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.
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.
More appetizer ideas
▪ New York Bagel Dip: In a medium bowl, mix 8 ounces smoked-salmon cream cheese, 1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon peel, 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice and 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper. In a 1-quart glass bowl, alternately layer cream cheese mixture with 2 cups pretzel sticks, broken; 1 medium tomato, diced; and 1 small bunch green onions (green parts only), thinly sliced. Serve with crudite or crackers. Yield: 3 cups.
▪ Buffalo Chicken Dip: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In 1-quart baking dish, combine 2 cups shredded chicken, 1 (8-ounce) package softened cream cheese, 1/2 cup Frank’s or Texas Pete hot sauce, 1/2 cup blue cheese or ranch dressing and 1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese. Bake for 20-30 minutes or until heated through. Serve with crackers or fresh vegetables.
▪ Hot Sausage Balls: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place 1 pound hot bulk pork sausage, 8 ounces room-temperature grated sharp cheddar cheese and 3 cups biscuit mix in a large bowl and mix by hand until well combined. Shape into 1-inch balls. Arrange the balls about 1 inch apart on ungreased baking sheets. Bake until cooked through and well browned, 12 to 15 minutes. Serve hot. Yield: 4 dozen.
▪ Fig and Blue Cheese Bruschetta: Turn oven to broil. Broil 36 ( 1/4 -inch-thick) slices of French baguette on a baking sheet for 1 to 2 minutes until lightly toasted. Remove from oven and reduce heat to 350 degrees. In small bowl, combine 3 ounces softened cream cheese and 1/2 cup crumbled blue cheese until well blended. Spread 1/2 teaspoon cheese mixture onto each baguette slice. Top each with 1/2 teaspoon fig preserves. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes until hot. Yield: 36 servings.
▪ Lentil Crostini: Rinse 1 cup uncooked lentils and place in large saucepan with 1 cup chopped celery, 2 fresh bay leaves and 3 cups cold water. Bring to a boil, cover and reduce heat to simmer. Cook until tender, about 20 minutes. Pour 4 tablespoons olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Saute 2 sliced garlic cloves and 1 cup chopped onions for 5 minutes until soft. Add 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes and 2 cups canned, crushed Italian plum tomatoes. Bring to a simmer, then cook 5-10 minutes until slightly thickened. Add to lentils and cook until lentils are fully tender. Remove bay leaves, add 2 teaspoons kosher salt and cook for 10 minutes longer until lentils are very thick and falling apart. Remove from heat and stir in 2 tablespoons olive oil. Serve warm or at room temperature with toasted bread slices. Yield: 12-15 servings.
▪ Cheese Sticks: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line 2 jelly roll pans or rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper. Thaw 1 box (17 1/4 ounces) frozen puff pastry sheets. Unfold sheets. On lightly floured surface with floured rolling pin, roll each sheet into 12-by-15-inch rectangle. Brush sheets with 1 large egg, beaten. Onto 1 sheet, sprinkle 1/4 teaspoon each salt and cayenne pepper, 6 tablespoons each freshly grated Asiago cheese and Parmesan cheese. Place remaining sheet, egg side down, on top of filling so edges of sheets line up evenly; use a rolling pin to roll out into a 13-by-16-inch rectangle. With pizza wheel or knife, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch-wide strips; place strips, 1 inch apart, on pans. Twist each strip several times. Bake 18 to 20 minutes or until golden. With spatula, carefully transfer to wire racks to cool completely.
Sources: “The Southern Living Community Cookbook,” by Sheri Castle (Oxmoor House, 2014); “Fun Food Fast!” from Good Housekeeping (Hearst Communications, 2015); “Lidia’s Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine,” by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and Tanya Bastianich Manuali (Knopf, 2015); and “The Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook,” edited by Sara Roahen and John T. Edge (University of Georgia Press, 2010).
By Andrea Weigl
Sausage, Bean and Spinach Dip
Servings: About 6 cups.
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.
From “The Southern Living Community Cookbook,” by Sheri Castle (Oxmoor House, 2014).
This Italian appetizer is called frico. It can easily be doubled or tripled. Adapted from “Barefoot Contessa Foolproof,” by Ina Garten (Clarkson Potter, 2012). Servings: 15.
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.
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). Servings: 6.
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.
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). Servings: About 30 pieces.
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.