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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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Mango, Tomato, Avocado Chop Bowl


Mango, Tomato, Avocado Chop Bowl

Nomi Shannon, aka the Raw Gourmet, created this easy yet bold salad using ingredients you’re like to have around your kitchen. Don’t have something? Try a variation. As Shannon says, “This is just wicked simple — and there’s pretty much endless variations of the chop bowl.”

You could add celery or any color bell pepper for crunch. Use peaches or nectarines instead of mango. Spritz some lime juice on instead of the vinegar. Add serrano pepper for heat.

Mango, Tomato, Avocado Chop Bowl

1 medium ripe tomato, chopped into ½-inch cubes
1 medium Ataulfo mango, chopped into ½-inch cubes
1 medium avocado, chopped into ½-inch cubes
6-10 fresh mint leaves, torn up
Pinch of sea salt
¼- ½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon balsamic vinegar, optional

Gently stir together tomato, mango, avocado, mint, salt, cinnamon and vinegar, if using. Allow flavors to mingle for 15-30 minutes.

Makes 4 side dish servings or 1 main course serving.

From Nomi Shannon, the Raw Gourmet

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‘Easy, Delicious’ and Tempting


Real Simple magazine’s “Easy, Delicious Meals” (Real Simple, $27.95) is a cookbook that’s guaranteed to draw you in, if only by its photographs.

There’s the red, white and blue of the Berry Shortcakes with strawberries, blueberries and whipped cream that make it a patriotic dream. The image of Easy Ice Cream Cake made with ice cream sandwiches, whipped cream and chopped chocolate chips practically had me drooling. Toasted coconut is showered all over the Apricot-Coconut Cake, a combination that makes me want to head for the kitchen.

And that’s just the dessert section.

The recipes throughout are, in fact, simple, whether you’re whipping up an appetizer of Rosemary Pecans or making a Simple Roast Chicken with onion and new potatoes. A spinach salad gets a boost from pan-fried salami. Spaghetti is dressed up in bacon and eggs. Sausages are paired with warm tomatoes and hash browns to create a meal that’s hearty, rustic and winning. Macaroni and cheese blends Gruyère and Cheddar with a kick of cayenne pepper. All come together in a matter of minutes, so dinner will get on the table in practically no time.

Dry-rubbed Baby Back Ribs go together in 10 minutes and take only 45 minutes to cook. Pork with Sautéed Granny Smith Apples takes 20 minutes prep time and only 30 to cook. The longest one of the recipes took was the hour that the pie crust needed to rest before rolling out.

Rosemary Pecans

If you’re avoiding carbs, this may not be the book for you. There’s an entire pasta section, followed by a vegetarian entrée section in which most of the dishes are made with rice, potatoes, gnocchi, bread, bread and more bread. Then the side dishes include Parsleyed Corn, New Potato and Watercress Salad, Cheddar and Scallion Grits, and Roasted Parsnips and Carrots with Sage. Then there are those desserts again.

In the end, Real Simple’s recipe editors Lygeia Grace and Kate Merker have put together a collection that lives up to the magazine’s theme. These dishes are simple to put together, yet the flavors are excellent and should have your family asking for seconds.

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Need a Quick Yet Elegant Dessert? Try Making a Tart


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Making an elegant tart for the holidays can be easy, if you set your ingredients out beforehand. When you do that, it’s simply a matter of adding ingredients into your mixer. Your dough is ready in a matter of minutes, and your tart will be baking before you know it.

This is a variation of an Italian dessert called fregolotta. (For recipe, click here.) I first came across the recipe in one of pastry chef Cindy Mushet’s cookbooks, but I’ve tinkered with it so much that it has become my own. For example, I found the original recipe a little stingy on fruit. A friend who has copied the recipe found my version equally stingy, so feel free to add as much or as little as you would like.

The first step is to make sure your butter and your jam or jelly are both at room temperature before you start. This makes the process of assembling everything so much easier.

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First, cream your butter for about 1 minute at a medium speed, then add the oil and whip for another minute. This allows air into the butter and it will make your tart lighter. Slowly add the sugar and salt. I like to use a coarse salt because the combined flavor of salt, butter and fruit when you bite into it is spectacular.

