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!

 

Dal - Lentil Stew

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No, not dull. Dal. And it’s anything but. If you like lentils, you will love Dal. Why?, because Dal is lentils- a lentil stew.

I’ve made lentils before. Both as a soup and as a side dish. Both using mirepoix for the base. But, I have never made Dal before. I looked up what spices are traditionally used in making Dal and decided I would use my own version. Ballsy, I know, but what the hell.

If you read last week’s blog post, and I hope you did, you know I had an inspiration spurt propelling me to create a complete Indian meal for JC, my sis Jill and myself. It started with the rice. Then moved onto what will go with the rice.

That’s where the Dal came in.

I used a couple of items that might not be traditional Indian ones but they blended beautifully in the dish.

I had roasted tomatoes. Boy, did I have roasted tomatoes since I just finished making 100lbs. of tomatoes. No, that wasn’t a typo; 100 glorious pounds. JC thought I was nuts. (I must admit that after the first 25lbs, I thought I was nuts too!) So, with plenty of roasted tomatoes on hand, I figured why not use them in my Dal. I also had celery and long hot peppers and wanted to use those up. I always taste as I go, so when I cut into the peppers, which I thought were supposed to hot, they didn’t seem to have the heat I expected. So, I added a jalapeño, too. Believe it or not, the spice level ended up being perfect for my palate. Not so spicy that I couldn’t taste anything else or not be able to detect that my tongue was still attached to my mouth. Yet spicy enough to wake up the senses.

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Ingredients

3 c yellow lentils
1/2 c onion, small dice
2 T celery, small dice
1/3 c red & green long peppers hot, sliced
1/4 c jalapeño, minced
1.5 T crushed garlic
3 T oil
1 T turmeric
1 t cumin seeds
2.5 t curry powder
1 t salt
1 c roasted tomatoes + their juices
2.5 c water

The spice of life. Turmeric, salt, curry powder, cumin seeds.

The spice of life. Turmeric, salt, curry powder, cumin seeds.


Instructions

I chopped everything up into a small dice, slice and a fine mince. I wanted to create a sofrito, if you will. Then sautéd those in a pan with oil.

Fresh aromatics lightly sauteéd.

Fresh aromatics lightly sauteéd.

Once the fresh aromatics were softened, I added the dried spices and let them get all cozy together until they created a lusciously blended ‘sofrito’ base.

Dry spices in to truly spice things up.

Dry spices in to truly spice things up.

Cook down until it all becomes soften and luscious together.

Cook down until it all becomes soften and luscious together.

When you have homemade roasted tomatoes, then that is what you use. They were made with love, so…

(If you don’t have roasted, you can also use whole tomatoes in a can. And then add them in with love.) In went the tomatoes and lentils. Then I added water, covered the pan and let simmer until done.

Tomatoes and lentils finish off the main ingredients, as they wait for their water bath to gently cook them.

Tomatoes and lentils finish off the main ingredients, as they wait for their water bath to gently cook them.

And that is just how easy it was to make Dal. Again, boasting is not my style, yet two weeks in a row, it’s seems to becoming a trend. Here I am tooting my own horn again, because this Dal dish came out super tasty. I was worried about the spice level having added the jalapeño plus the long peppers, but it was quite on point. Again, I got the thumbs up for Jill and JC, both lovers of Indian food.

I served it with the Indian Spiced Rice, Spiced Cauliflower, Potato Pancakes and raita.

I served it with the Indian Spiced Rice, Spiced Cauliflower, Potato Pancakes and raita.

Now, I’m not saying that I’m some sort of expert, nor is this a traditional Indian Dal. But I am seriously happy at my first real foray into using Indian spices to create delicious dishes. I’m all for learning the traditional methods, staying true to a cultures cuisine. But I also believe that you have to just dive in and not be intimidated by it’s complexity. And that’s what I did here. Plus my style has always been, get a glimpse then make it my own.

Don’t forget to make the Indian Spiced Rice to go along with this. In the coming weeks, I will post the potato pancakes and cauliflower. Here’s to spicing up your life!

