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Tag: hors d’oeuvre (page 1 of 3)

When Waiting for Dinner and/or Summer: Fig Jam

There are many reasons, I suppose, that cheese and crackers are such an evergreen entertaining staple. They’re is easy, doesn’t have to be expensive, and pretty much everyone except the lactarded (raises hand) loves it. Of course, ubiquity has its own drawbacks, boredom being chief among them. The question, then, is how to keep the combo from going stale… metaphorically, at least.

I’m not about to start making my own cheese though, and if I’m going to make crackers they’re going to be sufficiently awesome to not need cheese on top. That, then, leaves the third point of the cheese, crackers and… whatever triangle. Frankly, the “whatever” part is often the most fun to futz with. Fruit, nuts, shmears of honey, or dribbles of balsamic; these can all wake up a cheese plate with their presence.

And while baked feta and goat cheese with jalapeno jelly are both really fun, sometimes one needs something a little more deconstructed…. a little dish that friends can customize and fiddle with while I finish up dinner preparations. It’s nice to whet the appetite and give them something to do, if only to keep them from offering to help.

Enter this lightly spicy, wine-dark fig jam. Great with a variety of cheeses, from mild to sharp and soft to firm, it’s perfect for this time of year when there’s not much going on in the produce department yet but the desire for little al fresco nibbles is running high. The figs are simply simmered in wine with a little chili and shallots adds their regal oniony background. Cutting both into ribbons makes for a compulsively scoopable, tangly mess that ’s great with cheese and crackers, but could also add verve as a sandwich spread or as a pan sauce for chicken or pork.

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Snack Upgrade: Cheese Straws Go to Finishing School

These cheese straws are pretty heroic: rich, crispy, and totally cheesy. Think turbocharged Cheez-Its. They’re the perfect thing to bring along to a dessert-centric after-dinner birthday party like the one Mr. T and I are off to this evening. I’ve found with years of throwing parties of all sorts of permutations that even the sweetest occasion needs some savor. These play well with drinks of any variety, are compulsively munchable, and will provide a welcome salty contrast to things like birthday cake.

The original recipe, from The New York Times‘ Kim Severson, calls for orange cheddar, and I’m sure they make for an excellent cheese straw.  However. I am both enough of a snob to look slightly askance at orange cheddar and enough in the thrall of Julia Child to know that Gruyère can make anything better. As for the Parmesan, well… because Parmesan! Honestly. Along with a more varied slate of cheeses, I also bumped up the supporting cast of spices, all of which add focus and depth to the different strands of cheese flavor.

The dough is simple and short and comes together quickly. The critical issue here is temperature. The original calls for either extruding the straws with a cookie press or rolling them by hand. The former is fine, IF you’ve got a cookie press, but the latter seems to me a recipe for melty frustration and sticky disaster. Thus, we borrow a temperature management technique from the perfect sugar cookie recipe and pop the rolled dough into the freezer for a few minutes.

This makes all the difference in the world and enables the production of long, slender wands of cheesy deliciousness that won’t put the baker completely round the bend trying to get them onto baking sheets.

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Better than the Bulk Aisle: Crunchy Sesame Sticks

Those little crunchy, salty sesame sticks one can buy in the bulk bins at health food stores are absolutely one of Mr. T’s very favorite snacks. While undeniably tasty, however, they’re probably the least healthy thing one could buy in a health food store. So oily, so salty, so probably full of preservatives. Problematic. Of course, I tend to view anything that doesn’t really seem to have a homemade analogue that is superior as something of a challenge.

So, obviously, I’ve been mulling how to make these at home for some time, and that time ended up being last weekend. Several thousand sesame seeds and five versions later, I am quite happy with what we came up with.

No preservatives, less oily but still crunchy, and still salty but not throat-searingly so. Still not health food, but better. And with a more pronouncedly sesame taste, what with the tahini, sesame oil, and two kinds of sesame seeds. Imminently nom-able with your favorite bevvy, and perfect for whatever sport you’re watching this fall.

