5 Appetizers That Impress & Relieve Stress

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Let’s face it, it’s not only during the holidays when we need easy appetizer ideas. Handy dandy, simple offerings are in demand throughout the year. These 5 appetizers can certainly be used anytime, but will surely be useful right about now.

Now when it comes to navigating entertaining, we can be the driver of our own roadmap. It’s up to us to take control. It can be as elaborate as a sit down plated meal with several courses. Or as simple as making a salad, a vegetable and protein. Or even simpler (and better!) a huge bowl of pasta. But it is up to each host/hostess to decide whether to make it complicated or easy. Admittedly, there are times when entertaining calls for a little more pizzazz. And I would venture to say that the holidays definitely require a little more brio. Believe it or not, adding an appetizer to any meal can elevate an evening. I always want my guests to feel special, whether it’s a weeknight meal, an weekend dinner or a big party celebration, and I’ve found that serving appetizers somehow ups the ante and makes any event feel special. But please, let’s not confuse special with hard and stressful.

How I plan out what appetizers I will serve depends on my mood, and it can swing full pendulum, from easy breezy all the way to ones that require a day of prep, cook time and time in plating. For me, it all comes down to how much experimenting I want to do, and how much time I have to play. But that’s just me. I like trying new things and being adventurous. But sometimes, I need speed and simplicity. Luckily, in my experimenting I have come up with a few apps that don’t take a ton of effort, and really please my guests.

Here are Apps that impress AND relieve stress.
(Disclaimer: In no means are these appetizers magical or medicinal in their ability to relieve stress. It’s soley their ease, and delicious impact that creates a stress free zone! Well, I might consider that magic.)

Shaved Parmigiano with Roasted Peppers & Hazelnuts

This is as easy as using a flick of the wrist. That is, one that is holding a vegetable peeler. Simply shave slices of Parmigiano Reggiano. Roll roasted pepper strips up into rosettes or twirls. (A good jarred kind is the way to go. Even I admit, roasting your own peppers is more work than it’s worth. This is definitely one time when homemade doesn’t make sense!) Arrange the platter as you like. I like all the peppers in the middle with the cheese acting like a moat. Then generously sprinkle with chopped hazelnuts. It seriously could not be simpler.

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Platter of Crunch - Fennel Bites & Cucumber Carrot Roll Ups

I always like having a platter with a fresh offering. Not only does it help to refresh the palate but it’s a satisfying treat for the vegetarians. Create a platter full of fresh vegetables. You can use whatever you like but I love big chunks of fennel drizzled with olive oil, course sea salt and pepper. Ribbons of English cucumber plain or rolled up with carrot shreds. The carrots were marinated in a basil balsamic vinaigrette. Check out the recipe here.

My method for platter arrangement is color blocking. I think this looks inviting. Do what pleases your eye and your palate.

Fresh fennel, cucumber and carrots are refreshing and crunchy.

Fresh fennel, cucumber and carrots are refreshing and crunchy.

Fresh Ricotta with Herbs & Oven Roasted Tomatoes

Well, if you took my advice in late summer and roasted a bunch of tomatoes and stored them away, then this one is as easy as opening that container. (Now you understand why I suggest this because the tomatoes can be used in so many ways.) But if you don’t have any roasted tomatoes in your freezer, making a fresh batch is not difficult. Click for The Great Tomato Caper post. For the rest of the dish, simply buy fresh ricotta and spoon it into a bowl creating a nice mound. Generously sprinkle course sea salt, freshly cracked pepper, chopped basil and drizzle with good olive oil. Arrange the roasted tomatoes around and serve with crusty bread.

This combo of sweet tomatoes with fresh creamy ricotta is one that will keep your guests coming back for another smattering.

This combo of sweet tomatoes with fresh creamy ricotta is one that will keep your guests coming back for another smattering.

Sauteéd mushrooms & polenta chips

This one takes a bit more time, but you can actually do some of this ahead of time. I’ve served this appetizer several different ways. Click here for the recipe. In this version I made the polenta squares thinner so they act more like a cracker. Your guests can make their own little bite with as much or as little sauteéd mushrooms as they want. Heck, if you also serve the Ricotta dish, guests can top their polenta squares with mushrooms and a bit of ricotta!

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Dry Cured Meat & Arugula Platter

This seriously could not be simpler than buying and arranging. Pick up your favorite dry cured meat and serve it up with some spicy baby arugula. Guests can roll up the meat with some zest greens for a crisp, salty bite. I love keeping it simple and rustic by serving it right on a wooden board.
Some dry cured meats that I like to serve: Bresaola, Prosciutto or Serrano ham, Capacollo, Mortadella, Coppa.

