It’s playoff season again. Okay, if watching football interspersed with commercials is not your favorite way to while away a weekend afternoon, it’s also the season for movie-watching or poker parties, or just relaxing with friends and family. Whatever your preference, the game plan should include big-flavored snacks that hold their own with the wines, brews and spirits acquired for the occasion.
“A fun thing to do is recreate things from your childhood, but elevate them with higher-quality ingredients,” says Sarah Grueneberg, executive chef of Chicago’s Spiaggia. For football parties Sarah makes a “really awesome” pimento cheese that departs from the original—she mixes chopped piquillo peppers, a little mayo and lemon juice with grated sharp cheddar cheese. In place of pickle relish, Grueneberg’s deviled eggs are studded with chopped green olives, shallots and parsley.
Downsizing a beloved comfort food can be a brilliant game-day bet. Bake your signature mac and cheese in muffin cups, for instance. Instead of regular twice-baked potatoes, make irresistibly cute pick-ups with fingerlings or tiny new potatoes. After baking, the steamy insides are scooped out and mashed with sour cream, chopped scallions, crumbled bacon and seasonings. Back in the shells they go, to be sprinkled with grated cheese and finished in the oven. How about mini meatballs? Or roast spicy Italian sausages and peppers to load on small buns (ordered at a bakery) for pass-around sliders.
“I’m finding that platters of charcuterie and artisanal cheese are extremely popular at parties, as are crostini and flatbreads,” says Nicki Sizemore, cooking-class chef at Rainbeau Ridge, a farm in Bedford Hills, New York. For cured cheeses and meats, seek out a great deli—and be sure to get the artisanal honeys, jellies and pickled tidbits that make them sing. Mix it up or go with a theme; for instance, Serrano ham, Spanish cheeses and membrillo (quince jam) are all perfect with a selection of Riojas and fragrant whites from Galicia.
Sizemore crisps store-bought naan, an Indian flatbread, in a hot oven as the foundation for roasted mushrooms, crumbled goat cheese and arugula. She whips up a white bean dip for crostini. Other toppers to try: tapenade garnished with grilled shrimp or farmhouse ricotta with a drizzle of local honey and touch of black pepper.
Take home the wine bar trick of marinating Mediterranean olives in herbs, garlic and olive oil. Winter hothouse veggies, such as crisp French radishes and sweet baby turnips need only a sprinkle of sea salt. At Manhattan’s Eataly Italian marketplace, the “vegetable butcher” carves radicchio, carrots and other raw veggies to set out with the warm anchovy-garlic dip called bagna cauda—and so can you. To minimize mess, give everyone their own small dunking bowl.
When my daughter Kate and her fiancé Will throw a game-day party, it’s not just the teams vying for victory but the guests. Last year’s Super Bowl gathering featured a chicken “wing off” competition in which entries were judged on creativity, presentation and taste. The winner: Asian-inspired wings with spicy-fruity notes from chili oil and pineapple juice. Though just for fun, the contests encourage creative and interesting contributions to a potluck gathering. As Kate notes, Everyone definitely brings their A game to the party.”
Eggplant and Feta Pizzettes
Extra virgin olive oil
2 or 3 small eggplants (preferably the Japanese skinny lavender-skinned variety)
Kosher or sea salt
1 pound store-bought or homemade pizza dough
4 canned Italian tomatoes, chopped (about ¾ cup)
6 ounces feta cheese
¼ cup pitted, halved green or black
1 teaspoon dried oregano
Preheat the oven to 450°F.
Coat 2 baking sheets lightly with olive oil. If larger in diameter than 1½ inches, halve or quarter the eggplants lengthwise (no need to peel); cut in ¼-inch slices. Place on a roasting pan. Drizzle with olive oil (about 2 tablespoons) and sprinkle with salt; mix with your hands and spread in a single layer. Roast on a middle rack until tender, about 5 minutes. Cool the eggplant and transfer to a bowl.
Divide the pizza dough into 4 pieces and shape into flattened disks. On one of the baking sheets, gently stretch one to form a 7-inch round; form a second pizzette on the other half of the pan, and two more on the second baking sheet.
Rub a little olive oil over the dough. Smear lightly with the tomatoes. Crumble the feta on top. Arrange the eggplant slices on top and fit the olives into the crevices. Sprinkle with oregano.
Bake the pizza, one pan at a time, until the bottom crust is browned and the topping is hot and melted. Cut each pizzette in 4 to 8 pieces. Serves 4.
Alternatively, you can create an eggplant and feta bruschetta. After roasting the eggplant, lower the oven temperature to 400°F. Roughly chop the eggplant and mix in a bowl with the tomatoes, olives and oregano. Spread the topping over rustic white bread slices. Bake until the bread is crisped and the topping heated through. Cut in 1-inch fingers.
Put fall-harvested nuts and dried fruit together by stuffing a date with Gorgonzola and pecan, then wrapping it with prosciutto. Even better, sauté that two-bite package to crisp the outside and bring out its sweet-savory goodness.
