true. But you need to watch the cooking time. I had a slightly smaller head of cauliflower than usual, which meant cutting back on the oil, the salt and the cooking time. Mine was ready in 45 minutes, instead of the hour that Blumer mentions. But, oh, it does taste good.

Play with the flavors. Add curry powder or black pepper, Parmesan cheese, whatever you would put on popcorn.

By the way, Blumer suggests making this dish with James Brown’s “The Popcorn” playing in the background.

Cauliflower Popcorn

Cauliflower Popcorn

1 head cauliflower
1/2 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon sea salt or kosher salt

1 popcorn container

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Cut out and discard cauliflower core and thick sterns. Trim remaining cauliflower into florets the size of golf balls. In a large bowl, add cauliflower, olive oil and salt. Toss thoroughly.

Spread cauliflower on a baking sheet (lined with parchment paper, if available, for easy cleanup). Roast for 1 hour, or until much of each floret has become golden brown. (That’s the caramelization process converting the dormant natural sugars into sweetness.) The browner the florets, the sweeter they will taste. Turn 3 or 4 times during roasting.

Use crumpled up aluminum foil or paper towels to create a false bottom in your popcorn container, fill it with cauliflower, and serve immediately.

Makes 4-6 servings.

From “Glutton for Pleasure” by Bob Blumer

 

 

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Great Beginnings: 7 Appetizers to Kick Off Your Meal in Style


Panela en Salsa Roja at Aldaco's.

Starting off a meal with a bite of food, whether you call it an appetizer, a tapa, or a small plate, can really whet your appetite for the meal to come. Here is where you’ll find many a chef letting his or her imagination run wild with the freshest ingredients and the most flair. Or, you will find pure comfort in tradition.

Here are seven great starters to enjoy. Several are new, one has been a San Antonio tradition for years, others are ethnic comfort foods. All are a wonderful prelude to your main course, whether it’s burgers, sushi or a gyro platter.

The dishes on the list are not the only great appetizers to be had in town. They are not listed in any order. They are merely meant to remind you of what the city’s restaurants have to offer.

1. Grilled Chinese Chicken Wings at Nosh, 1133 Austin Hwy., 210-824-8686 — Chicken wings are nothing new. But these beauties, with a taste of both peanut oil and sesame oil, are plump and juicy. You’ll be licking your fingers to catch every last drop of the Asian sauce or the creamy cilantro sauce on the side.

The sampler platter at My Big Fat Greek Restaurant.

2. Panela en Salsa Roja at Aldaco’s Stone Oak, 20079 Stone Oak Parkway, 210-494-0561, or 100 Hoefgen St., 210-222-0561 — It’s hard to describe just how good this appetizer is, given that it is simply a slab of fried Mexican cheese topped with salsa. But put the two together and you’ll discover culinary alchemy.

3. Scotch Eggs at the Lion and Rose, various locations — The Cardiff Clam Strips and the English Chips with Guinness Cheese often call us, but not as often as the Scotch Eggs. The pub grub favorite is made from a hard-cooked egg wrapped in sausage and cheese before cooking. Serve it with a mustard sauce on one side and a pint of Smithwicks or Newcastle on the other.

4. Sampler platter at My Big Fat Greek Restaurant, 19239 Stone Oak Parkway, 210-497-8500 — You want a lot of food? This sampler has it. Dolmas filled with beef and rice, hummus, eggplant dip, spanikopita and more fill the platter. As vast and varied as it is, a party of three managed to clear it and have a fine dinner afterward.

5. Ham and Tomato Shypoke Eggs at Timbo’s, 1639 Broadway, 210-223-1028 — When was the last time you had a skypoke egg? This Alamo City classic originated at Little Hipps Bubble Room and can be found at its descendant, Timbo’s. It’s essentially a nacho made to look like a fried egg, but the addition of silky ham and bright tomato takes it to a new level.

Onion pakoras from Pavani Express.

6.  Beef Sashimi at Sushi Zushi, various locations — Who among us carnivores doesn’t love a generous portion of beef? In this Asian equivalent of Italy’s carpaccio, the seared beef is served with a lively soy dipping sauce, ginger and onions. After one taste, you’ll clear the plate quickly.

7. Pakoras at Pavani Express, 5755 Evans Road, 210-680-3134 — San Antonio’s newest vegetarian restaurant offers several appetizers, including perfect pakoras. These crispy, deep-fried snacks are made with a variety of vegetables, a favorite of which onion.  The tangy tamarind sauce and the cilantro sauce both add to the fun.

Bonnie Walker contributed to this report.

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Wild Mushroom and Anchovy Fricassee (Fricasse de Setas con Anchoas)


Use oyster mushrooms or a combination in this tapas recipe.

This tapas recipe gets a kick from garlic mixed with anchovies into a paste.