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I hope these few ideas help keep your stress levels down this holiday season. I really don’t like that I keep repeating that, but it is true that the holidays, and entertaining can be just that - intense. I’m here to help in any way I can, because for me, gathering together with the people you love, serving them food you all love is a glorious thing. And something for which we can all be grateful.

Stirred with love, these apps are just as easy as the ones we download on our phones!

 

Saturday Dinner Party - A Nod to the Mediterranean

A nod to the Mediterranean using a Provencal tablecloth. Simple. No fuss.

A nod to the Mediterranean using a Provencal tablecloth. Simple. No fuss.

We are in the midst of planning a trip to the South of France.  In our research, food and wine keep popping up frequently.  So much so that JuanCarlos has taken to buying only French wines at the moment.  Getting his palate ready, I guess. 
I'm getting mine ready by dreaming of Mediterranean flavors. So with plans to host a Saturday night dinner party for our friends, Donna and Jeff, it made total sense to devise the menu around that theme.  It's easy to cook for them. They are food lovers, too, and enjoy a wide variety of food.  Well, except that Jeff isn't quite that fond of spinach or squash, which believe or not, were both on my original plan. I had my heart set on making fish en papillote using carrots, zucchini and spinach. But no biggie, there are so many other ways to go.  I could still make fish en papillote, but minus those two ingredients. Thinking cap on, I would spiritually fly myself to the Mediterranean and envision some ingredients.  I had capers, olives, tomatoes which all fell right in line with that theme. It seemed even more fitting since Jeff and Donna have been to France numerous times, plus they are planning a trip to Italy in June.  Yet another cosmic nudge toward a Mediterranean mood.  So, mind made up. Plan in place. A celebration was in order, not just the flavors of the region but the style, too.
Starting with the table setting. 

I pulled out a tablecloth that had olives, sunflowers and tones of green, all of which are reminiscent of the Provence region of France.  I added deep olive green, velvet placemats and playing off the yellow tones, I used gold rimmed dishes and draped a triple pointed folded napkin slightly askew. Simple, elegant but not too fussy.

All keeping in the same tones. Greens play off the yellows and reds. Even the water glass is green and gold.

All keeping in the same tones. Greens play off the yellows and reds. Even the water glass is green and gold.

The Plan:

  • Table setting with a Provencal tablecloth

  • Keep appetizers to a few simple bites in the bistro style

  • Main course featuring fish with Mediterranean flavors, potatoes and salad

  • Dessert: true European style - Cheese platter

For appetizers, I thought a fun intro to the meal would be small pressed sandwiches accompanied by marcona almonds, olives marinated with herbs de Provence and cornichons.  The mini sandwiches were made with a combination of cured meats/cheese and leftover pork loin & onion jam

Plus a little twist on an old classic; Pigs in a Blanket, served up by using mini spicy Spanish chorizo wrapped in puff pastry and a side of whole grain and dijon mustard mix.

 

Lastly, a bite from the sea provided by marinated boquerones served on a crisp, cool slice of English cucumber.  

These offerings were just the right amount to get us started.

A panini press gives a nice warm crispness to the bread and melts the cheese.

A panini press gives a nice warm crispness to the bread and melts the cheese.

Cut strips of puff pastry

Cut strips of puff pastry

Roll 'em up in their blankets

Roll 'em up in their blankets

The puff pastry adds a buttery flavor that complements the spice of the chorizo. These are a more grown up way of serving Pigs in a Blanket. Adding a nod to France, I mixed up whole grain mustard with dijon for dipping. Marcona almonds and cornichons for crunchy, salty bites.

The puff pastry adds a buttery flavor that complements the spice of the chorizo. These are a more grown up way of serving Pigs in a Blanket. Adding a nod to France, I mixed up whole grain mustard with dijon for dipping. Marcona almonds and cornichons for crunchy, salty bites.

Boquerones  are fresh anchovies. I marinated them in crushed garlic, olive oil and parsley. Then placed them atop an English cucumber slice.

Boquerones are fresh anchovies. I marinated them in crushed garlic, olive oil and parsley. Then placed them atop an English cucumber slice.

