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Archive for the ‘Hors d’Oeuvres’ Category

When the Menu Family realized that a very noteworthy birthday was fast-approaching for our matriarch, we got together to determine the best way to celebrate in style.

Now, my mom threw birthday parties too numerous to count for the three of us Menu kids when we were growing up. And more recently, she’s hosted just bunches of family dinner parties to celebrate our respective births. This is a woman only too deserving of a throw-down good time at her very own birthday bash.

The Logistics
Surprise was the way to go – she’d have put up too many objections, otherwise. We wanted an event that would be fun, casual and filled with good friends and good food. We’d need a space large enough to accommodate a big group of family friends, so we decided to rent a banquet room at our local neighborhood pool. This would be a huge group effort, made possible with the help of the whole family and several amazing friends who served as on-site helpers!

Theme & Decor
Sunflowers set the color scheme and, subsequently, the general feel and theme of the party. Since the space already had a casual vibe going, we decided to play it up by wrapping the nine 6-foot banquet tables in rolls of brown paper. Center pieces were mason jars wrapped in raffia and filled with miniature sunflowers. Flatware was wrapped in bright orange napkins and tied with a miniature flower pom pom fashioned from brightly colored tissue paper and secured with floral wire (à la Martha Stewart). We topped the dessert and appetizer tables with graphic yellow, brown and blue tablecloths, with more sunflower arrangements and a huge hurricane lamp filled with sunny lemons. More tissue paper pom poms, plus pictures of mom and the family, and loads of bright yellow balloons, finished off the space.

Handmade tissue paper pom poms stood in for napkin rings while raffia-wrapped mason jars served as vases on the paper-wrapped tables.

We decorated the mantle with oversized tissue paper pom poms - plus plenty of photos of the guest of honor, secured to strings of twine with clothespins.

Most Importantly, The Menu
For me, cheerful sunflowers and tables wrapped up in brown paper with raffia-wrapped mason jars screams one thing, and one thing only: rustic Italian. Which is oh-so-fortunate for a certain menu-maker who just happens to love preparing Italian for a crowd! In search of a menu that would be appealing to varied palates, unfussy and, well, just tasty, I settled (after much hemming and hawing) on the following mix. With a guest list of 50, I had to do a good amount of guesstimating on quantities. I must admit that I ran a bit short on a couple of side dishes – see the notes below for some thoughts on quantities for a crowd.

Appetizers

  • Manchego, Peppadew & Prosciutto Bites (was spot-on with 100 bites)
    I’m a fool for the tang of a peppadew, and absolutely crazy about bite-sized appetizers on sticks (witness the Monster Bite). This particular combination was a natural marriage of those two particular obsessions. And it turns out that the pairing of peppadew peppers with nutty manchego and irresistibly salty prosciutto – thinly sliced – is a huge crowd-pleaser. We skewered each bite on a bamboo toothpick, situating a small chunk of cheesy goodness inside the pepper and wrapping the whole shebang in a shred of prosciutto. Since the prosciutto is used so sparingly, you really don’t need to purchase much – 1/4 pound, thinly sliced, would have been plenty for the 100 bites I made (as opposed to the full pound that I foolishly purchased!), combined with about a pound of cubed manchego and several jars worth of peppers. Now, if you’re at home preparing these for a smaller crowd, I can’t help but think that they’d benefit from a quick turn on the grill to lend some crispiness to the prosciutto – but they do pretty well on their own at room temperature, too!
  • Basil Dip with Fresh Veggies (I doubled this recipe, but should have left it alone to adequately feed 50. Several bell peppers, one bunch of celery, about a pound of baby carrots and a few pints of cherry tomatoes are good for dipping.)
    My idea of the perfect summer app, I first conceived of this particular dip for a friend’s birthday shindig last August. It pulls together in a snap, has loads of flavor and is eminently adaptable to whatever herbs you might have on hand. Plus, leftovers make for a terrific sandwich spread.
  • Roasted Grape Tomato Bruschetta (I prepared 80 toasts, and that seemed to be a pretty good quantity.)
    With my main courses already a bit heavy on the meat-factor, I wanted to keep my appetizers fairly vegetarian-friendly. I love this particular dish because the preparation is so painless – just roast grape tomatoes, with plenty of oil, salt and pepper, at a super-high temperature until they absolutely burst. I like to add a bit of sugar to the mix for a touch of sweetness, too. The tomato mixture can be heaped on toasty slices of baguette and served at room temperature – another requirement for all three of my appetizer choices.