Wild Mushroom and Anchovy Fricassee (Fricasse de Setas con Anchoas)

4 tablespoons olive oil
2 ¼ pounds porcini or other wild mushrooms, cleaned and cut into large pieces
12 canned anchovy fillets, drained
2 cloves garlic
1 cup stock (chicken, beef or vegetable)
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
Pepper, to taste

Heat the oil in a flameproof earthenware casserole or a large skillet or frying pan, add the mushrooms and pan-fry over low heat, stirring occasionally for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, put the anchovies and garlic in a large mortar and crush them to a paste.

Stir the stock and the contents of the mortar into the mushrooms and season with pepper. Cover the pan and let simmer over low heat for 25 minutes. Sprinkle the parsley into the pan, re-cover and simmer for another 5 minutes. Serve hot, either in a serving dish or on small plates.

Makes 4 servings.

From “The Book of Tapas” by Simone and Inés Ortega

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Give Your Appetizers an Added Richness with Anchovies


You never know who the anchovy lovers will be.

“Tapas originated in Andalusia, southern Spain, but they are now common all over the country,” Inés Ortega writes in “The Book of Tapas” (Phaidon, $39.95). “Originally a small, free tapa was served with drinks in bars, and it was often a piece of sliced cold meat such as cured ham or chorizo, or a piece of cheese. According to culinary legend, these tapas were used to cover wine glasses to keep the aroma in and to keep the flies and insects out. The word ‘tapa’ originally meant ‘cover,’ a reference to this practice. Nowadays, however, tapas can also be small portions of any of the dishes that make up Spain’s wide and varied cuisine. For example, it is common to find paella being served in small portions as a tapa.”

Tapas, or small plates, are now served worldwide. But the versions you find in Spain still set the standard. One ingredient that you’ll find in many tapas is anchoas, or anchovies, which are used in numerous ways. Some of the recipes that the mother-daughter team of Simone and Inés Ortega use in this book call for fresh anchovies, others call for salt-cured. The recipes linked below all call for canned anchovies, the easiest version to find on our shores. In each of these, the fishes are used to add a richness of flavor to sauces or dressings and won’t be as noticeable as the main ingredients, such as figs or eggplant.

There is always someone vocal in opposition to these salty little treats, but also be aware that there’s at least one anchovy lover in most every bunch. I put out at least one tin’s worth at every party I throw, and the dish never fails to be clean by the end of the party.

If the salt or the oil from the tinning is too much for you, rinse the anchovies in gently running water and dab dry with a paper towel.

Hard-boiled Eggs with Anchovies and Mayonnaise (Huevos Duros Rellenos de Anchoas y Mayonesa)

Fig, Anchovy and Cheese Tapa (Tapa de Higos, Anchoas y Queso)

Warm Eggplant (Aubergine) and Anchovy Salad (Ensalada Templada de Berenjenas y Anchoas)

Wild Mushroom and Anchovy Fricassee (Fricasse de Setas con Anchoas)

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A Trio of Spiced Nuts Brightens Any Fiesta


A trio of spiced nuts.

During Fiesta or any party time of the year, it helps to have a few recipes you can make ahead and be able to serve whenever guests drop by.

And what goes better with margaritas than something with a little bite?

I recently tried three spiced nut recipes from celebrity chef Rick Bayless, which he has included in his new cookbook, “Fiesta at Rick’s” (W.W. Norton & Son, $35). Each one can be made in advance and stored in an air-tight jar until needed.

A few words to the wise when it comes to making any candied or spiced nut. Don’t let your attention stray, or you could end up with a burnt tray of nuts. If you don’t know if the nuts are ready yet, err on the side of caution and removed them sooner than later. The heat of the cookie sheet will continue to cook the nuts even after it has left the oven.

Chilied peanuts with toasted pine nuts

When I made Garlicky Habanero Macadamia Nuts, I left them on the tray for a second or two too long, and the color darkened. They weren’t burnt, but they weren’t as pretty as they could have been.

My test of the Chipotle-Roasted Almonds also had a little too much sauce on them, which make the nuts sticky in the humidity. The flavor was great, but make sure your almonds are sparingly coated. If they feel too gooey going into the oven, then you may want to add a few more almonds into the mix. (You might also want to blanch the almonds first, a step I forgot somewhere along the way.)

Most importantly, get creative. Recipes are guides, not blueprints. For the Chilied Peanuts and Pumpkin Seeds, I didn’t have pumpkin seeds to go with the spiced peanuts, but I did have pine nuts. I toasted the same amount and tossed them into the mix. You could use anything from buttery Chex Mix to tiny pretzels to fried peas, and get good results.