All appetizers were prepared ahead of time and kept in the fridge till right before serving. I made the sandwiches and wrapped them in plastic wrap. Then pressed them when our guests arrived.  The boquerones were assembled and plated earlier in the day. So all I needed to do was place them on the table.  My adult version of Pigs in Blanket were cooked right before they were due to arrive, so those were warm and ready to go. These small bites created a relaxing, no fuss vibe giving us a chance to sit, chat and catch up before the main meal.  Many a moon ago, Donna and I had blood orange cosmos at the Royalton NYC.  It seemed only fitting that we serve up a similar cocktail to start... just for old times' sake. As we nibbled, we sipped on Blood Orange Martinis made by the deft hand of my hubby, who lovingly squeezed all the citrus and mixed this drink to perfection.  

A mix of blood orange, lemons, limes, vodka and simple syrup.

A mix of blood orange, lemons, limes, vodka and simple syrup.

Squeeze them all into a bowl and include some of the pulp.

Squeeze them all into a bowl and include some of the pulp.

I love the bright color and flavor of this drink. So fresh. So delicious. Goes down so easy. Now that's AMORE!

I love the bright color and flavor of this drink. So fresh. So delicious. Goes down so easy. Now that's AMORE!

Dinner was also prepped ahead of time, stored in the fridge and then pulled together before serving.  The real nod to the Mediterranean came in the flavors used for the cod. I like using the en papillote method (cooked and served in paper wrapping) because it cooks beautifully. It's easy to prep, and each guest gets their own portion. I have made fish this way numerous times using different vegetable combinations. Not going with my original plan of zucchini and spinach, I needed some inspiration and found a recipe using grouper with capers, red pepper, tomatoes, kalamata olives and lemon.  I immediately knew that combo was the perfect way to go since I had most of the items save for the red pepper.  I took my cues from the recipe photo but used my own amounts. I also used cod because it was the freshest at the market.  I swapped the red onion for yellow, and eliminated the garlic and red pepper flakes. Although, I made modifications, this isn't my own, so if you want to follow the recipe to a tee, click here.

Using the mise en place method of cutting all ingredients, and getting everything ready makes assembly much easier.

Using the mise en place method of cutting all ingredients, and getting everything ready makes assembly much easier.

I place the parchment paper right on the baking sheet and built up the flavors.  Then folded the paper into a packet and built the next packet. I put two on each pan, then placed the whole baking pan in the refrigerator.  Once we were done eating our appetizers, I placed the pans in the oven to bake for 20 minutes.

Fresh, clean and ready to make a pocket full of Mediterranean yum.

Fresh, clean and ready to make a pocket full of Mediterranean yum.

Simply fold the edges around to create the pocket.

Simply fold the edges around to create the pocket.

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For side dishes, I made Potatoes Anna turned Potatoes Dana, crispy kale/caramelized onions and Baby Arugula salad with oranges, tangerines, red onion, chopped marcona almonds with a orange/lemon vinagrette.

Slices and slices is what creates layers of potato for this dish.

Slices and slices is what creates layers of potato for this dish.

A slice of layered potato goodness.

A slice of layered potato goodness.

Peppery bite of arugula is balanced by the sweetness of the orange with the crunch of the almond.

Peppery bite of arugula is balanced by the sweetness of the orange with the crunch of the almond.

Baking en papillote allows all the juices to delicately poach the fish and vegetables together. A harmony of Mediterrean flavors.

Baking en papillote allows all the juices to delicately poach the fish and vegetables together. A harmony of Mediterrean flavors.

Of course, French wine was served. Beaujolais Blanc and Chateau Saint Roc Cotes du Rhone.

Of course, French wine was served. Beaujolais Blanc and Chateau Saint Roc Cotes du Rhone.

Finishing off the meal with savory flavors of a full cheese board was perfect way to end the evening.  Cheese selection of Époisses, Sofia, Majorero Pimenton surrounded by fruit and sweet condiments all enjoyed in front of a roaring fire.  

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We had a wonderful time together with friends with love, savoring food that paid homage to places we all love.  Pick a country or a region and honor it by creating a menu to share with those who love it too.  We're glad we did.

 
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Chicken Breasts Stuffed with Spinach, Feta & Goat Cheese

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I love when we have friends and family stay with us.  It gives me even more motivation to cook and find some new dishes to test out.  Such was the case when my brother came to visit from L.A. for an extended stay.  He was in town to research and write a movie script which the timing of his visit just so happened to coincide with my mom's knee replacement surgery.  Lucky for me, he was able to do all the heavy lifting in helping her recup. He bopped back and forth from our house to my parents, where he did all the cooking while staying at their house. So naturally I wanted to give him a break when he was at ours.  He is most definitely into healthy eating and steering clear of wheat and bread.  Which was perfect, since so do I. We enjoyed a few good meals mixing up the proteins and sides but mostly keeping it simple.