Peppadew-Prosciutto-Manchego Bites, Basil Dip & Roasted Grape Tomato Bruschetta.

The Mains

  • Miss Menu’s Lasagna Bolognese for a Crowd (Three 9×12 casseroles was plenty.)
    Someday,  I’m going to have to branch out beyond this traditional favorite. But today was not the day. I can’t tell you enough just how much I love this recipe for an utterly traditional lasagna. I must admit to being something of a recipe-hopper: why repeat the same dish time after time when you can experiment with something new? But the results of this particular combination and preparation of ingredients are just so darn pleasing that I couldn’t pass it up.
  • Eggplant Parmigiana (I only prepared two 9×12 casseroles, but three would have been more appropriate.)
    My eggplant obsession is already all too well chronicled, but this particular version was a new venture for me. As a confessed eggplant parmigiana addict, I wanted this dish to be spot-on. So I conducted a trial run, creating one version with eggplant that was breaded then baked and layered with fresh mozarella, and one version in which I breaded then fried the eggplant before layering it with regular shredded mozzarella. The results were mixed to say the least. I liked the flavor of the fried eggplant, and the crunch of the baked. I liked the heft of the fresh mozzarella, and the meltability-factor of the shredded. So, I decided to combine the best of both worlds. It’s admittedly a labor-intensive dish – but one that’s well worth the effort. See the full recipe below.
  • Orecchiette Pasta with Sausage, Broccoletti & Ricotta (I mixed four pounds of pasta with three pounds of sausage, but could have downgraded to 2-3 pounds of pasta and 2-3 pounds of sausage.)
    Sister Menu, I must admit, saved the day on this particular dish. Being a budget-minded girl, I had purchased a mixture of sweet and spicy sausage from the grocery store for this classic pasta mixture. But when my sister arrived to help with cooking, she insisted on replacing the sub-par sausage with some high-end product from Belmont Butchery. It’s a good thing, too. The sausage was the star of this particular dish, which combined toothsome orecchiette with roasted broccoletti, the aforementioned sweet-and-spicy sausage, a binder of ricotta and plenty of crushed red pepper for kick.
  • Caprese Salad (We used four pounds of mozzarella with seven or eight tomatoes, but five pounds of cheese and nine or 10 tomatoes would have been more appropriate.)
    I know, I know, caprese salad in June is not the best use of tomatoes ever envisioned. But I couldn’t resist offering a huge platter of fresh mozzarella, thick-sliced tomatoes and shredded basil for our guests. Tom Leonard’s, a local Richmond grocery store, makes some of the best frezh mozz I’ve ever tasted. It’s super salty and rich and worth the special 20-minute drive west for a special purchase. We arranged alternating slices on a pretty platter before sprinkling with roughly chopped basil, a drizzle of oil and a healthy pinch or two of salt.
  • Roasted Veggies (I’d recommend at least seven or eight quartered onions, four bunches of asparagus, four or five bell peppers chopped into large chunks and six or seven summer squash.)
    Instead of a traditional salad, we decided to roast up loads of veggies: onions, peppers, zucchini and asparagus all went into the mix. I definitely did not take into consideration ahead of a time how intensive a project it would be to roast enough vegetables to feed 50 people in my little oven.

Setting the stage for the buffet-style Italian feast. Mangia!

The Sweets

  • Hazelnut Tiramisu – Ohmygoshohmygoshohmygosh. This is getting its own special post. Suffice it to say, you’ll want to make a stop by your local American Boys’ Club (perhaps more familiarly known as the ABC store) for a bottle of Frangelico to have on hand so you can run to your kitchen and throw together this dreamy dessert as soon as you read this to-be-written post!
  • Strawberry Trifle – A coffee-and-liqueur-free alternative for the world’s cutest niece and nephew, and all those (crazy people) who are not inclined to try (my new favorite) tiramisu.

