Make your appetizers into meals with a little creativity and know-how.
Photo by Jon Van Gorder
Once upon a time, holiday party hors d'oeuvres were dull stuff: dips, crudités, chips, nuts. The choices were limited and predictable. Either you left the cocktail party to go and find some decent food, or hoped for better at the dinner that was to follow. Not any more. With our faster pace of life, appetizers and bite-sized dishes have come into their own. Why not have a whole series of culinary sensations in just a few mouthfuls, instead of sitting through an entire entrée? In American English, "appetizer" is generally used to refer to a first course served at the table, where "hors d'oeuvres" usually describes finger foods. In this article, we will be using the terms interchangeably.
"I think appetizers set the tone of the evening," says Wendy Narby. Her husband, Hamilton, is a Bordeaux négociant whose family owns Château Guiraud in Sauternes. "Appetizers can be much more interesting, more adventurous than a meal. And, of course, if they are drinking good wines, then guests deserve more than just nuts and chips."
Small Bites Can Make a Meal
At holiday parties in France, hosts often craft whole meals out of appetizers. The French start with small bites of fish, typically salmon, tuna or oysters. Then comes the foie gras or the pâté. A few meat hors d'oeuvres follow, with a little cheese to carry on the meal. And finally, tiny pastries end what has been a four-course meal. That's formal, as only the French know how. But at more casual American holiday parties, where there is no meal, just great bites, there can still be a shape to appetizers.
Bob Blumer, a k a the Food Network's Surreal Gourmet, says it's convenient to group appetizers, especially if you are serving a number of different wines with them: "Since I am serving my bites in place of a traditional dinner, I group the wines in the same way as I would a dinner." That way, he reckons, wines partnered with one starter don't clash too much with each other.
Even though an hors d'oeuvre holiday party can be relatively informal, the food should still look good. Forget the dip in its plastic tub, or the jar of olives sitting on the counter. "You can have simple preparation, but you do need good presentation," says Blumer. "There has to be a 'wow' factor as bites are passed around."
The WOW Factor
"Wow" can be achieved by using small quantities of expensive ingredients, according to Barak Hirschowitz, a top South African chef. When servings are so small, he says, "it is a perfect opportunity to use more expensive ingredients that you would normally think twice about." The trend, too, is to serve appetizers that are not finger foods, exactly, but are still bite sized. Serving delights on flat-bottomed ceramic Chinese soup spoons, or in shells, for example, gives you the flexibility of adding a sauce (see recipes). Paper cones are good for non-liquid bites, like fish or meat. Shot glasses are perfect vessels for serving soup, or a tiny scoop of sorbet. The chance to innovate, to be adventurous: that's what makes appetizers so much more interesting than large, full-plate entrées.
What follows are easy, small-bite recipes from some of my favorite chefs. I know all three chefs well: I have been to more of Georges Gotrand's great parties and dinners in Bordeaux than I can remember; Bob Blumer has cooked in my kitchen in France; and I recently shared two memorable meals in South Africa with Barak Hirschowitz. As I knew I would, I received recipes from them that should certainly stimulate a burst of creative inspiration in the kitchen this holiday season.
A Stunning Meal in Five Bites
Bordeaux Chef Georges Gotrand cooks for some of the best private parties in Bordeaux and served hundreds at Kendall-Jackson's Château Lassègue in Saint-Emilion during Vinexpo this year. For many years, he ran a restaurant, La Bonne Bouille, in the old quarter of Bordeaux. He moves effortlessly through the party circuit in Bordeaux, particularly during the holiday season when he is in high demand. In September, Gotrand was featured on the BBC cooking series with Rick Stein.
One of the most difficult wines for Americans to pair with hors d'oeuvres is Sauternes. It is always thought of as an after-dinner or dessert drink, but it is actually best served as an apéritif with small bites, particularly anything containing blue cheese or foie gras. Try single-serving blue cheese quiches, blue cheese with raisins or blue cheese bruschetta. Foie gras on bite-size slices of toast is standard at every Bordeaux party. The sweetness of Sauternes also takes the edge off your appetite.