With chicken on the menu for his last night in NY, I wanted to make it slightly more special than just oven roasted.  You can count on me to rev up the creative juices when the fridge is full with stuff that needs to be used.  Hence, "let me stuff chicken breasts with spinach, feta and goat cheese."  All of which were in some crazy abundance in the fridge that week.  (The goat was was originally destined for a tart idea that's been brewing. The spinach was supposed to have been a side dish. And the feta was one cheese that my brother asked for salads and for Greek inspired dishes. So that explains it.) 

Besides just enjoying his company, I double downed on my good fortune of having him around as he snapped photos while I prepared this meal. Among his many talents, add photographer with a keen eye. So while my hands were full or messy, he documented the prep work.  I'm telling you, as much as I love taking photos of what I make, it was a real treat to be able to just cook and not worry about cleaning my hands, taking the shot, then back to mixing, stirring or chopping.  I'm spoiled now.

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ingredients

4 chicken breasts
14 oz baby spinach*, sautéed
2 T shallots, minced
2 T garlic, minced
1/2 c goat cheese
1/2 c feta cheese
1/2 c white wine (I used Muga Rosé, as it was leftover)
Oil roasted tomatoes
Magic 3 (Olive Oil, Salt, Pepper)

* I used 20 oz of spinach which was more than enough for filling but I used the rest as leftovers the next day to make corn quesadillas with feta.

Instructions

Sauté the shallots, garlic in oil seasoning with salt and pepper.  Add the spinach, cooking until wilted, then set aside to cool. 

I chopped the spinach because I thought it would be easier to eat as well as insert into the chicken.   Photo credit: Robert Perri

I chopped the spinach because I thought it would be easier to eat as well as insert into the chicken.   Photo credit: Robert Perri

Clean, wash and thoroughly dry the chicken breasts.  Then cut a pocket into the thick middle of each breast. (Note: making sure your protein (chicken, meat, fish) is thoroughly dried ensures you will get a good sear.)

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Stuff each one with spinach then add the goat and feta cheeses into the pocket.  Secure with a toothpick. 

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Season the chicken with salt, pepper and olive oil, then sear them on both sides in a cast iron skillet.  Add wine and oven roasted tomatoes and then place in a 350 degree oven for 15-20 minutes, depending on the thickness of the chicken.

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

It just so happened that my sister, Jill, was also in town, which made it a nice send off.  It was too bad that my other sis, Alyssa, couldn't make it.  Since we were a party of four I needed some side dishes.  Pulling items out of the fridge, here's the list of extras.

And there you have a goodbye meal that felt like we were sending him back home with love.

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

He doesn't like his photo to be taken, so you will have to take my word for it that he enjoyed the meal with a smile.  Enough so that he ate some of the leftovers the next day before we drove to JFK. And just the other day he told me that he recreated this dish when he got home. A Winner.
I think this could also be a good brunch dish.  If you slice the cutlets in thick pieces, place them all on a large platter and pour the juices and tomatoes over top, it's an easy pick up and go dish for a buffet.

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Feeding the people you love is what cooking is all about.  Whether you are making a meal for someone coming into town or someone who is leaving, nourishing their bodies and souls is always better stirred with love.  A most wholesome gift indeed.

Summer Salad Full of Fruits

Now that the weather seems to be cooperating and we have returned to summer, it's time to reset our menus back to regularly scheduled programming of offering foods of the season again.

Batter up: Fruits and Vegetables.  How many times have you heard your mom say "eat your fruits and veggies"? As we have all come to learn, moms know best.  These two food groups are the real powerhouses of the food chain, packing all the nutrients, vitamins and minerals you could ever want.  So it made perfect sense that I would combine both in a summer salad to take full advantage of all those heathy benefits.  

I think it's pretty evident by now that my salads contain the not so obvious ingredients.  Thus today's combo should not come as a surprise.  No lettuce and tomatoes pairing here.  Call me odd, that's ok.  I am, but in a good way.

I have an intense fondness of combining textures and flavors.  Sweet and savory.  Soft and crunchy. The fruits and vegetables of summer hit all the right notes,  checking those objectives off my list with the extra bonus of adding freshness and interesting flavor profile

My thoughts on this salad were how many seasonal stunners of the moment I could put together in one dish. Corn, blueberries, nectarines, arugula.