Here’s the sure-fire recipe for some delicioso eggplant parmigiana. Other recipes are either linked or described above!

One of the most beautiful sites these eyes have seen: eggplants frying in preparation for the Eggplant Parmigiana.

Eggplant Parmigiana
Makes 1 9×12 casserole, enough to serve 12-15.

2 small- to mid-sized eggplants
2 28-ounce cans San Marzano whole tomatoes in sauce
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion
3 cloves of garlic
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1-2 tablespoons sugar
1 large handful basil, about 1 cup chopped and loosely packed
1 cup flour
3 ounces shredded parmesan
4 eggs
4 ounces shredded mozzarella
4 ounces fresh mozzarella
8 slices white bread
Vegetable oil
Salt & pepper

  • Slice eggplants thinly and evenly, about ¼ inch thick, leaving the skin on. Place slices in a colander or on a baking rack placed over the sink, and salt liberally. Let sit for 30 minutes, then press between layers of paper towel.
  • Meanwhile, prepare sauce. Purée San Marzano tomatoes in food processor until slightly chunky. Heat olive oil in a large sauce pan over medium-high heat. Dice onion and garlic, and sauté until the onion is translucent. Season with salt, pepper, crushed red pepper and dried oregano. Mix in tomato mixture and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Stir in basil and sugar, plus salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.
  • Now for the eggplant layers: one baked, one fried. Mix flour with 1 teaspoon salt in a large, sealable plastic bag. Beat eggs in a pie plate or large shallow dish. Pulse bread in food processor to a fine crumb; mix with 1 ounce shredded parmesan and plenty of salt and pepper in another pie plate.
  • For the baked layer: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a cookie sheet with aluminum foil and spray with non-stick cooking spray. Toss half of the dried eggplant slices, 5-6 at a time, in the bag of flour. Shake to rid of excess flour. Dip them in egg, then dredge thoroughly in crumb mixture; set on cookie sheet. Bake for 30 minutes, flipping the slices after 15 minutes.
  • For the fried layer: Repeat the process above with the remaining half of the eggplant slices, tossing 5-6 slices at a time in the bag of flour, followed by a dip in the egg bath and the crumb mixture. Set aside on another platter or cookie sheet. Heat vegetable oil in a large frying pan, about ¼ inch deep – you’ll know it’s hot enough when you flick a drop of water on it and it pops and sizzles. Fry the eggplant in batches, being sure not to overcrowd the pan and refreshing the oil as needed between batches. It will take one or two minutes per side – you’re looking for a golden brown crust. Place fried eggplant on racks lined with paper towels.
  • Once all the eggplant is baked or fried and the sauce prepared, start assembling. Keep the oven heated at 400 degrees. Spray a 9×13 pan with non-stick cooking spray, and pour 1 heaping cup of sauce into the pan and spread to cover. Cover sauce with the layer of fried eggplant, fitting the slices tightly together and overlapping as needed. Sprinkle with the fresh mozzarella. Cover liberally with a heaping cup of tomato sauce. Layer slices of baked eggplant in the same manner as above. Dot with some sauce, about half a cup, and sprinkle with the shredded mozzarella and remaining Parmesan. You’ll have some leftover sauce for serving with the casserole.
  • Tent the casserole dish with foil and bake for 15 minutes. Remove the foil and continue to bake for 5-8 minutes, until browned and crispy. Eat hot or allow to cool completely before wrapping in plastic wrap and foil and freezing for up to three months.
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One of Miss Menu’s fave parts of the entertaining process – aside from the prep, planning and cooking – is the actual serving of the food.

That’s why my most recent culinary project provided a new and exciting obstacle. It sounded pretty straightforward at first: prepare a banquet of heavy hors d’oeuvres for a crowd of 40-50 at an open-house-style, late afternoon party in honor of a recent graduate. Easy peasy, right?