Now is the time to add the almond extract. If you are allergic to nuts or just don’t like the flavor or texture, you can substitute vanilla at this point and omit the almond slivers from the topping

Reduce the speed to its lowest level before adding the flour. This is a must to prevent flour from spraying back at you.TartHOWTO4TartHOWTO5

Once the flour has been incorporated and your dough has formed, remove 3/4 of a cup of dough and press it onto a plate. (If your dough has crumbled, which can happen because of the butter and the humidity of the day, just leave it in crumbles.) Place this in the freezer, so it’s good and cold when you place the tart in the oven.

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Then press the dough in your tart pan or 9-inch baking pan (can be square or round). Cover with whatever amount of jam you wish (room temperature jam is easier to spread and won’t tear your dough). To me, the tart is about the flavor of butter, though who can resist fig, raspberry or apricot preserves in the mix? You aren’t limited in your choice of what to use. It could be cherry, a perfect partner with almond, or marmalade

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Crumble the dough from the freezer on top. Sprinkle on your almonds and bake. The baking process depends on the type of oven you are using. An electric oven will usually bake the tart in half the time of a gas oven. You’ll know it’s done when the dough takes on a more golden glow

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You can easily double this recipe. I’ve tried to triple it before, because I make about 100 of these as presents each year in various sizes, but my Kitchen Aid bowl is not big enough to hold all of the ingredients and mix them without flour flying everywhere.

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If you want to add a snowy touch, sprinkle powdered sugar on top, but only before serving. The moisture of the tart will absorb much of the powdered sugar after awhile. This tart keeps unrefrigerated for several days.

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(Photos: John Griffin & Nicholas Mistry)

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WalkerSpeak: Easy, Elegant Crepes


crepes4For something a little fancy but not at all difficult to make, why not not whip up batch of crepes?

I haven’t made crepes for years and I really don’t know why. In honor of Bastille Day, which was Tuesday, I pulled down one of my favorite cookbooks, “Simple French Food” by author and cooking teacher Richard Olney. Then I set out to make something a little different for dinner.

Olney, who died in 1999, was an American writer whose specialty was French country cooking. His recipe calls for a simple batter of flour, eggs, milk or cream, a dash of cognac, a pinch of salt and butter or olive oil. I chose olive oil, which worked quite well. After whisking the ingredients in a batter bowl, I let it “rest” in the refrigerator for a few hours.

About an hour before dinnertime,  I heated up my trusty omelet pan and turned out 12 eggy, lacy-edged crepes.

We had fresh spinach and some chicken breast left over from a meal the previous day. (Crepes are also great for using up leftovers in fillings.) I made cream sauce to bind these together for the filling.

One can create just as many filling variations with a crepe as with a flour tortillas. Make a filling of seared fresh scallops in a light saffron cream sauce,  fill your crepes and sprinkle a little Parmigiana-Reggiano on top. They’ll make an elegant first course or lunch dish. Fill them with lightly poached, sweetened fruit and that’s dessert. Or,  give them the Italian treatment and turn them into manicotti, stuffed with herbed ricotta and topped with a light tomato sauce.

It took me about an hour, start to finish, to make the crepes (including time to prepare the filling). Those we didn’t eat will hold well in the refrigerator, covered with plastic wrap, for a couple of days.  You also can separate them with squares of parchment paper, put them in a freezer bag and freeze them. In fact, if I were making crepes to freeze ahead, I’d probably make two batches.

crepes2Don’t let the proper pan be a big issue. Years ago, while working for a particularly exacting (nasty) British chef, I learned the hard way that the cook treats the chef’s crepe pan with great honor. You don’t pull it down to make an omelet or sauté the veal medallions. It is for making crepes. Only. Afterward, it must be carefully cleaned and stored. I was, in fact, pretty scared to even look at that crepe pan.

In his book, Olney said a good crepe pan is made of heavy iron. “They differ from omelet pans only in that the sides are lower and more oblique; in their absence, small omelet pans will serve, ” he wrote.

My omelet pan has always made good crepes.  It was built to last and is still in great condition after 35 years. After the first crepe or two, I simply had to lift one edge of the cooked crepe up, shake the pan lightly back and forth, and the crepe slipped neatly out of the pan.  If I didn’t have my fine omelet pan, I’d probably consider using a good quality, small-to-medium-sized nonstick skillet. I’d use a little butter on the bottom for the first crepe or two, though.

