Monday, December 12, 2011

Holiday Party Bites

Infused liquors (and photo) by Bess
I finally finished cleaning up from the holiday party we threw last weekend. It's not that it was overly crazy, or messy, just that we were lazy and/or busy for the next several days.

As usual, I overdid it with the food spread a little. That's just how I roll, and everyone knows it. The menu I planned was larger than the menu I served. Also, the usual case. Start at 8:30am - 5pm rolls around, and I start to think "oh shit, it's getting late!" And then there's the opposite thought of "oh shit, this is more than enough food" - and I'm only 3/4 through my plan. Just wrap it up, no one will miss what they never knew to expect.


Here are the 12 dishes I served for 20 people - in order by popularity:

1. Fruit Guacamole with Tortilla Chips
Winner. "What's that crunchy stuff in the guacamole? It's good!"
-Kristine T

The idea of putting fruit in the guacamole to give it a special twist came from this cool restaurant in Manhattan called Toloache. I've been there a couple times for restaurant week or birthdays, and we always get this guacamole with seasonal fruit that everyone at the table devours as soon as it comes. I happened to find the recipe at Wine Enthusiast, which made it easy to recreate - except it's kind of easy to figure out on your own!

Fruit Guacamole
3 Haas Avocados, very ripe (an even dark-green color and gives just slightly to pressure)
1/4 C lime juice (about 3 limes)
1 jalepeño, finely diced
1 mango, 1/2" diced
1 C green Grannysmith apple, 1/4" diced (no peeling necessary)
*Strawberries or peaches work too, but I didn't use them
Salt & Pepper
2 T Cilantro, chopped

Prep: 
 Slice avocados in half lengthwise around pit. Twist apart and remove pit - I personally dislike the "hack the pit with a knife and twist it out" method, because of several close calls with the blade. A teaspoon or pushing it out from the back works too.

Halve the Mango by cutting each long, flat, side clean off the pit, which is usually about 3/4" wide at the center. Using a paring knife, cut the peel off the remaining 3/4" and cut the flesh off from the pit. For the halves, score them like a checker board just to the skin. Flip the half inside-out, into a "porcupine" of mango spikes, and remove pieces with a spoon or pairing knife. 

For the apple, cut two large halves off the core - again about 1/2"-3/4" wide. Cut off the short sides. Lay skin-side up, and cut each into thin long slices, and then across to create a quick pile of diced apple.

Slice the jalepeño in half lenghtwise.  Removing the seeds is a good idea for a party with various spice-tolerances. Rinsing the halves under cold water helps too. Cut into strips and then across to dice.

Rinse cilantro very very well, as it can be sandy. Roughly chop stem and leaves together.

Fresh lime juice is best. Roll the limes on a hard surface with pressure from your hand, to get the juices loose. You can squeeze directly into the guac to taste, or into a bowl to be more precise. Twisting the half around a fork helps get the juice out.

Put it together:
Spoon out the flesh of the avocado and mash it with a fork. Better yet: a potato masher. When smooth, add the remaining ingredients, stir and serve. Cover with plastic wrap if made ahead, with wrap touching the surface of the dip so there is no air.

2. Burrata & Tomatoes on Toast
"I didn't think I would like a creamy mushy cheese, but this is good!"
-Kristen K

We learned about Burrata at our fave restaurant, where we are quite friendly with the chef, Fabio. He gets his straight from Italy, of course. Little purses of stringy smooth mozzarella filled with creamy melt-in-your-mouth cheese inside. Simply served on a giant slice of tomato, a basil leaf, 2 good olives, a strip of roasted red pepper and good quality balsamic vinegar. At some point we realized we could get Burrata at Fairway that is halfway decent. Not as good as Fabio's, but commendable. But when you buy your own you get 8 times as much for the same price!

Be choosy with your Burrata. It can be found in the fresh cheese section, near goat cheese and other farmer cheese. I've gotten some bad Burrata too - if it tastes sour, send it back! This cheese should have no offensive qualities whatsoever - just mild, creamy deliciousness.

Burrata & Tomatoes on Toast

Good quality sliced bread or baguette
Olive oil
Garlic Powder (optional)

Campari or small heirloom tomatoes, cut into slices (Campari are sweet, flavorful tomatoes. They come in big plastic containers like cherry tomatoes, and are usually on sale 2 or 3 packages for $5 at this time of year)
Burrata Cheese
Fresh Basil leaves
Good quality balsamic vinegar (from Modena, aged longer the better, 12 years +)
Olive oil
Sea Salt
Pepper

Toasts:
You can make the toasts ahead when you have time. The worst thing is smelling toast burning in the oven while you're telling your friends some silly story. And it was your only baguette. So just go ahead and make them early.