Well, almost. While the task was clear, the obstacle was that this would be one party that I wouldn’t be able to attend – a good pal’s wedding plans overlapped with the graduation party plans. So while I could prepare the food in advance, I wouldn’t be on site to plate the hors d’oeuvres, to restock the platters or – most importantly – to chart the degree of success (or failure) of this particular event!

Two friends in attendance were in charge of general set-up and agreed to take on the on-site food prep, as well, which certainly helped calm my nerves. Take a look and see how it went!

The Menu
Since this was an open house, I wanted a variety of dishes that could sit out at room temperature for several hours without too much fuss beyond some simple restocking. My old standby, the cheddar biscuit, came into play, this time with an easy spread of diced ham mixed with cream cheese. I thought some sweet and spicy meatballs would be a nice addition to the menu (more on this later). And to keep things well-rounded, I’d need some veggie-friendly options: homemade pimento cheese and a special savory torte. Brownies and lemon bars would add a sweet touch.

The Hits
The Fig and Pesto Torte was the runaway hit of this particular menu. I spotted the original recipe in my Gourmet cookbook absolutely ages ago, and have been itching to try my hand at it ever since. It sounded like the perfect mix of opposite pairings: sweet figs and savory pesto, a crispy crust with a creamy mascarpone filling. What could be better?

Fig Pesto Torte
Serves 15-30 as an hors d’oeuvres.

  For the Crust

  • 2 cups Wheat Thin crackers
  • 1 cup toasted walnuts
  • 2-3 tablespoons melted butter

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine nuts and crackers in a food processor and pulse to a semi-fine ground consistency. Add butter and pulse until mixture clumps together – start with 2 tablespoons and add the third if needed for satisfactory clumpage. Turn the mixture into a 9-inch springform pan and press to cover pan evenly. Bake for 10 minutes and remove from oven. Crust can be made a day in advance.

Here's what the crust looks like when it starts to clump!

  For the Pesto

  • 1 large bunch (about 2 loosely packed cups) fresh basil
  • 1/2 cup toasted walnuts
  • 1 clove garlic
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

Pulse garlic and toasted walnuts in a food processor to combine. Add basil and continue to pulse. Start adding oil until you achieve the proper consistency – you’re looking for a finely ground paste, not a liquid. I typically end up adding somewhere between 1/4 and a 1/2 cup. Taste and season with salt and pepper.

  For the Torte

  • 1 crust
  • 1 batch pesto
  • 3/4 pound dried figs
  • 8 oz. cream cheese, softened
  • 8 oz. mascarpone cheese, softened
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/2 cup fig preserves
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
  • Sliced baguette, for serving

Boil water and let dried figs sit in water for 30 minutes, until they plump up. Remove from water and slice thinly, about 1/8 inch slices.

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Blend together cream cheese and mascarpone until smooth, adding in eggs and continuing to blend until well combined. Smooth half of the mixture over the pre-cooked crust. Cover with pesto and half of the sliced figs. Top with remaining half of mascarpone mixture. Bake for 70 minutes.

Allow torte to cool completely before serving. Remove torte from springform pan, carefully loosening the sides of the torte from the pan with a table knife, first. Decorate with remaining sliced figs (this will help to cover any cracks that might occur when you remove the pan).

In a small saucepan, combine preserves with white wine and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Remove pan from heat and allow to cool before pouring over finished torte. Serve in small slices with a fresh or toasted baguette.

The Misses
I know that we’re supposed to learn from our failures and turn culinary lemons into lemonades. But that doesn’t mean I have to like every misstep I make in the kitchen! I have to admit, though, that this particular mistake was pretty comical. I decided to test out a new recipe for meatballs that called for boiling them in sauce (as opposed to baking them first, before adding the full cooked meatballs to the sauce). You can probably guess where this is going. No sooner had I added the newly formed meatballs to the tomato-based sauce then they immediately disintegrated. I was furiously trying to salvage meatballs with my trusty slotted spoon to no avail. What’s a girl to do with a pot full of sweet-and-spicy meatball sauce?