As you’ll see, the mix of plain and black sesame seeds adds a bit of visual interest. Black sesame can be found in Asian markets, particularly those catering to Indian and Japanese clienteles. In the former, though, be sure you’re getting black sesame and not kalonji/nigella, which looks very similar. Squeezing the sticks out onto the gets a little wrist-breaking after a while, particularly as the batter stiffens, so it might make sense to do batches of this size one at a time if you want to make lots.

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Seasonal Produce Watch: Figs, Figs, Figs!

Having had some divine figs–right off a ginormous old tree–on vacation, I was debating whether or to write about the arrival of this fall’s fresh figs back here at home–totally worthwhile, yes–but necessary? And then I remembered that I’d never had a fresh fig until Mr. T brought some home one day not so many years ago. They were so novel and delicious I ate the whole pint myself… and spent the next two days in very close proximity to the potty. But the less said about that, the better.

So yes, anyway. On the off chance that anyone else is, like I was, not clued in to the manifest delights of fall’s fresh figs, let’s dish. A yielding, velvety skin surrounding lush, honeyed flesh? Yes indeed. While there are tons and tons of fig varieties, we’re most likely to see Black Mission, Brown Turkey, or green Calimyrna in markets here in DC. And, providing that you don’t eat them all at once, they’re as healthy as they are tasty; full of all sorts of needful vitamins and nutrients in addition to, *hem*, lots of fiber.

Regardless of variety, key to picking good figs–is to look for soft, yielding, fruit. If they’re a bit beat-up looking, that’s often a good indicator that they’re ripe. Also an excellent indicator is if they’re oozing a bit of sticky juice from their bottoms. This makes the best tasting figs frequently not the best LOOKING figs, particularly if you’re not plucking them, sun-warmed, from the tree yourself. Get over this, as I had to, and you will be rewarded.

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A Taste of the Mediterranean: Catalan Bread with Tomato

So, yes, recently Mr. T and I returned from a wee vacation in Spain with the rest of the family T. And, while there was allegedly internet access (via “dongle”), it wasn’t all that reliable and there were so many other pressing things to do… playing with adorable the niecelet, conquering castles, eating tiny fish, and, uhm, sitting on the beach, sitting by the pool, etc.

In any case, though, how about a lovely little snack for when you’re not doing any of those things, but would like to be? Direct from Spain–or Catalonia, depending on where you are and who you ask–and far more than the sum of its admittedly humble parts. This is one of those, “really, this is going to be tasty?” recipes. I mean, at it’s most basic, it’s just a piece of toast with garlic and tomato smushed into it.

Doesn’t sound that all that appealing, really. But it is. Crunchy bread; hot, pungent garlic; sweet, juicy tomato. It’s really got everything–particularly when you opt to lay on a few olives or bits of anchovy. Even better!

As with all simple things, this one really depends on the quality of your ingredients. You want a nice, big, end of season tomato that, hello, tastes like a tomato. A nice, knarly-looking heirloom that might just be a bit too soft for salads? Perfect.

Your bread should also be beyond reproach–a nice simple country loaf will do fine. Avoid sourdough. Use the finest salt and olive oil that you have, and if you’re going to garnish with anchovies or olives (and I suggest that you do) for lord’s sake use good ones.

The below recipe is for two slices of bread. Obviously, this can be multiplied several times over with ease, and the finished slices could be cut into smaller pieces for a cocktail ‘do and that would be totally bueno. Just remember that they shouldn’t sit around too long. The bread should still be warm and the tomato should only penetrate so far. There’s no magic in cold, soggy bread; so serve them up as you make them with sunshine and panache.

