- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 8, 2005

As the author of a book on stress-free cooking, I have learned how to thoroughly enjoy entertaining family and friends, even during the busy holiday season.

Don’t think I’m a person of leisure, however. I am a mom, a grandmother and a wife with work thrown in for good measure. When it comes to dining, my husband and I truly feel the more, the merrier. Our home is equipped with banquet tables, folding chairs, and extra china and crystal to accommodate our large family and many friends. I am often teased that there should be a neon sign at the end of our street reading, “Eat at Barb’s,” with an arrow pointing toward our home.

We may be able to hold big feasts like this, but we have many friends who are apprehensive about entertaining, especially during the holiday season. I know they are not alone.

Hosting a holiday gathering is an extremely personal gift that you give to your loved ones. As such, it can be stressful. If you are among the folks who are self-conscious about entertaining, please remember not to try to reinvent the wheel. Just offer what you are comfortable with.

Many of my cooking school students tell me that hors d’oeuvre parties are among their favorites but that preparing for this type of event is a bit daunting. There is always the question of what to serve and how much. Generally, it is best to plan 3 to 4 pieces per person, if served as the prelude before a meal.

If the hors d’oeuvres are snacks that will not be followed by a meal, the length of the party will certainly impact quantity. Figure on at least 6 to 7 per person, if dessert is also served.

Hors d’oeuvres run the gamut from simple one- to two-bite finger foods to appetizers that require plates and eating utensils. Some hors d’oeuvres don’t require a recipe.

A plate of smoked salmon with accompaniments, such as chopped onion, chopped egg, dill, horseradish and brown bread, is a simple yet elegant serve-yourself item. Nuts, olives and even simple breadsticks in some of your favorite serving pieces add elegance and cut down the amount of cooking required. Steamed shrimp simply marinated or served with a dipping sauce is popular and requires little preparation.

One secret to success is to do as much of the food preparation as possible ahead of time. You can also lessen the workload by adding a salad and dessert to round out the menu.

With proper planning, thorough shopping, some preparation ahead, a freezer full of your own homemade specialties, and quality ingredients that provide special touches, you can make light work of entertaining.

The most basic tip is to give yourself plenty of time to prepare for the party, doing a little bit ahead whenever time permits. Once you decide to have a party, immediately select recipes for dishes that can be frozen or purchased ahead. Include some no-cook items such as nuts and olives.

As soon as possible, purchase pantry and frozen groceries that will keep for weeks or months. Buy a few items each time you do your routine shopping. Pick up beer, wine, liquor, juices and soft drinks once the menu has been set.

Make a batch of anything you can freeze ahead (see accompanying recipes). Check to see if you need to purchase any dishes, glassware, tablecloths, candles, folding tables or chairs.

Get all serving pieces, ice buckets and trays out ahead of time and place labels on them to remind you what menu item they will hold.

Prepare garnishes for drinks and plates a day before, including sliced lemons and (washed and bagged) herbs.

Select music the day before and set up the CD player. Candles make simple and inexpensive centerpieces and provide atmosphere. Group multiple candle holders of varying shapes and sizes.

A simple but elegant touch, such as placing a dip or nuts in a martini glass, can add elegance to an otherwise plain dish. Use stemmed glasses and other interesting pieces as bowls and platters. Varying heights of serving pieces add visual interest to the simplest food.

Before things get hectic, decide on something fabulous to wear so that you are not distracted by baking appetizers.

Finally, allow time before any party to relax or at least walk around your home with a glass of wine and admire what you have created. Smile and enjoy yourself. It will be contagious.

Lemon dill shrimp on cucumber flowers

No freezing here, but these cooked shrimp can be marinated the day before and assembled and refrigerated a few hours before the party. If you’re pressed for time, serve the marinated shrimp solo in a bowl with small cocktail forks or toothpicks so that guests can serve themselves.

Juice of 1 lemon

1 shallot, finely minced

1/4 cup olive oil

cup chopped fresh dill

15 ounces black olives, sliced

Sea salt

Freshly ground pepper

1 pound peeled and deveined cooked medium (48 to 50 count) shrimp

1 to 2 English cucumbers

Dill sprigs for garnish, optional

Combine lemon juice, shallot, olive oil, chopped dill, olives and salt and pepper to taste. Marinate cooked shrimp in this mixture for at least one hour or up to 24.