I turned to the pizza roll as my answer. A basic pizza dough crust, wrapped calzone-style around my meaty sauce and plenty of mozzarella, was a bit messy when served in diagonal slices – but tasty enough!

Despite my behind-the-scenes culinary catastrophe, the end report back seemed to be two thumbs up! Phew!

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Some foods are inherently satisfying to make: a lofty layer cake for its majesty; a succulent soup for its comfort and ease; a soufflé for its airy perfection. For Miss Menu, the Indian grilled flatbread called chapati falls into this same category. I discovered this savory treat thanks to the Food Network’s Aarti Sequira, whose specialty is demystifying the world of Indian cuisine.

My familiarity with Indian flatbreads thus far has only extended to the pillowy naan, so I was happy to come across its cousin chapati, whose beauty lies not only in the fact that it does not require leavening, but also in the rhythmic process of forming the bread itself. You start with a simple mix of whole wheat flour, water and salt, which receives a good 10-minutes’ worth of stress-reducing kneading. After a short rest to allow the gluten to form, the dough gets divided into a set of pucks that you roll out with a small pin, brush with oil, fold and pat closed and roll again into an oblong triangle. The rolling, patting, dunking in flour, brushing and rolling again yields perfectly smooth and lovely blankets of dough that receive a quick turn on the grill pan, puffing up just beautifully to yield pockets of bread with delectable char marks.

There’s no other way to describe the process other than satisfying. It’s a perfectly lovely way to spend a Saturday afternoon, and a little effort yields a delicious return.

What to serve with your chewy chapati? Your options are endless – a nice curry, perhaps, or a beef vindaloo – but I propose for you a couple of super-easy and equally tasty variations on a traditional hummus. The base for this particular dip is a faux-tahini made by toasting sesame seeds and mixing with sesame oil (necessity is the mother of invention, right?) before adding either chickpeas or black beans, plus plenty of raw garlic, toasted fennel & cumin seeds and paprika. The result is a tasty spread that is excellent when scooped with chapati, but would also serve as a flavorful mayo-substitute on a veggie panini! I like to add a large handful of spinach for color and freshness, too.

A platter of chapati and black bean hummus with spinach.

I’m so enamored of this project that I’ve made the whole mess of it – chapati and hummus – two weekends in a row. I highly recommend that you follow suit!

For the chapati, I recommend following Aarti’s recipe to the letter, but here’s a pictorial lesson to help you out.

After kneading, the chapati dough receives a quick rest.
I use a small rolling pin to roll a puck of dough into a four-inch circle before brushing with oil.

 

After folding the dough twice into a triangle, I pinch the edges closed and give it a quick dusting of flour.

Rolling the ball of folded dough flat yields a slim, oblong triangle of chapati.

Grill time is short - a minute or two per side on the grill pan, just enough to allow time for the layers of dough to puff up.

The finished product in its chapatiful glory!

Variations on Hummus
  • 1/2 cup sesame seeds
  • 1 tablespoon fennel seeds
  • 1 tablespoon cumin seeds
  • 2 tablespoons sesame oil
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1 can chickpeas, white beans or black beans
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 2 tablespoons vinegar (I used white balsamic)
  • 1 large handful spinach
  • Salt & pepper

Toast all seeds until fragrant – I do this in a dry pan over a medium flame for 2-4 minutes. Watch carefully for burning, and remove from the heat as soon as they become fragrant.

Use a spice grinder or coffee grinder to grind the toasted seeds into a powder. Place powdered seeds in the bowl of a food processor and add sesame oil. Pulse several times to combine. Add garlic and pulse several times until it’s finely chopped. Add beans, continuing to pulse, then vinegar, paprika and spinach. Taste and season with salt and pepper.

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Miss Menu has turned into something of a cooking machine this holiday season. It’s about time for a recap!

