Sunday, May 29, 2011

Appetizers for Dinner: Better Living Through Small Bites

I'm a great date, really. Take me out to a restaurant, any restaurant, and I'll regale you with sparkling, witty conversation, periodically punctuated with thoughtful, good-listener pauses. I know how to use a napkin, and I'm reasonably confident which fork is which. Really. I'm a great date.

What I am also, though, is a terrible orderer. I linger over menus, frozen with indecision, as unsure over which entree to select as though it were a life-and-death decision. Too small in stature for most multi-course meals (the phrase I often heard in childhood was 'eyes bigger than your stomach,' which sadly couldn't be more true. Huge eyes, teeny stomach. Unless you've got six hours to spend with me, the nine-course tasting menu is out), the choice does become kind of crucial. It can make or break an evening! Most often I end up liking what's on my plate, but loving whatever it is that my husband's ordered, and thus spending most of the night conducting sneaky, behind-enemy-lines raids on his plate with a dive-bombing fork. Which is fine until your dining partner finally catches on and begins defending himself with his steak knife, as mine will inevitably do.

The better option is to go for what I really want, which is many, many tiny bites of a variety of good things. You know. The tapas bar, the dim sum joint, even the humble office potluck--I love them all. I could, and have in fact been known to, make an entire meal out of appetizers when dining out. At home when we can't think of anything inventive to throw on the dinner table (which happens with disturbing frequency considering we're a foodie household, but hey, we're also employed full time.......and, y'know, human), we turn to two meals we call 'Bruschetta' (stuff on garlic-rubbed toasts) and 'Veggie Tapas' (sometimes this actually includes meats, but more often it's things like crispy paprika chickpeas, chilled cucumber salad, whole steamed artichokes, or Mike's Turkish roasted peppers with garlic yogurt dipping sauce). But occasionally, we raise the bar on 'Appetizer Evenings' to include some more ambitious small bites. Here's a roundup of some recent standouts.

All-phyllo extravaganza: Crispy 'Cigars' of Spinach & Feta, Caramelized Onions & Feta, and Black Forest Ham-Wrapped Asparagus Spears. Also, Phyllo 'Purses' of Mushroom Duxelles with Drunken Goat Cheese.

Crispy 'Cigars' of Spinach & Feta

Phyllo sheets
olive oil
2 cups of baby spinach, chopped
1/2 cup feta
1 tsp. minced garlic

Thaw phyllo according to package instructions. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. To make filling: saute spinach in a small amount of olive oil until spinach is soft and most of the moisture has evaporated. Add minced garlic and a squeeze of lemon juice, saute for 30 seconds, then remove pan from heat. Add feta, stir until throughly mixed. Set aside to cool.

Cut sheets of phyllo into 1/4 sheets. Take 1/4 sheet and brush one side with olive oil. Place about a tablespoon of cooled filling at one end, squoosh with fingers into a long line of filling. Roll phyllo sheet into cigar shape, brush outside with olive oil, place on baking sheet. Repeat until filling is gone. Bake for about 15-20 minutes, or until outside is golden brown and crispy. Makes about 8 'cigars.'

Crispy 'Cigars' of Black Forest Ham-Wrapped Asparagus Spears

Phyllo sheets
olive oil
8 asparagus spears
4 slices of Black Forest (or other) ham

Follow instructions above regarding thawing & preheating. Wash & trim asparagus spears, then saute in a small amount of olive oil until about halfway cooked (this gives wonderful flavor but helps to eliminate overcooking), they should still be very crunchy but slightly browned on the outside. Let cool.

Cut sheets of phyllo into 1/4 sheets. Take 1/4 sheet and brush one side with olive oil. Cut slices of thin, deli-sliced Black Forest ham (prosciutto would also be good here, you know, if you're fancy) in half. Roll one asparagus spear in one half-slice of ham, then place on phyllo sheet and roll into cigar shape, brush outside with olive oil, place on baking sheet. Repeat until filling is gone. Bake for about 15-20 minutes, or until outside is golden brown and crispy. Makes 8 'cigars.'

Phyllo 'Purses' of Mushroom Duxelles with Drunken Goat Cheese

Phyllo sheets
olive oil
1 cup finely diced mushrooms (plain white button or crimini mushrooms work well)
3 T. grated cheese (I had a leftover chunk of my favorite 'Drunken Goat' cheese, so that's what I used. Heaven.)
1 tsp. fresh thyme leaves, chopped a little
1 tsp. cornstarch, mixed with 1 tsp. water
2 chives or scallion greens, for presentation (not necessary, but cute)

Follow instructions above regarding thawing & preheating. Saute in butter until soft and lightly browned. Add cornstarch mixture, continue cooking & stirring for about 60 seconds longer, then remove from heat. Add fresh thyme & grated goat cheese, stir to mix throughly. Let cool.

Cut sheets of phyllo into 1/4 sheets. Take 3 of the 1/4 sheets and layer evenly, brushing one side with olive oil in between layers. Divide filling in half, shape into a ball, and place in the middle of phyllo stack. Bring edges up around filling and twist slightly to form 'purse' shape. Brush outside all over lightly with olive oil. Repeat with other half of filling. Bake for about 15-20 minutes, or until outside is golden brown and crispy. Let the outside cool slightly, then loosely tie chives or scallion greens in a single knot. Makes 2 'purses.'

Coconut Shrimp 'Lollipops' with Dipping Sauce

1 lb. shrimp (you should have about 20)
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. sugar
fresh ground pepper
pinch of flour (about 1 T.)
2 eggs, beaten
1 T. soy sauce
Sriracha sauce
1 T. honey
1 cup shredded, unsweetened coconut
vegetable oil
bamboo skewers (one per shrimp)

Peel & devein shrimp if necessary, set aside in large bowl. Mix together salt, sugar, pepper and flour, then sprinkle over shrimp and toss to coat evenly. Mix together beaten eggs, soy sauce, honey, and sriracha (to your preferred level of spiciness--this is highly personal. I used about 1/2 tsp.). Curl each shrimp into a tight 'C' shape, then insert skewer through to form 'lollipops.' Dip each skewered shrimp in egg mixture, then in shredded coconut, pressing on coconut with your fingers or a fork to make sure it sticks.

Heat about 2" of oil in a deep skillet over medium high heat. Once oil is hot enough (test with shreds of coconut) place lollipops in oil (skewers will rest on the side of the pan. Be very careful of these if you're cooking over open flame! I use an electric burner stove), a few at a time. Cook until golden brown on either side, flipping once during cooking. Allow to drain on paper towels as you cook the rest in batches. Lollipops can be kept warm in a low oven if necessary, but are at their crispy-outside, tender-inside best when eaten immediately after cooking. Make & serve immediately if you can!

Serve with dipping sauce of choice--something sweet & sticky is preferable. Storebought Asian sweet chili sauce is perfect for this; plum sauce, hoisin, or apricot jam with a glug of sriracha mixed in would also be splendid. Sauce pictured above is a homemade concoction of soy sauce, honey & spicy mustard which was also amazing but for which I took no recipe notes whatsoever. Experiment away!

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