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FMC Barbunya: Turkish Beans in Olive Oil

Last Saturday as I sklathed myself around the apartment fighting the tail end of a sinus cold, Mr. T decided to jaunt off to the 14th & U Street Farmers’ Market for a few provisions. While he can always be counted on to buy tomatoes, peaches, and bread, he’s also quite adept with more imaginative purchases.

No surprise really. As he’s fond of pointing out, Mr T. possesses a vast theoretical knowledge of food, garnered from a lifetime of discriminating dining, and–of course–10 years in the immediate impact zone of a certain culinary tornado. So, when he recognized the vibrantly striped cranberry beans at the market as the key ingredient to a tasty Turkish mezze, he scooped a big bag up and brought them back as a special treat/challenge.

The cranberry beans–aka Roman beans, aka barbunya–are gently stewed in olive oil and tomato to make a really tasty topping for bread or crackers: tender beans in a clingy, tomato-y sauce. I have to admit that I was taken aback by how tasty this was for all its simplicity. The long cooking reduces the tomatoes and onions to a rich, deeply flavorful sauce punctuated by sweet carrots and tender, substatial beans. Though I liked it warm, Mr T says it’s traditonally served cold, so I’m going to split the difference and recommend it at room temperature.

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Instant Gratification: Baked Feta with Thyme

Despite my recent foray into Southeast Asian cocktail catering, I’ve found myself doing lots of Mediterranean cooking this summer as well.

The region offers a dizzying array of dishes that are fast and light but don’t skimp on the flavor; perfect for easy entertaining on days when it’s so hot and sticky that the mere thought of hoisting more than a wine glass is exhausting.

And, while it’s beastly hot here in D.C., I find it’s always nice to have at least one hot dish on the table all the same. This is a lovely appetizer/snack that hits that hot, cheesy spot with amazing ease. It takes about 5 minutes to prep and since it’s just broiled briefly, it doesn’t even heat up the kitchen–just the thing for a random weeknight cocktail guests.

It’s lovely on its own with quick pre-dinner drinks, but you could just as easily add a few more things for a quite respectable spread and forget dinner altogether: olives, baba ghanouj, various salumi-type things, stuffed grape leaves, and the like (most of which are easily purchase-able).

Oh, and don’t be weirded out by the rather agressive amount of jalapeno, the broiler tames their heat and all you’re left with a lilting spicy tingle. You’ll need to find yourself a nice, shallow, oven-safe dish that will snugly accomodate the cheese in a single layer. I generally use a 10″ square dish with a low rim and it’s perfect.

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A Hanoi Hors d’Oeuvre, Pho ‘Nuff: Bánh Mì Bites

Ok,  lovely people. Here’s the last of the recipes from the baby shower: Asian-style crostini with Vietnamese oomph. This is one of those things that I’m sure has been done already somewhere else, but for me it was literally an in-the-shower lightning bolt of inspiration.

I’d been ruminating about what other Southeast Asian type foods would work well as cocktail nibbles and had put summer rolls on my notional menu. But, they’re kind of a pain to maintain once they’re made; the rice paper wrappers need to be kept from drying out, but not get moist enough to stick together and tear. Bah…

So, I was rawther pleased when–mid-shampoo–it occured to me that bánh mì, the traditional Vietnamese sandwich, would be great shrunk down to crostini-size. Following hotly on the heels of pho, bánh mì seem to be the next big culnary export from Vietnam.

It’s easy to see why, as they manage to pack a whole lot of flavor into not a lot of space. While the fillings vary greatly, one can generally expect to find pickled daikon, cilantro, pâté, mayo, and various other exciting meaty things tucked into a short Vietnamese style baguette (made with wheat and rice flour, a detail we’re choosing to ignore today…).

I elected to top my mini bánh mì with quickly sauteed marinated pork, and they were delicious. Just like the full-sized originals, these bites had a little of everything–rich, unctuous pâté; bright, pickly radish; verdant cilantro, crispy-caramelized pork, and spicy-creamy mayo. With all that good stuff going on, there’s not much room for failure.

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