So, let’s start at the very beginning. As a precursor to a festive tacky lights tour, a friend and I hosted a pre-party of heavy appetizers and holiday cookies. The gathering lasted from 3-6 p.m. followed by a bus tour of the best tacky lights Richmond has to offer, so we needed food to fortify. I called in a few favorite standbys: the Best Spiced Nuts Ever, Cheddar Crackers and Fried Tortilla Crisps, plus a variation on my new favorite savory galette, this time using sweet potato instead of butternut squash. But a girl can’t host a party without throwing in a few experimental recipes, so I turned to some hearty fritters and, on the lighter side, some bite-sized soufflés featuring spicy jalapeno.

Zucchini Ham Fritter
I served these savory fritter slices as an appetizer, but they would easily make a great addition to a brunch spread. They’re a bit healthier than the traditional, deep-fried fritter, too. The pancake-like batter receives a quick flip in a hot pan with a smidge of oil. I added a large handful of shredded cheddar to this recipe over at Smitten Kitchen.

Zucchini & ham fritters (background) and a savory sweet potato free-form tart round out this spread of appetizers.

Jalapeno Soufflés
I might have discovered my new favorite super-easy appetizer in these diminutive jalapeno soufflés. Pickled jalapeno lends a hot kick to these bite-sized soufflés, baked in mini muffin tins. I found that they rise better upon a second reheating, so plan on baking them the day before as described in this Epicurious recipe, then reheating them for 10-12 minutes at 350 degrees when ready to serve.

Airy egg whites lighten the thick yellow batter in jalapeno soufflés.

Next up: meat for a crowd and some super sides.

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A Catered Affair

Miss Menu loves a good party. Even more, she loves to cook for a good party. So I was delighted when a coworker recently enlisted me to cater a weekday work event. A conference of 45 attendees had plans for a three-course dinner at the swanky Hotel Jefferson and needed to whet their appetites with a pre-meal shindig hosted at our nearby office building. And Miss Menu was just the gal for the task.

That’s not to say that the task wasn’t a challenge. A group of 45 is my largest culinary audience to date. And I’m used to cooking for friends and family who are, admittedly, more willing to forgive gastronomic errors. An added obstacle to this particular party was that our office, where the event would take place, is sans kitchen – meaning I’d need a menu full of room-temperature or cold foods. But hors d’oeuvres are some of my fave bites to prepare, and I’m always game for a challenge in the kitchen.

When it came to menu planning, I wanted to offer a little bit of everything – meat, veggies & seafood, sweet and savory – because I wasn’t familiar with the diners’ preferences. And since our guests were preparing for a lovely dinner, I didn’t want to overwhelm them with too much food. I decided on these four selections.

Crab Cheesecake Spread
This was my most ambitious and experimental menu offering: ambitious because it was a bit involved and time-consuming, and experimental because I didn’t have the option of tasting it before serving since I wanted to provide our guests with a fully intact cake!

Plus, due to my own error in misreading the original recipe from the Palace Cafe, I had to improvise on a crust. The original recipe called for a typical pastry crust, enhanced with pecans, served in a tart plate. As Miss Menu’s kitchen is sadly without a tart plate, I decided to make my own, traditional cheesecake crust instead. The end result was a decadent cheesecake spread chock-full of seafood that goes well with Melba toast or wheat crackers.

  • 1 1/4 cup wheat crackers (such as Wheat Thins)
  • 1 1/4 cup pecans
  • 4 tablespoons melted butter
  • 1 small onion
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 8 ounces cream cheese
  • 1/3 cup sour cream
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon hot sauce (I used Siracha)
  • 8 ounces lump crab meat
  • Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Using a food processor (or a sharp knife), finely chop crackers and pecans into crumbs. Combine with melted butter and pat into an 8-inch springform pan. Prebake crust for 20 minutes until slightly firm to the touch and set aside.

Heat 1 tablespoon butter in a pan. Dice onion and saute until translucent. Remove from heat and add 6 ounces of crab. Set aside.

Using an electric mixer (or a wooden spoon), blend together cream cheese and sour cream. Add eggs one at a time. Add hot sauce and season well with salt and pepper, stirring to combine. Stir in crab and onion mixture.

