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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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Make Your Own Flavored Popcorn


Why buy flavored popcorn when you can flavor it yourself?

“Why pay a premium for flavored popcorn when making it yourself is so simple?” ask the editors of the new “The Sunset Cookbook” (Oxmoor House, $34.95). Gouda and garlic give this party food extra flavors your family will love.

Gouda Garlic Popcorn

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2 cup popcorn kernels
2 cups finely shredded smoked gouda cheese
Garlic salt

Coat bottom of a wide, lidded pot with oil. Add popcorn kernels and set pot, covered, over high heat. Pop corn, shaking pot often. Remove from heat.

Sprinkle popcorn (still in pot) with gouda and garlic salt to taste, tossing well.

Makes 6 servings.

From “The Sunset Cookbook”

Variation: Indian-spiced Popcorn

Pop corn as directed in Gouda Garlic Popcorn. Transfer to a large bowl. In same pot, melt 1/4 cup butter, add 1 teaspoon garam masala and a little cayenne and turmeric to taste. Drizzle over popcorn. Sprinkle with salt, to taste.

Makes 6 servings.

From “The Sunset Cookbook”

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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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Homemade Caramel Corn


Enjoy Homemade Caramel Corn.

Caramel corn is perfect any time of year, but it seems especially inviting at Halloween with its burnished glow and sweet-salty combination. This batch is so large, you can serve an entire party. Or store it in an airtight container and enjoy it for days.

Homemade Caramel Corn

1 cup (2 sticks) margarine
1 cup honey
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon butter flavoring, or to taste
3 gallons popped popcorn

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Grease 2 large baking sheets.

In a heavy saucepan, combine the margarine, honey, brown sugar and salt. Place over medium heat and stir continuously until the mixture comes to a boil. Stop stirring and let boil, undisturbed for 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the baking soda, vanilla and butter flavoring. Place half of the cooled popcorn in a large dishpan (I do mine in two batches) and pour half the caramel sauce over. Stir until evenly coated. Spread onto a baking sheet and repeat with the remainder on another baking sheet.

Place in the oven and bake for 1 hour, stirring every 15 minutes. Allow to cool and break apart, the store in an airtight container.

Makes about 20 servings.

From “Southern Plate” by Christy Jordan

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Add Chocolate to Your Popcorn


Make this recipe about three hours before serving or earlier in the day.

Chocolate Popcorn

12 cups popped corn (about 3/4 cup unpopped)
1 cup sugar
2/3 cup light or dark corn syrup
2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) butter
1 (6-ounce) package semisweet chocolate pieces (1 cup)
1 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Place popcorn in large oven roasting pan; set aside.

In a 2-quart saucepan over medium heat, heat sugar, corn syrup and butter to boiling, stirring constantly until sugar is completely dissolved. Remove saucepan from heat; stir in chocolate pieces and vanilla until chocolate is melted. Pour hot mixture over popcorn, stirring to coat well.

Bake popcorn 1 hour, stirring mixture occasionally. Spoon into another large roasting pan or onto waxed paper to cool, stirring occasionally to separate. Store popcorn in tightly covered containers.

Makes 12 cups.

From “The New Good Housekeeping Cookbook”

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Make Popcorn in a Pan, Not Microwave


Perfect Popcorn Recipe

3 tablespoons canola, peanut, grapeseed or avocado oil (high smoke point oil)
1/3 cup high-quality popcorn kernels
2 tablespoons or more (to taste) of butter
Salt, to taste

Heat the oil in a 3-quart saucepan on medium high heat.

Put 3 or 4 popcorn kernels into the oil and cover the pan.

When the kernels pop, add the rest of the 1/3 cup of popcorn kernels in an even layer. Cover, remove from heat and count 30 seconds. (Count out loud; it’s fun to do with kids.) This method first heats the oil to the right temperature, then waiting 30 seconds brings all of the other kernels to a near-popping temperature so that when they are put back on the heat, they all pop at about the same time.

