- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Big flavors really do come in little recipes. Instead of poring over recipes that cover three pages of a cookbook and juggling long grocery lists, you can turn out impressive party-perfect appetizers that require a minimal number of ingredients — four or fewer, to be precise.

What could be better news now that holiday entertaining is in full swing? Following this season’s mantra, “shorter is better,” can free you up from the tedious aspects of cooking, so you can enjoy your company and the delicious food you’ve prepared. Culinary experts are leading the drive to simplicity.

“It’s really important to have easy things you can do that are stylish, low-stress and fun to do,” says Meredith Deeds, a cookbook author and cooking instructor in the Dallas area.

Cooking instructors and cookbook authors say the key to success with such minimal recipes is to have a few fabulous and versatile ingredients in your cupboard and be ready to experiment.

“I love things that have lots of uses; that’s where improvising comes from,” says Sally Schneider, author of “The Improvisational Cook” (William Morrow).

Take cheese, for example. Miss Schneider adds it to her must-have list because it’s versatile and long-lasting.

One of her favorite recipes is a cheese cracker that is simply a mixture of shredded, aged Gouda or Jack cheese tossed with a little flour and cayenne pepper and cooked to a thin lacy layer in a skillet.

The cheese hardens into a crisp sheet that doubles as a cracker or a dramatic garnish. Three ingredients and mega impact. It works for Miss Schneider.

Andrew Schloss is also a devotee of the less-is-more school of festive foods. He sees more food companies offering products that make life easy for busy hosts.

“There’s always been a big difference between home cooking and that in restaurants. Restaurants have a sous chef,” says Mr. Schloss, a cooking instructor and cookbook author in the Philadelphia area.

“Now, supermarkets are providing the prep [work] so you can make food for entertaining that you would never have tried before,” says Mr. Schloss, author of “Homemade in a Hurry” (Chronicle Books).

You’ll find condiments in any supermarket aisle that can transform your cooking, Mr. Schloss says.

“People think of salsa as being Mexican, but look at the jar — it’s vegetables. I use salsa with stews and vegetables. It can make anything instantly flavorful,” Mr. Schloss says. He’s equally enthusiastic about bottled curry sauces.

“What I like about curry sauce is that it’s a braise of spices. Americans use curry powder. By using a curry simmer sauce, you get a much more authentic flavor,” he says.

Mr. Schloss takes an assortment of vegetables, including bagged broccoli and cauliflower florets, bell pepper strips, white mushrooms and baby carrots. He adds a can of garbanzo beans and simmers the combination with curry cooking sauce. The result is an intriguing vegetable side dish.

When deciding whether to make a recipe from scratch or rely on a convenience product, Miss Deeds asks whether the convenience version provides a sensible compromise. “There are a lot of good quality products you can use as a base,” says Miss Deeds, co-author of “The Big Book of Appetizers” (Chronicle Books). “Even heating home-style potato chips and sprinkling with blue cheese is a great dish.” Guests always welcome flavorful fresh ingredients simply prepared.

Miss Schneider gets raves with her Magic Peppers, which are simply roasted bell pepper strips. The magic comes from transforming the vegetable into a myriad of tempting dishes, from a simple finger food to a pasta topping or a tart, when mixed with goat cheese.

The payoff for stripping down recipes and using well-made condiments is the pleasure you’ll get. “This is about having fun,” says Mr. Schloss. “Once you catch on that things taste so much better and you have so much fun, you’ll end up cooking more.”

Here are three recipes, one from each easy cooking maven, that require four or fewer ingredients.

Magic peppers

This recipe is adapted from Miss Schneider’s “The Improvisational Cook.” It can be made several days in advance. Arrange pepper strips on a platter for finger food. Or chop the peppers, add some pine nuts, pitted Kalamata olives, herbs and lemon peel, and spread over bread to make bruschetta.

4 large red or yellow bell peppers (2 pounds)

1½ tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Core and seed peppers. Cut lengthwise into 4 or 5 thick strips. (If you’re serving pepper slices as appetizers, don’t core. Rather, cut peppers in half lengthwise through the stem if possible. Cut each half pepper into thirds keeping a sliver of the stem intact.)

Place pepper strips and oil in a bowl and toss to coat. Arrange pepper slices, cut-side up, on a large baking sheet. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper to taste. Roast in preheated 450-degree oven for 30 minutes or until peppers are tender and slightly browned on the edges. Serve warm or at room temperature. Serves 8 to 12 as an appetizer.

Note: For a flavor boost, add a dash or sprig of one of the following to the peppers along with the salt and pepper before roasting: fresh thyme or rosemary, fennel, cumin, cracked coriander seeds, sweet paprika or smoked paprika from Spain.

Roasted onion and fig jam

This recipe is adapted from Mr. Schloss’ “Homemade in a Hurry.” He suggests serving roasted onion and fig jam along with a wedge of cheese or on a buffet with roast chicken. You can also use the jam as a spread for crusty artisan bread.

1½ pounds onions, cut in chunks

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 tablespoons fig preserves (see note)

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

Toss onions and olive oil in a roasting pan. Roast in preheated 450-degree oven for 30 minutes, or until onions are caramelized, tossing onions halfway through roasting time. Scrape up any browned bits in pan. In a food processor, chop onions until minced and sticky. Remove to a bowl. Stir in fig preserves and salt. Makes 6 servings.

Note: If fig preserves aren’t available, substitute 1 tablespoon honey mixed with 2 finely chopped dried figs.

Homemade potato chips with blue cheese

This recipe was adapted from Miss Deeds’ “The Big Book of Appetizers.” Homemade potato chips are a special treat. But if you prefer, you can find delicious alternatives in the snack aisle of your supermarket. This snack goes well with a good ale or hard cider.

2 or 3 baking potatoes, about 2 pounds (see note)

Water

Peanut oil for frying

Kosher salt

8 ounces blue cheese, finely crumbled

Peel potatoes and slice 1/8-inch thick. Soak potatoes in a bowl of cold water for 5 minutes. Drain well and pat dry.

Pour enough oil into a heavy-bottomed saucepan to reach halfway up the sides. Heat oil to 375 degrees on a deep-frying thermometer. Carefully ease 15 potato slices into oil. Fry potatoes until golden, frequently moving slices with tongs or a slotted spoon. Remove and drain on paper towels. Season lightly with salt. Spread a layer of potato chips in a baking pan and sprinkle lightly with blue cheese. Alternate potato and cheese layers. Bake in preheated 450-degree oven for 5 minutes. Serve warm. Makes 10 to 12 servings.

Note: Substitute 2 9-ounce bags of kettle chips if you prefer and follow the layering steps. Bake for 3 to 5 minutes, but take a look after 3 minutes to make sure the chips aren’t getting too brown.

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