Pour cream cheese mixture into cooled crust and bake for about 45 minutes, until top is slightly firm but brown around the edges and shakes a bit in the pan. Allow to cool before removing carefully from the springform pan.

Garnish with additional 2 ounces crab meat and serve warm or at room temperature with crackers for spreading.

Cheddar Pennies
These little, savory crackers are insanely addictive, full of flavor and easy to put together. I recommend keeping a log of dough in the freezer for easy access to delectable appetizers in a hurry.

  •  8 ounces Cracker Barrel Extra Sharp cheddar, shredded
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 stick butter, softened
  • 1/2 package Lipton’s Onion Soup mix
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix all ingredients together with a wooden spoon until a dough forms. Split into two logs, about 1 inch in diameter each. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes or overnight. Slice into 1/8 inch slices and bake for 12 minutes on a greased cookie sheet.

Chorizo, Manchego & Grape Bites
The name here says it all. Inspired by my favorite Monster Bites but in search of something new, I did a bit of research and came upon this innovative combination. The smokiness of the chorizo plus the richness of the manchego cheese benefit from the fresh burst of grape flavor. Skewer these bites on wooden party picks for a retro flair or bamboo picks for a more sophisticated touch.

  • 1/2 pound dry chorizo
  • 1/2 pound manchego cheese
  • Large bunch green grapes

Cut chorizo and cheese into bite-sized pieces, about 1/4 inch cubes. Slice grapes in half. Skewer one piece of cheese, chorizo and grape onto each toothpick.

Fig & Onion Bruschetta
This was my personal favorite bite of the evening. Figs, wine and sugar reduce to a super-sweet spread. Paired with caramelized onions and creamy ricotta on a crunchy baguette, you’re left with a sweet and salty treat that has high potential for appetite satisfaction. They’re a bit time-consuming but totally worth the effort. I found this recipe over at Epicurious.com and followed it pretty closely.

Figs:

  • 1 cup dried black Mission figs, stemmed, quartered
  • 2 cups boiling water
  • 1 1/2 cups dry red wine
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 small bay leaf
  • 1/4 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoons red wine vinegar

Onion:

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons butter
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium red onion, sliced into strips
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • Coarse kosher salt

Ricotta and Bread

  • 1 cup fresh ricotta cheese
  • 1 teaspoon heavy whipping cream
  • Coarse kosher salt
  • 1 baguette, cut into 1/8 inch slices

Boil water. Remove from heat and add figs. Let soak for 45 minutes. Drain water and add wine, sugar and bay leaf to sauce pan. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer figs until they’re tender, about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add vinegar and salt, then remove pan from heat. Remove bay leaf and discard.

Melt butter with oil in medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion; sauté until beginning to soften, brown and caramelize, stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes. Reduce heat to low; add vinegar and sugar, then sprinkle with coarse salt and pepper. Stir until vinegar has almost evaporated, about 1 minute. Set aside to cool.

Whisk ricotta and cream in bowl until fluffy. Season with coarse salt and pepper. Toast or broil bread on both sides until crispy. Transfer to serving plate. Spread 2 tablespoons ricotta mixture on each bread slice. Spoon figs with syrup over; top with onion mixture.

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There are a few recipes that I turn to time and time again when I’m looking for a recipe that is (a) quick and easy; (b) inexpensive; and (c) a crowd pleaser. This was certainly the case when I was brainstorming recipe ideas for last week’s picnic extravaganza. So when it came time to plan appetizers for this special event, I decided to apply this approach to two dishes: salami-Muenster-pineapple bites, an old favorite, and a refreshing basil dip, a new addition to my recipe arsenal.

Last week's picnic spread.

The salami-Muenster-pineapple bite is a combo that I learned from my sister ages ago, and it’s one that I continue to make for party after party. I liken these toothpick-kabobs to a Hawaiian pizza on a little stick. I always use canned pineapple because it makes the entire recipe super simple, but feel free to go all out and use a fresh one. These are easily made a day in advance.

Since salami-Muenster-pineapple bite is a clumsy name for a little snack, I decided to come up with a new title: Monster Bites for some monster flavor.