Cut bread or baguette into squares just bigger than your tomatoes - 2"x2" is a good size.
Drizzle with oil and sprinkle lightly with garlic powder.

Toast or broil until browned, flipping once - about 4 minutes per batch.

Assembly:
Do this right before serving. Place a slice of tomato on each toast. Top with basil, drizzle with olive oil and a tiny bit of balsamic, and salt & pepper. Done.

3. Chinese Chick'n Apple Walnut Bites
"Oh wow, I like this! What is it? Where did you find these awesome crackers?"
-Marisa P

I was so surprised this dish was so popular - I refilled the platter twice! The concept was inspired by a post from The Undercover Cook. I took LightLife Smart Strips Chick'n and concocted a Chinese-inspired vegetarian stir-fry. I cut up egg roll wrappers and baked them to a crisp. The chick'n dish reheated easily in the microwave as needed, and I spooned it quickly onto the crackers.

Times are definitely changing when so many of my non-vegetarian friends will now try a faux-meat dish - AND actually ask for more. Oh, dear vegan readers, this is a HUGE step in the right direction, when the fake chicken outsells the seafood and cured meats among meat-eaters!

Chinese Chick'n Apple Walnut Bites
Crackers:
10 egg roll wrappers
Non-stick spray (olive oil flavor, if available)

Heat oven to 350F. Spray baking sheets lightly with non-stick spray. Stack 3-4 wrappers at a time and cut into 9 squares. A pizza cutter or long chef's knife make it easier. 

Place the squares one at a time, 1/2" apart on the baking sheets. Spray lightly with non-stick spray. Bake until golden - the edges will curl slightly. Remove to a cooling rack, tinfoil or extra baking sheet. Cool completely before storing gently in a zipper storage bag.

Chick'n Stir-Fry:
1/2 C celery, diced
1 C diced granny smith apple, mixed with a little lemon juice to preserve color
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2-3/4 tsp (1/2") ginger, peeled and minced
1 T canola or vegetable oil
1 package faux chicken strips (LightLife or Trader Joe's), chopped into small pieces
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
1 T low sodium soy sauce
2 T hoisin sauce
1 T sesame seeds + more for serving
1/2 C walnuts, chopped or broken (raw)
1/2 C cilantro, chopped
1 tsp toasted sesame oil

1. In a sauté pan, heat 1T oil over medium-high heat. Cook garlic and ginger about 1 minute. 

2. Add apples and celery. Cook 2 minutes.

3. Add chicken, sesame seeds, pepper flakes, soy sauce, and hoisin. Cook and stir for about 3 minutes until heated and combined.

4. Add walnuts and cook 2 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in cilantro and sesame oil.

Assemble:
Top crackers with spoonfuls of hot chicken mixture. Garnish with sesame seeds.

4. French Onion Dip & Chips
"I love dip!"
-Um, like, everybody... duh


This one's a cheat. Helluva Good French Onion Dip is the best, hands down! However, you're likely to find yourself dip-less with leftover chips. I think they design the dip containers to be just too small for a large bag of chips - which involves you in a never-ending cycle of chip and dip buying. To use up leftover chips, you can easily whip up your own dip with common condiments.

Quick Dip
2 T mayonnaise
2 T sour cream
1/4 tsp onion powder
salt & pepper
Optional: Your favorite herbs - like dill, or za'atar, or even hot sauce for a buffalo flavored dip.

Mix together in small batches. Eat immediately.

5. Honey-Almond Goat Cheese
"It was after eating your pumpkin-seed crusted goat cheese that I thought 'oh yeah! I don't have to buy flavored goat cheese, I can just do fun stuff to it myself!'"
-Me, to Kristen K

This sweet and toasty goat cheese is an easy fix for a party. I made this a while back and it was a hit - of course there's some back-story to the inspiration. It wasn't the star this time, but still well received.

Click for Recipe: Goat Cheese with Honey and  Almonds



6. Deviled Eggs
"I'm so glad you made deviled eggs!"
-Kim L
"Me, too! I just had some recently that weren't so great and I know yours will be good and make up for that!"
-Bess S
Who says deviled eggs are for Easter? Any time we think about celebrating the life of Christ, you can whip up some eggs to symbolize rebirth. Just kidding, they're just frickin tasty and you know it! Simple as that.

