Tuesday, April 27, 2004

I recently planned and hosted a small cocktail party in record time. Friends from Washington e-mailed to ask if they could spend a night at our house while traveling through New England. My husband and I immediately hit the reply key and confirmed the date.

The couple, both distinguished scholars, are well-known to many of our academic and literary pals, so we decided to organize a last-minute cocktail party in their honor.

I made spring the theme of the party and used some of my new computer skills to create colorful invitations printed in bright shades of green, pink and orange. The attractive invites were tucked into matching green envelopes and rushed to the post office.

Next, I worked on the menu. Champagne, the lone beverage I chose to serve, proved to be a smart choice because I didn’t have go to the trouble or expense of stocking a full bar.

For finger food, I offered skewered scallops on a bed of watercress with a sweet-and-sour sauce. I also set out marinated Mediterranean olives along with bowls of Spanish marcona almonds.



A large straw tray was arranged with a variety of cheeses, then garnished with clusters of grapes and dried apricots. Spring crudites were accompanied by an ethereally light whipped herb dip, while caramelized-onion-and-brie toasts were the single warm appetizer.

All the food was tempting, but one dish in particular took the award for most attractive: the spring crudites. It was striking visually because all the ingredients were in hues of green and white.

For the dip, cream cheese was blended with herbs and garlic in a food processor.

The whirring processor blade minced the parsley, chives and dill finely, so the mixture turned a beautiful celadon green. Whipped cream folded into the dip made it lighter in color and texture.

Blanched asparagus spears and snow peas, sliced cucumbers, and trimmed scallions provided the green and white accents to the dip. I was delighted when the first guest to approach the crudites platter said: “All green. Why didn’t I imagine that? I would have thought I needed at least one sliced red pepper.”

Spring crudites with whipped herb dip

DIP:

½ cup whipping or heavy cream

8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature and cut into 1-inch chunks

3 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley, divided

2 tablespoons chopped dill, divided

1 tablespoon chopped chives

½ teaspoon dried thyme leaves

2 medium cloves garlic, finely chopped

½ teaspoon kosher salt

VEGETABLES:

1½ pounds medium asparagus spears

Kosher salt

½ to 3/4 pound snow peas

1 English cucumber

2 bunches scallions

To make the dip, use an electric mixer and whip cream until just firm.

Place chunks of cream cheese, half each of parsley and dill, all of chives, dried thyme, garlic, and salt in a food processor. Add ¼ cup of the whipped cream. Process, pulsing machine often, several seconds or longer, until mixture is smooth and pale green. Remove cream-cheese mixture to a medium mixing bowl, and fold in remaining whipped cream, parsley and dill.

Transfer mixture to a serving bowl. Cover with plastic wrap. (Dip can be prepared 1 day ahead. Bring to room temperature an hour before serving.)

For vegetables, cut off and discard tough bases from asparagus spears. Bring a large skillet filled halfway with water to boil over high heat.

Add 2 teaspoons salt and asparagus. Cook until asparagus is barely tender, only about 2 minutes. (Don’t overcook, or asparagus will become too limp to pick up and scoop into the dip.)

Remove spears to a colander using a slotted spoon. (Leave skillet with water on stove top, but turn off heat.) Rinse spears under cold running water until cool. (Rinsing the asparagus this way will stop the cooking process, so the spears will stay bright green and remain firm.) Pat asparagus dry.

Bring skillet of water to a boil again, adding more water if needed. Add snow peas and cook until just tender, about 2 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon to a colander, then rinse under cold running water until cool and pat dry.

Rinse and dry the unpeeled cucumber, then cut it on a sharp diagonal into ¼-inch-thick slices.

Trim root ends and all but 4 inches from green stems of scallions. (All the vegetables can be prepared 4 hours ahead; cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Bring to room temperature an hour before using.)

To serve, place bowl of dip on a serving plate. Arrange bunches of asparagus spears, snow peas, scallions and cucumbers around the dip. Makes 8 to 10 servings.

Note: This dip can also be prepared by hand.

Mince the fresh herbs as finely as possible and place, along with other ingredients called for in the dip, into a mixing bowl. Use a wooden spoon to smear and blend the ingredients together.

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