Israeli Couscous with Sautéd Squash, Roasted Tomatoes & Garlic

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I like comfort food.  Which usually means a mouthful of pasta.  I especially like it when it is small enough that I can simply scoop spoonfuls into my mouth.  Gosh, I hope that doesn't sound gross. But it is quite satisfying.  Which is why I love creating salads that fit that agenda.  As with my Orzo Salad, this Israeli Couscous dish has that same mouthfeel.  Flavor in every bite filled with the comfort of a pasta.  Small enough that it's easy to spoon, swallow and spoon again.  Oh, yeah, don't forget to chew.

I created this dish for a Ladies' Lunch for my Mom and the women's group at her condo.  They were gracious enough to allow me to cater the lunch for them, and I had a blast doing it.  I will post more about the entire meal but for now, let's focus on spooning some of this salad for your next lunch, dinner side dish or BBQ party.  When I came up with idea it was to satisfy what I thought the women would enjoy as well as a dish that would be easy to make given all the other items I was making.  What I didn't even realize at the time was that this Israeli Couscous plays off the same idea as my Garlic Rice with Sautéd Zucchini & Tomatoes.  I found that recipe as I was writing this one so I could share other zucchini ideas. And there it was, along with several others.

Apparently, there are a million ways to serve up zucchini.  So here's a quick reminder of a few I have experimented with and achieved success.  Try them out while the weather is zucchini friendly.
Zucchini Crudo with Shaved Parmigiano & Mint Oil
Zucchini Orzo Pie
Zucchini Carpaccio
Balsamic Bathed Carrots Wrapped with Zucchini
An Asian Twist to Zucchini Ribbons

Now back to the main attraction. This is one of those dishes that you can literally being cooking, cutting, sautéing all at the same time.  A multitasking wonder. So I have written the instructions in a way to be most efficient. 

Ingredients

1.5 cups Israeli Couscous
1 large zucchini, cubed
1-2 small yellow squash, cubed
1 medium shallot, diced
1 pint grape tomatoes, oven roasted
4-5 whole garlic cloves
2-3 T basil, chiffonade
1 c olive Oil
1 t coarse salt
1/2 t pepper
*Note: You can alter the couscous to veg ratio if you like more of one.  Totally up to you.

Slice the squashes lengthwise first. Then strips, then cubes.

Slice the squashes lengthwise first. Then strips, then cubes.

 

Instructions

1. Roast the grape tomatoes in 1/2 c olive oil with whole cloves of garlic.  Refer to the oil roasted recipe in my post The  Great Tomato Caper.

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2.  While the tomatoes roast, cut the zucchini, yellow squash and shallots and sauté them separately in oil. Season with salt and pepper, adding half the shallots to each batch, once they are partially cooked.  You don't want to add the shallots first as they will burn.

Nice little cubes all the same size so you get a piece in every spoonful.

Nice little cubes all the same size so you get a piece in every spoonful.

Zucchini cubed up

Zucchini cubed up

3. While the squashes are sautéing, cook the Israeli Couscous as you would any type of pasta, in a large pot of salted boiling water.  Cook until al dente.  Drain and set aside in a serving bowl, drizzle with a little olive oil so it doesn't stick and let cool.

Gorgeous pearls of pasta

Gorgeous pearls of pasta

4.  Once the tomatoes are done, remove the garlic from their skins and mash them with a fork and course salt.  Add 1/4 c olive oil, pepper to taste and whisk together.

Grapes tomatoes oven roasted in luscious oil with roasted garlic.

Grapes tomatoes oven roasted in luscious oil with roasted garlic.

Sweet and tender garlic.

Sweet and tender garlic.

Smash to create a paste.

Smash to create a paste.

5. It is best to mix the roasted garlic oil into the couscous while it is still warm so the flavors absorb, but you can mix it at room temperature, too. Be sure to thoroughly incorporate.
6. Chiffonade the basil (cutting them in strips) and add to the couscous.
7. Then add some of the juices from the roasted tomatoes, the tomatoes and sautéed squashed. Gently mix until combined.  Serve room temperature.

A bowl of goodness that is pure pleasure to eat spoonful after spoonful.

A bowl of goodness that is pure pleasure to eat spoonful after spoonful.

This is one of those dishes that is both hearty but light at the same time.  The couscous is a pasta so it does do the job of satisfyingly fill you up, but the lightness of the veggies make it feel summertime fresh, especially served room temperature or even chilled.  

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I made this out of love.
Love of pasta.
Love for my Mom.
Love to share with others.