Return the pan to the heat. The popcorn should begin popping soon, and all at once. Once the popping starts in earnest, gently shake the pan by moving it back and forth over the burner. Try to keep the lid slightly ajar to let the steam from the popcorn release (the popcorn will be drier and crisper). Once the popping slows to several seconds between pops, remove the pan from the heat, remove the lid, and dump the popcorn immediately into a wide bowl.

With this technique, nearly all of the kernels pop (I counted 4 unpopped kernels in my last batch), and nothing burns.

If you are adding butter, you can easily melt it by placing the butter in the now-empty, but hot pan.

Salt to taste.

Additional tips:

  • If you add salt to the oil in the pan before popping, when the popcorn pops, the salt will be well distributed throughout the popcorn.
  • Fun toppings for the popcorn – Spanish smoked paprika, nutritional yeast, cayenne powder, chili pepper, curry powder, cumin, grated Parmesan cheese.

Makes 2 quarts popcorn.

From SimplyRecipes.com

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Popcorn a Luxurious Treat When Dressed With Black Truffle


Black Truffled Popcorn

2 tablespoons grapeseed oil
1/2 cup popcorn kernels
3 tablespoons black truffle butter
3 tablespoons black truffle oil
Kosher salt

In a large pot with a lid over medium heat, heat the grapeseed oil until it shimmers. Add the popcorn, cover and shake until  most of the kernels have popped, 4-5 minutes. Pour into a large bowl.

In a small saucepan over low heat, melt the butter with the truffle oil until warm. Drizzle over popcorn. Season to taste with salt. Serve at once.

Makes about 12 cups.

From “Mix Shake Stir: Cocktails for the Home Bar”

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Time to Pop Up Something Fun


Popcorn is a perfect treat on cold winter nights when you snuggle up in front of a movie or good book for the evening. But why grab a microwave bag when you can make a treat that tastes so much better.

Recipe: Black Truffled Popcorn

Popcorn popped the old-fashioned way in a skillet surpasses the flavor of any microwave brand. You can also add your own flavors, from chocolate to truffle butter.

It’s easy to do.

I remember Mom tossing some oil in her Dutch oven, adding the kernels and shaking it up a bit before the whole batch was done. The end result was perfect popcorn every time. For a variation on this simple technique, click here.

We always ate ours with a little salt and maybe a sprinkling of cayenne pepper back then. Occasionally some butter, but Mom didn’t like cleaning up after all the sticky fingers.

Recipe: Caramel Corn Clusters

I wondered what happened to that flavor when air-popped popcorn became all the rage in the 1990s. Without the oil, there really is no flavor. But the popcorn from that machine was even worse. Nothing would stick to it. Salt, Parmesan cheese, pepper – you name it, it fell off the kernels. It was like a free-form rice cake that hasn’t been doused in a seasoning designed to cover its dullness.

Microwave popcorn may be easy, but it tastes, well,  lazy and processed. Now there are concerns about health issues related to it. (Click here for more.) All of which should lead you back to the original, which remains the best there is.

History tells us that corn came from the New World, but no one knows when the practice of popping it began. Yet, according to the Popcorn Board, popcorn was used for eating as well as decorating long before the Spaniards arrived. Here are a couple of facts from www.popcorn.org:

  • “Popcorn was integral to early 16th century Aztec Indian ceremonies. Bernardino de Sahagun writes: ‘And also a number of young women danced, having so vowed, a popcorn dance. As thick as tassels of maize were their popcorn garlands. And these they placed upon (the girls’) heads.’
  • “In 1519, Cortes got his first sight of popcorn when he invaded Mexico and came into contact with the Aztecs. Popcorn was an important food for the Aztec Indians, who also used popcorn as decoration for ceremonial headdresses, necklaces and ornaments on statues of their gods, including Tlaloc, the god of rain and fertility.”

