Now's that time of the year when it feels like someone has pressed the time-lapse button and everything is moving at triple speed. Many of us are feeling the pinch: not having enough hours in the day yet also wanting to slow down and spend time with people we love (or at least like a lot).
And then there is the meal planning. And maybe the party planning. And perhaps houseguests, or family members returning home for the holidays.
Anyway, you don’t need me to tell you how busy you are. So… how can we do some light entertaining, without a whole lot of fuss or time?
A little appetizer spread is just the thing. Simple bites you can put out while the main meal is being prepared. Or maybe the appetizers are the whole of it, a nice chance to clink glasses with the neighbors or some old friends passing through town.
But appetizers can be tricky. They SEEM like a simpler alternative to a full meal, but if you aren’t careful, they can become toilsome.
Let’s start with the easiest option — the cheese platter. If you take a few extra minutes and add a few extra ingredients, you can pull together a cheese (or charcuterie or grazing) board that looks photo-worthy.
Plan on a few different types of cheese; play around with hard and soft cheeses, cow’s milk vs. goat vs. sheep, mild mixed with pungent. Layer in some crackers or sliced baguette, fresh and dried fruit, olives, nuts, a condiment or two (think preserves, tapenades and so on). Take a moment to make the board or platter feel lush and abundant. Done!
Don’t for a moment be hesitant about putting out store-bought nibbles. In fact, take a beat and check out the prepared foods section at your grocery store, or explore a prepared food market. Look for things like grilled artichoke hearts, stuffed pepperoncini, cooked shrimp, cheese straws, savory tartlets, focaccias or little phyllo pastries.
Stock the pantry for last-minute spreads and surprise guests. High-end nut mixes (check on allergies first), jarred bruschetta, pestos, stuffed olives, marinated and pickled vegetables, stuffed grape leaves, gourmet crackers. If you tuck away a little supply of these special items, you can pull them out at a moment’s notice.
And stock the freezer! There are loads of precious little frozen appetizers available. Yes, pigs in a blanket, but also spanakopita, cheese puffs, mini quiches, crab cakes, bacon wrapped scallops, empanadas, dumplings, mini pizzas, jalapeno poppers and so on.
Also, many frozen appetizers can be made in the air fryer, so if you’ve been looking for ways to put that appliance to work, now’s the time.
Keep a well-wrapped, good bread in the freezer too, and some sort of bruschetta or crostini is waiting to happen. Bread defrosts very quickly.
Some ideas for pull-together appetizers:
— Spread baguette slices with softened butter mixed with sea salt and minced fresh dill. Drape a piece of smoked salmon over the top, add a few capers and serve with lemon wedges and dill sprigs.
— A quick, fresh herb dip. I always have extra fresh herbs around, especially during the holidays, left over from one recipe or another. Make the easiest herb dip ever by mixing 1/2 cup mayonnaise, 1/2 cup sour cream and 1/2 cup chopped mixed fresh herbs like basil, oregano, thyme, marjoram, chervil and parsley. Add kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Serve with cut-up raw vegetables (crudité) or baby roasted potatoes or pita chips for dipping. Or, spread the dip over toasted Italian bread slices and top with slices of roast beef or turkey.
— Roasted Chickpeas. Toss a can of rinsed and drained chickpeas with a tablespoon of olive oil and some kosher salt. Add some dried herbs or spices if you like, like chili powder, cumin, garlic powder, Italian seasoning. Spread on a rimmed baking sheet and bake in a preheated 375 degree F oven for about 20 minutes, until they turn golden brown. Serve warm or at room temp.
— Quick Guacamole: Mix together 2 diced ripe avocados with half a minced onion; 1 medium tomato, seeded and chopped; kosher salt and pepper; and the juice of a lime. Add some minced jalapeno and chopped cilantro if you like. Serve with lots of tortilla chips.
— Cheddar Popcorn: Make some homemade popcorn, and when it's hot and freshly cooked, drizzle some hot melted butter over it, and add a couple of handfuls of finely grated sharp cheddar cheese, a bit of salt and maybe dried oregano or paprika. Toss well.
— Keep some sparkling water, wine (regular and sparkling), beer and soft drinks on hand.
Also, let’s remind ourselves that our family and friends came over to see us – the food is secondary!
Five more easy appetizers:
Baked Brie en Croute with Raspberry Jam
Katie Workman writes regularly about food for The Associated Press. She has written two cookbooks focused on family-friendly cooking, “Dinner Solved!” and “The Mom 100 Cookbook.” She blogs at http://www.themom100.com/about-katie-workman. She can be reached at Katie@themom100.com.
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Katie Workman, The Associated Press