In my family, holiday eating was all about the appetizers.
The family lore is this: My mother got fed up one year after we gorged ourselves on the appetizers and barely touched the full Christmas dinner. From then on, it became a feast of only appetizers.
I remember shrimp cocktail, St. Andre triple-cream brie and a popular Pittsburgh hors d’oeuvre called “Polish mistakes,” a sort of sausage and Velveeta combo on toasted slices of cocktail rye bread. My sisters remember deviled eggs, a relish tray, Buffalo chicken dip and a failed stuffed mushroom recipe that involved the microwave.
I believe my mother still whipped up a batch of soup if people got hungry later.
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I’ve come to value my family’s appreciation for a good appetizer buffet. These small bites are the workhorse this time of year with so many family gatherings, holiday open houses and parties.
For me, a good appetizer selection offers each of these notes: warmth, crunchiness and freshness.
Warm, to me, means dips (think Buffalo chicken or creamy artichoke or Southern Living’s Sausage, Bean and Spinach Dip that was a hit at my garden club’s holiday party) or cocktail meatballs.
Crunch can be those classic cheese straws, Ina Garten’s Parmesan Crisps, cocktail nuts or anything you serve to eat with those dips, including pita or tortilla chips.
Fresh means fruits and vegetables or a cold dip that is the opposite end of the rich indulgent warm dips; think hummus, guacamole or the New York Bagel Dip that we share with this story.
Some dishes do double duty, like anything you serve on a crostini, offering both crunch and/or warmth or freshness.
It’s clear to me that my mom had the right idea. Sometimes it is perfectly all right for the opening act to steal the show.
See More Appetizer Ideas: newsobserver.com/living/food-drink/article51051300.html
More Recipes Online
Nuts galore: Don’t forget Kathleen Purvis offered up a batch of party nuts recipes last month. Go to nando.com/partynuts.
Cheese Wafers: Among our Holiday Treat Recipe Contest winners were these thin, crispy, cheesy cookies. See the recipe at therecipe.nandointeractive.com/holiday-cookies/.
Cheese Ball Variations: We share a column about the popularity of cheese balls from last holiday season: nando.com/cheeseballs
Red Zinger Punch: We share Food Network star Ina Garten’s festive punch recipe at therecipe.nandointeractive.com/red-zinger-punch.
Sausage, Bean and Spinach Dip
From “The Southern Living Community Cookbook,” by Sheri Castle (Oxmoor House, 2014).
1 medium-sized sweet onion, peeled and diced
1 red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and diced
1 pound hot ground sausage
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened
1 (6-ounce) bag fresh baby spinach, coarsely chopped
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 (15-ounce) can pinto beans, drained and rinsed
1/2 cup (2 ounces) shredded Parmesan cheese
Corn chip scoops, red bell peppers, pita chips and/or pretzels
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Cook diced onions, bell pepper and sausage in a large skillet over medium-high heat, stirring often, 8 to 10 minutes or until meat crumbles and is no longer pink. Drain.
Stir in garlic and thyme; cook 1 minute.
Stir in wine; cook for 2 minutes or until liquid has almost completely evaporated.
Add cream cheese, and cook, stirring constantly, 2 minutes or until cream cheese is melted. Stir in spinach and salt, and cook, stirring constantly, 2 minutes or until spinach is wilted.
Gently stir in beans.
Pour mixture into a shallow 2-quart baking dish. (If skillet is ovenproof, bake dip in the skillet, if desired.) Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.
Bake for 18 to 20 minutes or until golden brown. Serve with chips, pepper strips, pita chips or pretzels.
Yield: about 6 cups.
This Italian appetizer is called frico. It can easily be doubled or tripled. Adapted from “Barefoot Contessa Foolproof,” by Ina Garten (Clarkson Potter, 2012).
1 (4-ounce) piece of Parmesan Reggiano (without the rind)
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme leaves
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 sheet pans with parchment paper.
Grate the cheese, using the large grating side of a box grater. Combine cheese, flour, thyme and pepper in a bowl and mix well. With a measuring spoon, spoon level tablespoons of the mixture onto the prepared sheet pans, spreading each round into a 3-inch disk. Toss the mixture each time and scoop from the bottom of the bowl to be sure you get some flour in each spoonful. Bake in the middle of the oven for 8 to 10 minutes, until golden brown.
Cool on the pans for 5 minutes, loosen with a metal spatula, then cool completely on a baking rack. Serve at room temperature.
Yield: 15 crisps
To make this into an adult beverage, add a splash or two of sparkling wine or gin. This recipe can easily be doubled or tripled to feed a crowd. From “Fun Food Fast!” from Good Housekeeping (Hearst Communications, 2015).
2 cups orange juice
2 cups lemon-lime seltzer
2 seedless navel oranges, thinly sliced
2 limes, thinly sliced
Combine orange juice, seltzer, oranges and limes in a pitcher. Chill for 30 minutes before serving over ice.
Yield: 6 servings.
Celery Stalks Stuffed with Blue Cheese and Apples
Recipe tester substituted good-quality blue cheese for the Gorgonzola dolce, the milder variety. From “Lidia’s Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine,” by Lidia Bastianich (Alfred Knopf, 2015).
4 ounces Gorgonzola dolce, room temperature
3/4 cup mascarpone, room temperature
1/2 Granny Smith apple, cored but unpeeled, finely diced
10 inner celery stalks, trimmed and cut into 3 pieces each
1/2 cup inner celery leaves, for garnish
In medium bowl, mash together the blue cheese and marscarpone until smooth. Stir in the diced apple, and mix well.
Use a teaspoon to stuff the mixture into the celery stalks. Chill for an hour before serving and serve garnished with the celery leaves.
Yield: about 30 pieces