Scrub cucumber well. Take a fork and run it down the outside of cucumber(s) to make a decorative edge. Trim off ends and slice cucumber(s) into 1/4-inch rounds. Place one piece of shrimp and a few olives on each cucumber slice and garnish with a tiny sprig of fresh dill, if desired. Arrange on serving platters, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until serving time, up to 24 hours. Makes about 50.

Onion herb crisps

These crispy hors d’oeuvres are great with drinks or a glass of wine. Both the uncooked dough and the baked crisps can be frozen in air-tight plastic containers or heavy-duty resealable plastic bags for up to 3 months.

1/4 pound reduced-fat sharp cheddar cheese, shredded

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut in thirds

1 teaspoon onion flakes

1 teaspoon Italian herb blend

teaspoon hot red pepper sauce

1 teaspoon sea salt, divided

1 cup unbleached flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 to 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 egg whites

Line baking sheets with parchment and set aside. (Do not let parchment extend beyond baking sheet or it will burn.) Place cheese, butter, onion flakes, Italian herb blend, hot red pepper sauce and teaspoon sea salt in food processor. Blend well.

Mix flour and baking powder together and add to food processor. Pulse just until flour is blended in. (It will look like coarse cornmeal.) Slowly pour in just enough olive oil to bind, starting with 1 tablespoon and adding more, if necessary.

Divide dough in half, form into 2 logs and place on plastic wrap. Roll tightly and refrigerate at least 30 minutes. Slice into 1/4-inch thick disks and place on prepared baking sheet.

Mix egg white with remaining teaspoon salt to make glaze. Brush glaze on top of each round. Bake in preheated 350-degree oven until lightly browned, about 13 to 15 minutes. Makes about 4 dozen.

Variation: Dough can also be rolled 1/4-inch thick and cut with small, seasonal cookie cutters for a festive look. Or you can eliminate the log-making step and bake the dough as you would drop cookies. Make sure the cookies are about 1/4-inch thick, though, or you will need to increase the baking time.

To freeze: Crisps can be fully baked and stored in the freezer in an airtight container. Bring to room temperature before serving. Uncooked dough can be frozen and baked on the day of the party. Bring dough to room temperature before glazing and baking.

Sophia and Barb’s mushroom-filled phyllo triangles

1 1-pound box frozen phyllo dough

10 ounces cremini mushrooms

1 large shallot

2 small cloves garlic

teaspoon sea salt

Black pepper

1/4 cup herbs such as thyme and basil

Extra-virgin olive oil

6 ounces mascarpone cheese

Nonstick cooking spray

Black and white sesame seeds for garnish, optional

Line baking sheets with parchment and set aside. (Do not let parchment extend beyond baking sheet or it will burn.) Line work surface with additional parchment. Defrost phyllo in refrigerator at least 3 hours. (Do not defrost in microwave or it will become gummy.) Wipe mushrooms with damp paper towel to remove any debris. Cut a fine sliver off the end of the stems and discard.

Quarter the mushrooms. Peel and quarter shallot. Crush and peel garlic. Place mushrooms, shallot and garlic in food processor. Pulse to a finely chopped mixture. Add salt, a few grindings of pepper and herbs and pulse again. Thinly film a saute pan with olive oil and cook mushroom mixture until soft, about 5 minutes. Turn off heat, add mascarpone; mix well.

Unwrap defrosted phyllo and lay on parchment-lined work surface, such as a kitchen counter. Cover with a damp towel and plastic wrap to prevent phyllo from drying out.

Take 1 leaf of phyllo and place it on parchment-lined surface. Mist with nonstick cooking spray and add another leaf. Repeat with 3 more leaves (for a total of four). Cut into 2-inch strips.

Place 1 teaspoon of mushroom mixture on bottom end of phyllo strip and fold over to make a triangle shape on the bottom end of the strip. Continue wrapping until a triangle is formed — this is like folding a flag.

Place triangles on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Lightly mist with cooking spray and sprinkle with sesame seeds for garnish, if desired. Bake in preheated 375-degree oven for 8 to 10 minutes, or until golden. Makes about 4 dozen.

To freeze: Triangles should not be baked before freezing. Freeze them unbaked in a single layer on baking sheet, then transfer to an airtight container. Triangles can be assembled a month in advance. To bake, defrost for 30 minutes at room temperature on nonstick baking sheets. Then mist with cooking spray, sprinkle with seeds, if using, and bake in preheated 375-degree oven for 8 to 10 minutes, or until heated through and golden.