Not much more to this story, other than flavor, flavor, flavor.

Summer's bounty of the moment.

Summer's bounty of the moment.

Ingredients                                               Dressing

1 bunch arugula  (6-7 c)                                                       2/3 nectarine
3 nectarines (1 for the dressing)                                          1/4 c scallion, rough slice
1/3 c blueberries                                                                  1/2 T balsamic vinegar
1 ear of corn, grilled                                                             4 T olive oil
1/3 c blue cheese                                                                 1/2 t course sea salt
1/4 c red onion, thinly sliced                                                1/4 t cracked black pepper

Instructions

Wash the arugula well.  It tends to have a ton of sand, so soak it in cold water in a strainer and lift it out of the water so the sand stays on the bottom.  You may need to do this several times. Dry and arrange in a large platter.

Oil, salt and pepper the corn, then grill it.  I like using a cast iron grill pan but use whatever is most readily available.

While the corn is grilling. Slice the onions and nectarines.

Once the corn is done, you can begin assembling the salad, layering all the different ingredients atop the arugula in a pleasing manner.  I cut some of the kernels off of one side of the cob, then cut the cob in half and place onto the salad.

For the dressing, blend the nectarine, scallion, salt and pepper into a paste. Add the vinegar, oil and pulse until blended. It will be a thick dressing.

You can serve the dressing on the side or drizzle on top.

The flavors of this summer salad creates little flavor bombs in each bite.  The arugula provides a peppery note perfectly juxtaposed to the sweetness of the nectarine and blueberries.  The red onion has a spicy bite that stands up to the crunchy, savory kernels of corn. Then the salty, sharpness of the blue cheese is mellowed by the creamy sweetness of the dressing.  This is party in your mouth kind of salad. Perfect to celebrate summer's bounty.  Ideal pairings: hamburgers (with cheese & caramelized onion), grilled pork chops, grilled white flesh fish (ie: Rainbow Trout, Flounder). Summer fun in a bowl. The easiest, and best way to eat your fruits and veggies!

 

A Jewel of a Salad: Arugula, Orange & Pomegranate

I think I can safely say that the summer has arrived.  We waited a long time and endured rain, cold and a much drawn out winter plus a non-existent spring.  So it's time to bring on the summer and bring out the salads.  

Now you know from previous posts that salads can be made from any ingredient and are definitely not limited to summertime.  But I will admit that Summer and salads seem perfectly made for each other. As Forrest Gump once declared, "We was like peas and carrots, Jenny and me."  (I guess back in the day peas and carrots were a common combo.)  

Some summer salads can be filling like Orzo Pasta Salad, while others can be light and refreshing like Graped Up Bibb Salad or Salad Baby.  Today's salad version is the latter, a refreshing burst of both color and flavor. Although I must have winter still on my mind, since this salad I often like serving in the fall and winter, but actually works equally well for summer.  

Ingredients

6-8 c Baby Arugula
2 navel oranges, segmented
3/4 c pomegranate seeds
1/3 c red onion, thinly slice
1.5 c hearts of palm, thick slices
2/3 c Medjool Dates, sliced (optional)

Dressing
1/3 c juice from orange
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 tbsp lemon juice
2/3 c olive oil
salt/pepper to taste

Instructions

This is fairly self explanatory, so no need for any complicated directions here.  A simple assemble 'em up kinda salad.  

  1. Segment the orange, capturing the juices in a bowl as you cut them.
  2. Slice the onions.  I use a mandolin to get them super thin.
  3. Cut the hearts of palm into 1/2" slices.
  4. Remove pit and slice or dice the dates.
  5. Open the pomegranate and remove the seeds making sure to take off any of the white pith.
  6. Whisk the dressing ingredients together.

Arrange the platter in any way you see fit and drizzle the dressing over top. Recommendation: enjoy a crisp glass of white wine while you platter this up. I guarantee it will increase creativity and the overall enjoyment level of preparation.

I love the colors of this salad which is why I dubbed it 'A Jewel of a Salad', the tones are just that. What I really relish is the diverse flavors and textures that this offers.  The arugula is peppery while the orange is cool and refreshing.  The hearts of palm are mild and soft then the pomegranate offers up crunch and tang.  The red onion gives the spicy note, and if you decide to use the dates, their sweetness is a perfect counterbalance.  This is a salad that reaches all sensory notes, and shows how well sweet and savory, tangy and peppery play off one another.  BBQ's are a-calling so bring this jewel of salad along to brighten any plate, or palate for that matter.