ASPARAGUS IN FOIE GRAS PHYLLO PACKAGES
12 spears thin green asparagus
6 sheets phyllo pastry
10 basil leaves, chopped
2 ounces mousse de foie gras
1/3 cup butter, melted
1/2 teaspoon olive oil
Preheat oven to 375ÂºF. Peel or scrape the asparagus stalks and cook in salted boiling water for 5-7 minutes. Strain, rinse in cold water and set aside. In a large bowl, combine the mousse de foie gras, basil and olive oil. Place one sheet of phyllo on a clean, dry surface, brush lightly with some of the melted butter. Repeat with two more sheets, stacking each on top of the first. Spread half of the mousse mixture over the top and then cut into six equal squares. Place one asparagus spear on one of the phyllo squares, leaving a half-inch of pastry on the bottom. Fold up the half-inch bottom over the asparagus base, then fold each side over and pinch to create purse-like seal. Repeat with remaining squares of phyllo, asparagus spears, butter and mousse mixture to create six more squares. Place asparagus purses on a baking sheet, brush lightly with more melted butter, bake for 10 to 12 minutes until lightly browned. Makes 12 appetizers.
The dough for this recipe can be made a day ahead.
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
6 ounces Roquefort cheese
2-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 egg yolk
In an electric mixer, mix butter and cheese until creamy. Beat in flour and egg yolk until combined. Divide mixture in half. Roll each half into a log one and a half inches in diameter. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill until firm.
Preheat oven to 375ÂºF. Cut the logs into quarter-inch slices, place on baking sheet and bake for 10 to 12 minutes, or until golden brown. Serve hot or cold. Makes 12 appetizers.
Wine recommendations: For both the shortbread and the asparagus, Sauternes is one option. Other wines that would work with foie gras or blue cheese are sweet Anjou or Vouvray from the Loire. Try Domaine des Baumard Quarts de Chaume, or Foreau's Domaine du Clos Naudin Vouvray. These Chenin Blanc-based wines have a cooler, crisper style than do the richer Sauternes.
Barak Hirschowitz, whose parents are South African, was born in Israel, grew up in Cincinnati, started cooking in New York and moved to Cape Town, where he has cooked for 12 years. He has recently left the kitchen to create South Africa Chef (sachef.com), a recruitment and staff training program for South Africa's booming culinary and hospitality industry. He still cooks at charity benefits and special events.
WRAPPED OYSTER FRITTERS WITH APPLE-MINT CHUTNEY AND PASSION FRUIT
For the apple-mint chutney:
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small onion, finely diced
2 large Granny Smith apples, peeled and diced
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons brown sugar
3 tablespoons Mrs. Balls Chutney (you can substitute a peach-type chutney)
2 tablespoons stone ground mustard
1 small red chili, deseeded and finely diced
1 teaspoon fresh mint, chopped
For the passion fruit sauce:
1/4 cup passion fruit juice (you can
substitute guava or pineapple)
1/2 cup of white wine
1/2 small onion, diced
1 bay leaf
4 or 5 black peppercorns
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons butter, chilled and diced
For the batter:
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Enough milk to make batter
Extra flour for dipping
For the oysters:
20 fresh oysters, shucked, shells reserved
4 ounces smoked trout, sliced (you can substitute smoked salmon)
Lard, olive oil or peanut oil for frying
To make the apple mint chutney: Heat oil in a pan and cook onions slowly until soft. Add all the other ingredients and let simmer until most of the liquid has evaporated. Keep warm.
To make the passion fruit sauce: Place passion fruit juice, wine, onions, bay leaf and peppercorns in a small saucepan and reduce by two-thirds. Add cream and reduce another two-thirds. Then strain into a bowl, whisk in butter and keep at room temperature.
To make the oysters: Mix all the batter ingredients together, adding milk to thicken the batter for coating. Wrap 1 oyster in a strip of trout; dredge in the flour and then in the batter. Fry in small batches, keeping the oil hot, until golden brown.
To serve: Place a small amount of warm chutney in the oyster shell (or other shells available at cooking stores). Place a fried oyster on the chutney and top with passion fruit sauce, garnish and serve. Makes 20 appetizers.