Stuffed mushrooms with prosciutto

These mushrooms freeze well.

1 14-ounce package large mushrooms for stuffing

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 medium onion, minced

2 cloves garlic, minced

4 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto, finely chopped (see note)

2 cups baby spinach, roughly chopped

1 cup plain bread crumbs

1

cups vegetable stock, divided

cup finely shredded Fontina cheese (see note)

Clean mushrooms. Trim bottom of stems and separate stems from mushrooms. Chop stems and set both stems and caps aside.

Place olive oil in large nonstick skillet. Heat and add minced onion and garlic. Cook until onion becomes translucent. Add mushroom stems, prosciutto and spinach. Cook 3 minutes to soften mushroom stems. Add bread crumbs and 1 cup vegetable stock. Heat thoroughly.

Fill mushroom caps with spinach mixture and place in baking dish. Add about

cup additional stock to baking dish. Cover with foil and bake in 350-degree oven for 20 to 30 minutes, or until mushroom caps are tender. Sprinkle with cheese and serve warm. Makes 24 to 30.

To freeze: Bake mushoms, cool, wrap in airtight container and freeze until the day of the party. Defrost in the refrigerator, bring to room temperature and reheat, covered, in a 375-degree oven for 20 minutes. Just before serving, sprinkle with finely grated cheese.

Note: To make this vegetarian, omit prosciutto and cheese.

Sun-dried tomato, basil and pine nut cocktail meatballs

1 cups dry bread cubes

1 to 1 cups dry red wine (sangiovese or Chianti style) or chicken broth

1 to 11/4 pounds ground turkey breast

1 cup sun-dried tomatoes (not in oil), cut in bits

1 to 2 cloves garlic, minced

2 shallots, minced

1/4 cup fresh basil, chopped, or 1 teaspoon dry basil leaves, crushed between your fingers

2 tablespoons fresh marjoram or oregano, chopped, or teaspoon dry marjoram or oregano, crushed between your fingers

1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted and roughly chopped

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

2 egg whites or 1 whole egg, lightly beaten

1 cup commercially made pesto sauce for dipping

Soak bread cubes in 1 cup wine or stock until soft. (Use additional cup, if necessary, so that all bread is soaked.) In a large bowl, combine soaked bread cubes, 1 pound ground turkey, sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, shallot, basil, marjoram or oregano, pine nuts, Parmesan, and egg whites or egg.

Add remaining 1/4 pound turkey if needed to make meatballs stick together. (Do not overmix, or meatballs will be tough.) Form into 50 small meatballs and bake in preheated 400-degree oven for 20 minutes, or until cooked through, turning a few times to ensure even browning. Serve warm with pesto sauce for dipping. Makes 50.

To freeze: After meatballs are baked, cool and place in a large resealable plastic bag. Chill in refrigerator and then move to freezer.

To reheat:

Place defrosted meatballs in microwave-proof dish and heat for 1 to 2 minutes, or until warmed. Can also be reheated over low heat in a covered saucepan containing a bit of wine so that meatballs don’t stick to pan. Serve warm with pesto sauce for dipping.

Tri-colored salad with figs, goat cheese, pine nuts and champagne vinaigrette

Obviously, this salad cannot be frozen, but it is easy to toss together as guests are arriving for your party.

1/41 head green leaf lettuce, torn into bite-sized pieces

1 small head radicchio, torn into bite-sized pieces

1 medium head Belgian endive, torn into bite-sized pieces

1/4 cup crumbled Gorgonzola or goat cheese

cup pine nuts, toasted

Champagne vinaigrette (recipe follows)

cup dried or fresh figs, sliced in half lengthwise

Wash and dry greens. Place in large salad bowl. Top with crumbled cheese and toasted pine nuts. Add a small amount of dressing and toss well. (Salad should not be swimming in liquid.) Add figs and toss gently. Makes 8 to 10 servings.

1/4CHAMPAGNE VINAIGRETTE

cup champagne vinegar

Pinch sea salt

Freshly ground pepper

to 3/4

cup extra-virgin olive oil

Place champagne vinegar, salt and pepper in bowl. Start whisking and slowly pour in olive oil. Taste after cup has been added, and add more if desired.

The amount of oil required to balance the vinegar will depend on the oil selected. Makes about 1 cup dressing.

Barbara Seelig Brown is the author of “Stress Free Cooking” (Wimmer Cookbooks).

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