Classic Deviled Eggs 
12 Eggs (plan on roughly 1/2 egg per person, as some will not go near, and others may hover this platter)
1/2 C mayonnaise
1 T Dijon mustard
Salt & Pepper
Paprika

1. Hard cook eggs ahead of time, as early as the night before serving. Place eggs in a single layer, in a pot, and just cover with cold water. Cover with lid and bring to a boil on high heat. As soon as the water boils, remove the pot from the heat and set aside for 15 minutes. Drain and give eggs a bath in ice-water. Store until needed - keeping the carton is a good idea for easy re-storage.

2. Peel eggs carefully under cold running water. Rinse and set aside. 

3. Slice each egg in half the long way, and flip the yolk into a bowl. A teaspoon helps. Set the halves on the serving platter, ready for filling.

4. Mash the yolks with a fork and stir until somewhat smooth - consistency is personal preference. Stir in mayo, mustard, salt and pepper to taste. You may like more or less, again, personal preference.

5. Fill the eggs by dropping teaspoons of yolk back into each hole. Sprinkle with paprika. Refrigerate, covered, until several party guests arrive. 

Safety tip:
Never leave eggs out more than 1-1/2 to 2 hours. You may want to split them onto a couple platters, or only put out a few at a time, to ensure they are cold enough. Or set the platter on top of another platter of crushed ice. Do what you gotta do, nobody gets sick.

7. Za'atar Grilled Chicken Skewers with Yogurt Dip

As we move into the meat items... how odd... not a comment to be had. I've made these before, and they're quite good. The yogurt dip is key. But chicken doesn't reheat all that well, it tends to get tough in the microwave. It's more dinner-y than snack-y and people weren't that hungry. I should have made less, since I still have several left. But if you're making just a couple items, or have several skewer-loving chicken-fiends, this one will get the conversation started about "what the heck is za'atar?".\

Click for Recipe: Za'atar Grilled Chicken Skewers with Yogurt Dip

8. Shrimp Cocktail
I used to whip up a couple pounds of fresh shrimp cocktail years ago, and it would be the biggest craze at parties. Maybe that was in summer. Maybe no one cares about that now. But where I come from, a platter of big giant shrimp cocktail is f'ing fancy. You're like really livin' it up. But maybe no one wanted their hands to smell like fish this time, I don't know. It's alright - I polished off the leftovers each day as a snack. If you and yours are into this kind of thing, this recipe is the simplest, best best:

Perfect Shrimp Cocktail
2 lbs large shrimp, raw, cleaned and deveined (If you're only making this one thing, do it yourself. If you've got a million other things on the menu, buy them cleaned. But freshly cooked beats pre-cooked like 10 times over).

Brine:
4 C cold water
1/2 C Kosher Salt
1/2 C sugar
1 C ice

Soak cleaned, shell-less shrimp in brine for at least 30 minutes. Drain.

Cooking liquid:
Water
1 T salt
1 T pepper corns, whole
2 large bay leaves
1 lemon cut into quarters

In a large soup pot, bring all ingredients for cooking liquid to a boil. When it reaches a good rolling boil, carefully drop in the shrimp. Time 3 minutes exactly from the last shrimp dropped. As long as they are opaque white, remove and drain immediately. Don't overcook. 

Chill shrimp in a boil or bag of ice. Drain before serving.

Safety Tip: Serve only small amounts of shrimp at a time and refill as needed, unless you are placing on ice at the table.

9. Cuban Guava Paste Crackers
This has always been a party favorite for us. Easy to assemble. Good conversation starter. Maybe we're over it, but this Cuban-inspired sweet appetizer is pretty yummy.

Cuban Guava Paste Crackers
Goya Guava paste - in a flat tin or plastic container, cut into slices
Goya crackers
Cream Cheese

Spread cream cheese on each cracker. Top with a slice of guava paste. Done!

10. Proscuitto, Salami and Grissini Sticks
 Italian cured meats are usually a hit. On a platter, or wrapped around grissini is always good. But lately I see less and less people gravitating toward this once-popular platter. Grissini are great to have out as guests arrive, however, to quickly soak up that first glass of wine.

11. Spicy Pickles & Olives
 Pickles and olives are a party classic. Tossed around in dishes here and there, they're a great grab. Even better if there's a twist, like spicy flavors or creative stuffings like peppers or lemons. The Ta'amti Hot & Spicy Pickles were great!

12. Crab-Apple Salad on Endive

 This one was kind of a fail. Crab is expensive. It looks pretty. Seems fancy. But this salad really just didn't cut it. Maybe I should have stuck to the traditional mayo-soaked version instead of going light and sweet with apples and nuts. I got the recipe from ever-so trusted Simply Recipes - and maybe it would be better in a small quantity in the start of summer. Oh well, you win some you lose some!




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