Monster Bites
Serves 8-10 for appetizers.

  • 1/4 pound salami, cut in one chunk
  • 1/4 pound Muenster cheese, cut in one chunk
  • 1 can pineapple chunks
  • A bunch of toothpicks

Slice salami and Muenster into bite-sized chunks – about the same size as or slightly larger than the pineapple chunks. Skewer the meat, cheese and pineapple onto toothpicks – I like to sandwich the pineapple in between the salami and Muenster. Refrigerate for up to one day or serve immediately.

 ***

I wanted to try something new, something perhaps a bit more seasonal for this particular picnic, too. A vibrant basil dip with lovely summer veggies for dipping came to the rescue.

This basil dip is one that I can’t believe hasn’t occurred to me already. It’s a great way to use up a surplus of everyone’s fave summer herb. And for someone like me who likes to put basil flavor into just about every meal throughout the summer, it’s a great solution. Again, this is one of those recipes that meets the easy/cheap/delicious requirements with flying colors. I adapted this recipe from one I found on CookingLight.com. I recommend using a food processor, but you can finely chop and mix the ingredients as an alternative.

Basil Dip
Serves 8-10 as appetizer.

  • 1 garlic clove
  • 2 cups lightly packed fresh basil (or more – you can’t overload on this!)
  • 1 pint sour cream
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan
  • Juice from 1 medium-sized lemon
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • Cherry tomatoes, sugar snap peas or your other fave veggies for dipping

Place garlic clove in bowl of food processor and pulse to finely chop. Add basil and pulse several times. Add sour cream, Parmesan cheese, lemon juice, oil, salt and pepper and pulse for several seconds to blend well. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to two days before serving. Serve with fresh veggies.

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What do you get when you combine four girls, a few pounds of soba noodle stir-fry, a couple dozen eggrolls and a pot-full of potstickers? Besides enough leftovers to last for days, you’re left with a feast that’s fun to put together as a group and even more fun to eat.  

Here’s a glimpse at the menu some friends and I put together during a recent mini-reunion.  

These egg rolls, stuffed with shrimp and veggies, received a quick dip in the Fry Daddy deep fryer for the ultimate Asian treat.  

The eggrolls enter the Fry Daddy.

Putting pot stickers together can be time-consuming, but the end result is well worth the effort. The bok choy and mushroom filling was high on the health–and flavor–factors.  

Assembling the potstickers.

 This soba noodle stir-fry was simply packed with veggies and bright flavors.  

Adding sugar snap peas to the stir fry.

Pork meatballs later received a quick dip in a tasty peanut sauce.  

Yummy pork meatballs.

 There are a few ingredients that are easy to keep on hand to throw together an Asian-inspired shindig in a flash.  

  • Soy Sauce – I usually buy the cheap, low-salt version for cooking purposes, but might splurge on a nicer brand if I’m using it for an uncooked dipping sauce.
  • Fish Sauce – For those with an aversion to fish-yness, you need not fear this sauce. It lends a deep, savory, salty flavor to your dishes.
  • Sesame Oil – This is one of my favorite flavors; a tiny bit goes into most vinaigrettes I make. I keep my bottle in the refrigerator, as it tends to go rancid pretty quickly.
  • Edamame – Perhaps the easiest appetizer around, frozen edamame can go from freezer to table after just a few minutes in he microwave and a liberal shake of salt.
  • Wonton Wrappers – These are great for putting together the obvious (wontons), the similar (egg rolls, dumplings or potstickers) or the not-so-obvious (fried chocolate wontons, anyone?).
  • Soba or Udon Noodles – I’m a noodle fanatic, and these are two nice additions to the repertoire. Udon are made from wheat flour and are white and super-thick. Soba are a bit more slim, made from buckwheat and are usually a shade of pale brown.
  • Fresh Veggies – Cucumbers, red peppers, sugar snap peas and cabbage are my favorite veggies to throw into a noodle stir fry or mince for an eggroll filling.

Looking for some recipes to jump-start your Asian inspiration? Look no further:

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