Wine recommendations: Since this is a recipe from South Africa, a cooler-climate South African Chardonnay, which has a pebbly, mineral character, will work well with it. Hirschowitz suggests Hamilton Russell Chardonnay, Rijks 2003 Private Cellar Chardonnay or Nederburg 2004 Chardonnay. White Burgundy, especially a more steely Chablis such as Simmonet-Fevre 2004 Premier Cru Chablis Vaillons, with just a touch of wood, also pairs well.
Bob Blumer, a k a The Surreal Gourmet, has developed a skill for transforming everyday ingredients (and some more exotic ones) into dishes that amaze by their presentation as well as their taste combinations. He is a regular on The Food Network, columnist for many magazines, and author of four cookbooks. (Recipes from his third, Off the Eaten Path: Inspired Recipes for Adventurous Cooks, stunned an audience at a culinary book show in southwest France where he won an award for the most innovative cookbook.) These recipes are taken from his latest book of appetizers: Surreal Gourmet Bites: Show Stoppers and Conversation Starters (Chronicle Books, $16.95).
3 lemons, sliced thinly, seeds removed
2 tablespoons grated peeled fresh ginger, reserved in a small bowl to save any juice
2 ounces green wasabi caviar (or substitute Japanese caviar, any variety)
1 ounce salmon roe
3/4 teaspoon wasabi paste*
Line a large plate or a small baking sheet with wax paper. Select your 12 most aesthetically pleasing lemon slices and spread them out in a single layer. Freeze for 1 hour, or until frozen solid. Set a strainer over a small bowl. Transfer ginger to the strainer. Using the back of a spoon, extract the ginger juice by pressing the grated ginger against the strainer. Discard the solids and reserve the juice. To assemble, remove lemon slices from the freezer just before serving and brush or drizzle a small amount of ginger juice on the top. Spoon 1/2 teaspoon of the caviar into the center of each lemon slice. Top with a dot of wasabi.* Top with a few salmon eggs. Instruct your guests to suck the caviar off the lemon slices (or better still, demonstrate for them). Makes 12 appetizers.
*If using the green wasabi caviar, do not use wasabi paste.
Wine recommendations: Serve with rosé Champagne. It will go well with the spicy shock of the wasabi as well as the acidity of the lemon. Good rosé Champagnes matches in this style are Jacquart NV Brut Mosaïque Rosé, the bone-dry Piper Heidsieck NV Brut Rosé Sauvage or Bruno Paillard NV Première Cuvée Rosé.
GAUCHO STEAK SNACKS
For the chimichurri sauce:
2 cups fresh parsley, ideally Italian flat leaf, stems removed
5 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
3-5 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium shallot, minced, or 2 tablespoons onion, minced
2 tablespoons Sherry wine vinegar or red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon chili pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
For the steak:
3 tablespoons salt
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
Two 1-pound New York strip steaks, ideally 1-1/4 inches thick
1 sourdough baguette, sliced into sixteen 1/4-inch-thick slices
To make the chimichurri sauce: Place all ingredients for the chimichurri sauce in a food processor or blender and purée. Reserve.
To make the steak: Preheat grill to high heat. In a small bowl, mix salt and cayenne. Rub mixture into both sides of the steak. Place the steaks over direct heat and grill to desired degree of doneness (approximately 6 minutes per side for medium-rare). Remove the steak from the grill, cover with aluminum foil and let rest for 5 minutes. If you do not have a grill, eliminate the cayenne pepper from the dry rub, and cook steaks in a heavy pan over medium-high heat for approximately 6 minutes per side. Slice the steaks into 1/4-inch-thick strips. Set strips on baguette slices and top with chimichurri sauce.
Wine recommendation: This recipe calls for a burly, macho barbecue red wine; Try Mitchell's Peppertree Vineyard Shiraz from the Clare Valley in South Australia, Frog's Leap Zinfandel from Napa Valley or the Bodegas Nieto Senetiner Malbec Reserva from Mendoza (rated Best Buy by Wine Enthusiast).