 

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Sardinian Style Spaghetti

Rich with flavors from the sea balanced with sweetness from the tomatoes paired with Spanish wine from Menica,  Petalos

Rich with flavors from the sea balanced with sweetness from the tomatoes paired with Spanish wine from Menica, Petalos

One Sunday morning after getting home super late from a wonderful night out with friends, we rolled out of bed at 10am. Indeed, we slept in uber late, waking up still sleepy and without much motivation for anything. But given that we hit our pillows at 3:30a, I feel you understand. We ain't no spring chickens anymore.

So after our morning coffee and a little work, starving pangs hit our stomachs and brains at the same time. JC was jonesing for pasta, and no big surprise, so was I. It was Sunday after all.  Our pasta day.  I do feel quite responsible, and delighted at the same time, as I take full credit for conditioning him to crave pasta on Sundays. The two just go together.

We truly had zilch in the house. Not even parsley, which is considered a constant round these parts. I do, however, try to keep some staples in the pantry for just these occasions.  Knowing we had anchovies, sardines, garlic, red pepper flakes, I suggested a Sardinian style pasta from our stash. When I yammer on about creating something from nothing, this is exactly it.  Scrounging around the pantry, and fridge to see what might be viable options.  It's moments like these that having quality pantry items can be your hunger pangs' salvation.

JC was up for the challenge and immediately ran to carry out our plan.  I must say, he executed this perfectly, creating a spicy, salty mix reminiscent of that sexy Italian island.

Now, there are tons of recipes for Sardinian style pasta.  Some incorporate raisins and spices and other combinations which are all fantastic. And I implore you to experiment with them. But when you want pasta fast, easy and without having much in the fridge, but still delivering bold flavors, then try this one.  It will knock your socks off.  Again, the key is the quality of the canned ingredients. The ones we used truly enhanced this dish to the max. Since I work at Despaña, I have access to some delicious products. (And you can too, the website here ships all across the country.) These tiny tins pack so much flavor that you barely need to add anything else.  I will say that both the Spanish and the Italians have a knack for producing some of the best jarred and canned products. 

JC and me in the Italian countryside. Montespertoli, Tuscany

JC and me in the Italian countryside. Montespertoli, Tuscany

So with Spain providing a healthy boost to create the sauce, and Italy providing the idea of combining them together for pasta, it was a lovely marriage that resembles the one between this Italian American gal and her spicy Spanish man.

 
These Spanish fishes are canned at peak freshness and are absolutely delicious.  Despaña carries them both in their stores and website.

These Spanish fishes are canned at peak freshness and are absolutely delicious.  Despaña carries them both in their stores and website.

Ingredients

 

1 - 4 oz. tin sardines in olive oil
1 - 4 oz. tin sardines in hot sauce
1 - 4 oz. tin Baby Surimi Eel
2-4 anchovies, optional
5 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
3/4 c roasted tomatoes
1 T capers, drained and wash in water
pinch red pepper flakes
pinch dried oregano
2/3 c olive oil
1/2 lb spaghetti

 

 

Instructions

Start by slowly heating up oil, red pepper flakes, oregano and garlic.    

Add the two tins of sardines with their liquids and eels, but draining the tin of baby eels first.

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Add the roasted tomatoes and let the sauce warm through.  That's all it takes.  You should not need to add salt to this dish, but always taste and season according to your taste bud.

This may look strange, but these roasted tomatoes keep in the fridge for weeks due to the amount of oil.  It keeps them cured as it congeals protecting them.  Use some of that oil in the sauce, too.  

This may look strange, but these roasted tomatoes keep in the fridge for weeks due to the amount of oil.  It keeps them cured as it congeals protecting them.  Use some of that oil in the sauce, too.  

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Spoon some of the sauce on the bottom of the bowl, swirl the spaghetti on top, then spoon more sauce and add grated cheese.

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Honestly, this couldn't be simpler. It's all about using a few good ingredients and warming them up so they can swim together.  Pour yourself a big glass of red wine. We choose a Mencia wine, Petalos from the Bierzo region of Spain. This was the perfect way to stave off the hunger pains and soothe our European souls.

Viva Italia, and ok Spain helped too.

 

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P.S. Happy birthday to my fellow Piscean friend, Dianne., who is loyal reader and supporter. And although she may not be a fan of sardines, it's still appropriate in honoring the glorious versatility of fish!