Another couple of notes: Don’t bother to put sugar in a crepe batter that is going to be used for a dessert. Olney said it took him years to come to this realization. “Whatever their ultimate treatment, they will receive a large sufficience of sweetening.”

Also: Olney, in his recipe, says to turn the crepes. I will depart from his instructions here and suggest leaving this step out. This is how I was taught.  Just cook the bottom of the crepe to a golden hue. The top will have set enough by that time if your batter is thin enough (and the following recipe will make a batter of perfect consistency).  Slide the crepes, as they are made, onto a plate. They won’t stick together. When you fill them, wrap the crepes with the browned side out.

The best part about making crepes on Bastille Day was patting myself on the back. I have crepes for two more meals in the fridge — and the “hard” part is already done.

Crepe Batter

crepes11/3 cup flour
Salt, to taste
3 large eggs
1 cup liquid (you can use milk, beer, half-and-half, water or any of these enriched with heavy cream)
1-2 tablespoons Cognac
3 tablespoons olive oil or melted butter (butter suggested for dessert crepes)

Put flour in medium bowl and add pinch of salt, to taste. Add eggs to the flour mixture and whisk from the center of the bowl, working gradually out, until no lumps remain. Then stir in, with the whisk, the liquid, Cognac and olive oil or melted butter.  Cover the bowl and let the batter rest in the refrigerator for a couple of hours.

When you are ready to make the crepes, put the pan on the stove and coat it lightly on the bottom and a little up the sides with butter. Heat over medium until the butter starts to spatter.  For 8-inch crepes, use a 1/4-cup measuring cup, and fill it about 3/4 of the way up (about 3 tablespoons). Pour it into the hot pan. Immediately, with your other hand, lift the pan up and turn it this way and that so that the liquid batter covers the bottom of the pan and, if the pan sides are sloped, a little ways up the side of the pan. The batter is thin, so it should be completely cooked within 15-20 seconds or so. Lift or slide the crepe from the pan and put on plate.  Take the pan off the heat for a moment or two before replacing and heating for the next crepe.

crepes3If you wish to turn the crepes, here are Olney’s instructions: The crepe is ready to turn when the edges become almost dry, tacky, and beginning to curl. Slip a heat-resistant spatula under one edge, working it gently around the pan until the crepe loosens. Carefully lift crepe and turn over.

Stack the cooked crepes on a plate. If you are using only part of the batch of crepes, cover the remaining ones with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Makes 10-12 crepes.

Adapted from  “Simple French Cooking” by Richard Olney

Spinach and Chicken Filling for Crepes

White Sauce
1 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon flour
2/3 cup milk or half-and-half, hot but not boiling
Salt, to taste
Small pinch white pepper
Small pinch nutmeg

Filling
1 tablespoon butter or olive oil
1 tablespoon shallot, minced
3 tablespoons dry white wine
1/4 teaspoon paprika
Salt, to taste
1 (5-ounce) box fresh baby spinach, steamed and drained, with excess water pressed out
8 ounces cooked chicken, diced
4-6 crepes
Melted butter, for brushing
Grated Parmigiana-Reggiano

For white sauce, melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Add flour, stirring well until butter and flour are well blended and just beginning to lightly brown.  Add warmed milk or half-and-half. Raise heat to medium and stir or whisk until mixture is smooth and beginning to thicken. Turn heat down and continue to let cook, another minute or so, stirring until thick. You can add a little more milk if the mixture is too thick (pasty). Turn off heat.

For filling, warm butter or oil in small skillet or saucepan. Add minced shallot and sauté for a minute or so until it is cooked through. Add white wine and turn heat to medium. Let the wine reduce down to about 1 tablespoon. Add paprika and salt.  Take off heat.

In a bowl, mix together the spinach, chicken and shallot/wine mixture. Then, pour in the white sauce and mix together gently until the filling is well blended.

For serving, fill 4-6 crepes with the spinach and chicken mixture. Roll up into a cylinder. Lightly brush with a little melted butter, if desired, and top with sprinkling of Parmigiana-Reggiano.

Makes 2-3 servings.

From Bonnie Walker

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