- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 20, 2005

In years gone by, Jean Adelsman of Torrance, Calif., spent hours fussing with elaborate appetizers for her annual New Year’s Eve party. No longer. These rushed but ready days, Miss Adelsman tosses together a few spreads for crackers, bread, dried fruit and fresh veggies. She does this both because it takes only minutes and because her guests love it.

“I used to have time to kill, but for some reason lately I’m almost always in a hurry,” she says. “Am I the only one? I doubt it. Somehow life is moving at the speed of light, so I have to take shortcuts. A good spread is not only fast to make, it can be interesting and elegant.”

In particular, Miss Adelsman likes two appetizers that are more decoration than cooking. One beloved by her guests she plucked years ago from “The Silver Palate Cookbook” (Workman). It’s a brie with the top rind removed. The remaining cheese is scored like a pie and the spaces are filled with five different ingredients: walnuts, dill weed, currants, poppy seed and slivered blanched almonds. “It couldn’t be easier and people always ask for the recipe,” Miss Adelsman said.

Another one she likes is a collection of goat cheese rounds or logs that she rolls in different ingredients and places on a platter lined with leaves from her garden. It takes minutes to assemble and is attractive enough to make a nice centerpiece or buffet table decoration.

Sure, we’d all love to whip up bite-sized foie gras lasagnas just like the restaurants do. Our friends would certainly think more of us if we filled phyllo dough triangles with wild mushrooms. On the other hand, that’s so 1980s. And the question arises, “Don’t they have anything better to do with their time?”

Yes, actually. We can buy spreads that seem to be available in cookware shops and fancy food stores everywhere. And we can pay bucks for the convenience. Or we can whip up something fresh in minutes. The goal is to offer good snacks that can carry us through the extended New Year’s Eve fete, an evening so long no lone dinner can fill it.

One of my favorites used to be a bruschetta that is simple but not simple enough for my life this year. (Or is it every year?) It is little toasted slices of Italian bread topped with crumbled blue cheese, a drizzle of honey and toasted hazelnuts.

Now I whip up blue cheese and a little cream cheese in the food processor, scoop it into a bowl and top the whole thing with a drizzle of honey and toasted hazelnuts.

Guests spread the combination onto crackers or fruit and get essentially the same experience. It gives them something to do and it takes something to do away from me … one of my favorite activities.

Make sure you set out baskets lined with paper napkins and plates lined with fresh washed leaves. All the better to avoid some cleanup later, after guests have left. And try some of these spreaders and spreadees for making the long evening interesting and delicious.

THINGS TO SPREAD ON

Edamame

Radicchio leaves

Dried fruit of any kind

Focaccia cut into bite-sized pieces

Roasted baby potato wedges (spray them with garlic oil before roasting)

Boiled baby potato halves

Any steamed vegetable (green beans are nice)

Deep-fried (dare I suggest this?) Chinese won ton wrappers

Tiny rice crackers

Baked polenta rounds

Fresh fruit (if you can find it)

Halved baby pita breads

Lavosh of any kind

Matzo (garlic is good)

Crackers

THINGS TO SPREAD WITH

Cute little cocktail knives (but who has those?)

Popsicle sticks

Bread sticks

Chopsticks

Plastic knives and spoons

Whole carrots, peeled and halved lengthwise

Your fingers, after guests have left

Tapenade with sun-dried tomatoes

1 clove garlic

cup (about 4 ounces) undrained sun-dried tomatoes in oil

2 5.75-ounce cans pitted black olives, drained

1 lemon, juice only

1/4 to 1/3 cup olive oil

Freshly ground black pepper

Toasted bread or crackers

Place garlic and sun-dried tomatoes in food processor or blender and mince. Add olives, lemon juice, 1/4 cup olive oil and a few grindings of freshly ground pepper, and process until thick but still chunky, about 10 seconds. If mixture is too thick, add remaining olive oil. Serve with toasted bread or crackers. This is better if made the day before and refrigerated overnight. Makes about 2 cups.

Blue-cheese and hazelnut spread

1 8-ounce package light (but not nonfat) cream cheese, softened

8 ounces crumbled blue cheese

2 tablespoons light (but not nonfat) sour cream

3 tablespoons honey

3 tablespoons coarsely chopped roasted hazelnuts (see note)

Toasted bread or crackers, dried fruit or sliced fresh apples or pears tossed with a little lemon juice

In a food processor or blender combine cream cheese, blue cheese and sour cream until smooth. Spoon into serving bowl, drizzle with honey and top with roasted hazelnuts. Serve with toasted bread, crackers, dried fruit or sliced fresh apples or pears tossed with a little lemon juice to prevent them from discoloring. Makes about 2 cups.

Note: To roast hazelnuts, place on ungreased baking sheet in 350-degree oven until lightly browned, 6 to 8 minutes. Watch carefully because nuts can brown quickly. Remove and cool..

Tri-colored goat cheeses

3 5-ounce rounds or logs goat cheese

1 to 2 tablespoons cracked black peppercorns

1 to 2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives

1 to 2 tablespoons well chopped dried cranberries or cherries

Cleaned leaves of some kind

Crackers, fresh or dried fruit, or toasted bread

Roll side (leave top and bottom empty) of 1 cheese round or log in cracked peppercorns, pressing to make peppercorns stick to cheese. Roll side of another round or log in chives, pressing to make chives stick to cheese.

Roll side of last round or log in dried cranberries or cherries, pressing to make cranberries or cherries stick to cheese. (Cheese should look somewhat dotted, rather than totally covered.) Cover with plastic wrap and return to refrigerator to chill. Line a serving platter with leaves. Place cheese on top. Serve with crackers, fresh or dried fruit or toasted bread on the side. Makes 3 cheeses.

Caramelized onion cream cheese with salsa

2 cups sliced onion

3 tablespoons olive oil

3 teaspoons sugar

1 8-ounce package light (but not nonfat) cream cheese, softened

3 tablespoons light (but not nonfat) sour cream

2 tablespoons caraway seed

1 16-ounce jar chunky red salsa

Toasted bread or crackers

Saute onion in olive oil over low heat until very soft, about 10 minutes. Add sugar and continue sauteing until onion is browned, or caramelized, about 3 more minutes. (If onion is not browning, turn up heat a bit and stir often.) Place cream cheese and sour cream in food processor.

Add onion and caraway seed and process until thoroughly combined. Spoon out onto serving plate. Pour salsa on top and around. Serve with toasted bread or crackers. Makes about 11/4 cups.

Kim Upton is editor of Tribune Media Services FoodStyles feature service.

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