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WalkerSpeak: Exercise Your Senses


Ripe StrawberriesWhen I was young, we lived in a barrio neighborhood in an Arizona border town. My 4-year-old brother hung out with a pretty 3-year-old named Rosalinda, who lived across the street. My sister often hung out inside with a book. But I prowled the neighborhood. My mild Montana-by-way-of-Iowa upbringing had not prepared me for such things as scorpions, tarantulas and centipedes. These were scary. But the subdued, complex beauty of the Sonora Desert always drew me outside.

Late in the afternoons in summers we were introduced to another element in our new home. Rain-blue thunderclouds would gather overhead and the ferocious storms we referred to as “monsoons” would turn the unpaved street in front of our house into a torrent of light brown mud. As suddenly as they began, these rambunctious storms would stop. The sun would come out. Soon, a warm, powerful scent would rise up from the desert floor, filling not just our nostrils but our imaginations. Later, I would learn that wet creosote and acacia bushes imparted much of the scent. But damp earth and all that it harbored, was part of the romance, too. For it was a romantic scent. It brought tears to my eyes when, after a long time away, I’d catch the first whiff of desert as the door to my arriving airplane was flung open on a summer’s evening. Visiting, I would yearn as much for this scent as I did for glimpses of home.

But what does this have to do with food?

I’ll answer my own question by saying that all of the senses are involved when a place in time, or a place in the desert or a place in the wilderness becomes iconic in our memories. When it comes to taste, we don’t just remember a flavor, but we add a backdrop: sitting in our grandmother’s kitchen, sitting in the sun on her wooden chair. Focusing in more closely on day to day things, think of picking up the most perfect strawberry in the basket. We look at it and appreciate the pure crimsonness of it. We handle it, feel the grainy roughness of the seeds, catch the aroma, then take in a bite anticipating that exquisite red berry taste. All of the senses are engaged.

Sensory pleasure is the great equalizer. It is as available to simple folk as it is to rock stars or rocket scientists. Money is not required to develop a good palate or to appreciate a well-made meal or anticipate a taste that only summer can bring. Or, even to summer at a particular location — say, beneath a sprawling tree on an Iowa farm, gathering fresh morels. Or, your uncle’s backyard grill in San Antonio, with billowing savory meat-scented smoke right at your nose.

During the year we lived on the unpaved street in Nogales my senses were on full alert to the new sounds, scents and flavors. Yes, I had to learn to shake my shoes in the morning to be sure no critters had crawled inside during the night. But I also could, on certain evenings, stand in a neighborhood friend’s backyard while his mom cooked tortillas on a comal set over a fire in an old oil drum. Nothing had ever been quite like this – the black spots where the tortilla would burn a little, its pliable softness, and its incomparable taste when drizzled with honey.

In a few years my explorations would take me across the border to Nogales, Sonora. I sought out backstreet places selling hot, fragrant corn tortillas in tall stacks, wrapped up tight in white paper; I looked for the small shops that carried homemade, stretchy cheese to go on those tortillas. I’d stop into a shabby hotel and make my way back to the kitchen, run by a Chinese family, where I could order the absolute best chicken tacos in the city. I learned the difference between mayonnaise and Mexican crema (barely even related, except in appearance).

Our senses awaken to that which is new. They are dulled by the steady thump of the ordinary. We forget that they are given us as a birthright, as tools for our explorations. Even those missing one or another of the senses, sight or hearing, often are compensated by having another one sharpen. We are the ones who ultimately decide whether we’re going to use and appreciate them, or misuse and lose them.

In the realm of taste, it doesn’t mean seeking out more and more extraordinary flavors or more expensive items off restaurant menus, or more exotic locales in which to dine. A few evenings ago, as we watched a movie, my husband left the room, returning minutes later with freshly popped popcorn in a steel bowl. I might have had microwave popcorn at work sometime over the past year or stunningly overpriced, lukewarm popcorn at a movie theater. But this was really good popcorn. As I put my face down toward the bowl to inhale the buttery scent, the warmth of it came up at me like breath. A simple thing, but oh, so good.

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