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Chilied Peanuts and Pumpkin Seeds


Chilied peanuts with toasted pine nuts

“You can buy tangy chilied peanuts from street vendors all over Mexico,” Rick Bayless writes in “Fiesta at Rick’s” (W.W. Norton & Company, $35). “The vendors will likely have salted toasted pumpkin seeds, too, which I like to mix with the peanuts. A very good (and quite good for you) snack — so good, in fact, that we’ve set a bowl of the stuff on every table in Frontera Grill for nearly two decades.”

If you want to work ahead, use fresh, preferably vacuum-sealed peanuts and pumpkin seeds. “The finished mixture will keep for several weeks in a tightly closed container,” Bayless writes. “For longer storage, keep them in the freezer (I’d vacuum-seal them with a Food Saver or the like if one is available).”

I didn’t have pumpkin seeds on hand when I made this dish, and it was approaching midnight, so I made do with what I had on hand: pine nuts. I toasted them lightly and tossed them with the peanuts. The end result worked well, especially for the pine nut fans, who loved the heat that the chilied peanuts brought to their favorite nut.

Chilied Peanuts and Pumpkin Seeds (Cacahuates y Pepitas Enchilados)

2 cups roasted peanuts (preferably without salt)
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 teaspoons ancho powder or guajillo powder, plus a little árbol chile powder if you like it spicy
Salt, to taste
1 cup hulled, raw pumpkin seeds or pepitas

Turn on the oven to 250 degrees and position a rack in the middle. In a medium bowl, toss the peanuts with the lime juice until all the nuts have been moistened. Sprinkle evenly with chile powder, then toss until the chile evenly coats the nuts. Spread the nuts into a shallow layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Slide into the oven and bake for 20 to 30 minutes, until the chile has formed a light crust on the nuts. Remove from the oven and sprinkle generously with salt, usually about 1 teaspoon.

In a large skillet over medium heat, toast the pumpkin seeds. Spread the seeds into the skillet and, when the first one pops, stir constantly until all have popped from flat to oval, about 5 minutes. Scoop on top of the peanuts, toss the two together, allow to cool, then scoop the mixture in a serving bowl.

Makes 3 cups.

From “Fiesta at Rick’s” by Rick Bayless with Deann Groen Bayless

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Baked Brie


Baked Brie (front) and Mango and Brie Quesadillas

If you don’t have a springform pan, use a regular 8-inch pan and spread the brie on the toast rounds before serving,  says Joel L. Barohn, who works for the Central Market Cooking School.

Do not toast the almonds before baking, because they will burn in the oven.

Baked Brie

1 (8-inch) wheel brie cheese
1 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon kosher salt
5 green onions and tops, sliced thin
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 cups sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
1/3 cup minced fresh parsley
1/3 cup minced fresh basil
1 cup skin-on sliced almonds
Toasted French bread rounds

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line the bottom of an 8-inch springform cake pan with parchment paper. Spray parchment and side of pan with nonstick cooking spray; set aside.

Remove all the  rind from the cheese. Using a thin-bladed slicing knife, cut the cheese wheel in half horizontally. Place the bottom half, cut side up, in the parchment-lined pan. In a medium bowl, combine the sour cream, salt, green onions and garlic, whisking to blend well. Spread half of the mixture on top of the cheese. Top with half of the sun-dried tomatoes and all of the parsley and basil. Place the remaining half of the cheese on top of the tomatoes, cut side down. Top with the remaining sun-dried tomatoes, sour cream mixture and the sliced almonds.

Bake in preheated oven until almonds are browned and the brie is very soft, about 15 minutes. Remove pan from oven and place on wire rack. Allow to cool until lukewarm, then remove sides of pan and slide brie onto a serving platter. Serve with a basket of toasted French bread rounds.

Makes 14-18 finger-food servings.

From “Don Strange of Texas” by Frances Strange and Terry Thompson-Anderson

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Blue Cheese Crackers an Easy Appetizer


Blue Cheese Crackers

Cheese crackers have been a party favorite for years. This version is made with blue cheese and includes the addition of nuts.

Blue Cheese Crackers

10 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup blue cheese crumbles
1/4 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste (optional)
1 3/4 cups flour
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 cup finely chopped pecans or walnuts

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Blend butter and blue cheese with salt and pepper.

In a large mixing bowl, blend butter, blue cheese, salt and black pepper, if using, with a fork. Add flour a little at a time and use your hands to form a ball of dough.

Top with chopped pecans.

Pinch a dough ball about 3/4 inch off the main ball and flatten it to a little more than 1-inch around. Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Brush each cracker with a little egg and press in some of the chopped nuts.

Bake for 12 minutes or until lightly golden at the edges. The baking time will vary depending on the thickness of the cracker, so watch after 10 minutes. Remove when done to a cookie rack. Let cool.

Makes 36-40 crackers.

From John Griffin.

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