2 dozen dried dates or figs, about 8 ounces
4 ounces Gorgonzola or Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
24 pecan halves or Marcona almonds, lightly toasted
4 ounces prosciutto di Parma
2 tablespoons olive oil
Slit a date lengthwise along one side (leave the opposite side intact). Tuck a small chunk of Gorgonzola inside; insert a pecan alongside it. Tear off a strip of prosciutto (including fat) and wrap the date. Repeat with the remaining dates.
Heat oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Sauté the prosciutto-wrapped dates, turning, until lightly browned and heated through, about half a minute. Transfer to a platter and serve warm. Serves 12.
Sideline the usual game-day guacamole in favor of these shooters. Served in shot glasses or any other festive vessel at hand, they’re equally good as a Tequila chaser or partnered with a bright-tasting Riesling. A good match would be grilled cheese sandwich triangles, which can even be served open faced—melty Gruyère with thin apple and red onion slices is one great combo.
1 large cucumber, peeled, seeded and cut into chunks (about 2 cups)
½ cup roughly chopped onion
4 pepperoncini, stemmed and seeded
2 ripe Hass avocados, halved lengthwise and pitted
2 cups water or half water and half chicken broth
2½ teaspoons salt, or to taste
¼ cup snipped cilantro or chives
Place the cucumber, onion and pepperoncini in a blender bowl. Scoop out the avocado flesh and add to the mixture. Add the water or chicken broth and salt (start with 1 teaspoon if using chicken broth).
Blend until smooth and thick, but soupy enough to pour. Taste and add more salt if needed. Blend briefly. Transfer to a bowl, lay plastic wrap directly on the surface and chill.
Ladle gazpacho into shot glasses (alternatively, use liqueur glasses, espresso cups or small bowls). Garnish with cilantro. Makes 24 1½ ounce servings.
Parmesan Truffle Fries (From STK, Manhattan, NY)
Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
Chives, freshly cut
Cut the potatoes into thick strips, about 2–3 inches long and 1-inch wide. Blanch in boiling water for 10 minutes and then strain and let cool. Once dry, fry the potatoes in a pan of vegetable oil heated at 375°F until crispy. In a bowl, toss the potatoes with salt, to taste, a drizzle of truffle oil, a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese and garnish with chives. Serve warm.
Lamb Sliders with Pesto Sauce and Triple Cream Cheese (From Somerston Wine Co., Yountville, CA)
For the pesto sauce:
2 cups fresh basil leaves, packed
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup pine nuts or walnuts
3 medium-sized garlic cloves, minced
½ cup Parmesan-Reggiano, freshly grated
Salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
For the cheese:
2 six-ounce packages of Saint André triple cream cheese or equivalent.
For the lamb burgers:
1½ pounds lean ground lamb
3 tablespoons minced garlic
2 teaspoons sea salt
2 teaspoons cracked black pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
8–10 small rolls, split (mini brioche rolls or small dinner rolls)
To make the pesto sauce:
Combine the basil with the pine nuts and pulse in a food processor. If you are using walnuts instead of pine nuts and they are not chopped, pulse them first, then add the basil. Add the garlic and pulse some more. Add the olive oil in a constant stream while the food processor is on. Stop to scrape down the sides of the food processor with a rubber spatula. Add the grated cheese and pulse again until blended. Add a pinch of salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.
To make the lamb burgers:
In a large bowl, combine all the ingredients except the oil. Form the mixture into 10–12 small, thin patties. Heat a cast-iron grill pan over high heat and brush with oil. Add the lamb burgers and cook for about 2 minutes on each side for medium-rare. Lightly toast the rolls on the griddle, then sandwich the lamb burger in each and spread with the pesto sauce and a slice of Saint Andre or equivalent. Serve immediately. Serves 10.
Wagyu Beef Hotdog (From Moderne Barn, Armonk, NY)
Pretzel bun, smoked gouda cheese, sauerkraut, spicy brown mustard—need we say more?
For the pretzel buns:
1 cup water
1 tablepoon malt
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon Canola oil
24 ounces high gluten flour
1 tablespoon yeast
Mix all the ingredients together with a dough hook until it becomes elastic and the dough is no longer clinging to the sides of the bowl. Let rise until it double in volume. Refrigerate overnight. Scale into 3-ounce shape, score and proof. Brush with egg white wash and sprinkle with salt. Bake at 400°F for 10 minutes.
For smoked gouda cheese fondue:
¼ pound butter
½ cup flour
1 cup milk
1/3 cups smoked gouda cheese, shredded
Melt the butter and add the flour, heating and stirring. Add milk and let simmer for 45 minutes at low heat. It should resemble the texture of pudding. If it’s too thick, add some more milk, then add the cheese and let simmer for 5 minutes.
For the hotdog:
6 Wagyu hotdogs
1 cup sauerkraut
¼ cup spicy brown mustard
Butterfly the Wagyu Dogs, press them with a press them down on the grill. Add the sauerkraut and spicy mustard.