November 23, 2008

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By Frances Largeman-Roth, RD
With so much focus on the big holiday dinner, it's easy to forget about something else that's equally important—appetizers. When guests show up, sometimes hours before the main event, you'll need something on hand to keep them satisfied.

It's easy to throw premade dip and a bag of baby carrots on the coffee table, but it's not very memorable. And chips and tons of cheese aren't exactly diet-friendly. So this year I turned to a bunch of friends (who also happen to be dietitians) and nabbed some of their creative and low-cal ideas for getting the party started.

My friend Holley, a fellow food editor, is a hummus fanatic. She helped develop this recipe called Our Favorite Hummus. It doesn't call for tahini, a paste made from ground sesame seeds, which means you can whip it up with ingredients around the kitchen. Holley likes to serve it with sliced English cucumbers, baby carrots, and pita chips (such as Stacy's). You can make the hummus up to two days ahead of time, and it'll keep well in the fridge. Bring it to room temperature about 20 minutes before serving, and stir well to bring back the creamy consistency.

Holley's new favorite appetizer is Feta Cheese Truffles, a fun and inexpensive way to serve a cheese plate. If you substitute Neufchâtel for regular cream cheese, you can cut one-third of the fat. Roll the cheese truffles in herbs, nuts, or crumbled bacon.

Warm up for your meal with these Mediterranean–inspired bites from my friend Kate who lives in Utah. Here are her top picks.

  • Olives warmed with fennel seeds and orange zest. You can use any plain olives for this. Once you've mixed the ingredients together, warm in the oven at 250º. Try this recipe.

  • White bean or chickpea puree with a swirl of your favorite herbed or garlic olive oil. Kate recommends using dried beans, but a good quality canned bean will be tasty, too. If you need more inspiration, try this bean dip.

  • Endive filled with crab salad, avocado mash, or hummus. Endive leaves always look elegant on a tray. You can go super-easy if you fill them with hummus and dust with a sprinkle of paprika. Or get fancy with this crab salad.

  • Mushrooms stuffed with whole-grain couscous, sun-dried tomatoes, walnuts, and chopped herbs. Preheat your oven to 450º. Cook the couscous and toss it with chopped sun-dried tomatoes, chopped walnuts, and herbs of your choice. Fill the mushrooms with the couscous mixture, place on baking sheets, and bake for about 15 minutes. You can sprinkle with a little grated Parmesan before serving.

Next: For those tough food critics...

Impress those jaded food lovers in your group with muhammara, a Syrian roasted-pepper-and-walnut spread, from one of my favorite foodie friends, Allison. If you don't want (or can't find the time) to roast your own bell peppers, use a jar of roasted red peppers—just drain it first. You can make this a day in advance and bring to room temperature minutes before. It's fabulous served with Allison's homemade pita chips (below).

Muhammara
Recipe from Chef Peter Hoffman, Savoy

4 large red bell peppers
1 1/2 cups walnuts, toasted
1 small hot chili pepper, seeds removed
1/2 cup bread crumbs
2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
1 tablespoon plus 1 1/2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon toasted and ground cumin
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar

Over an open flame, or beneath a broiler, char the peppers on all sides. Place them in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let them steam until cool. When cool, remove skin and seeds. Set aside. In a food processor, grind the walnuts, chili pepper, bread crumbs, molasses, lemon juice, and cumin. Process until mixed. Add the roasted red peppers and process again until smooth. Season with the salt, sugar, and additional lemon juice (if desired) to taste.

Pita Chips
6 large pita rounds
Olive oil
Paprika
Kosher salt

Preheat oven to 350º.  Line a large, rimmed baking sheet with parchment. Cut pita rounds in half and then slice into small triangles. Place triangles on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Brush lightly with olive oil and dust with paprika and salt. Toast pita rounds in the oven until crisp, about 10 minutes.

What about me? What do I serve to my guests? I must admit I like a pretty cheese platter with an assortment of soft, hard, stinky, and not-so-stinky cheeses, served with some nice crackers and fig jam. I also fill a large bowl with washed green and red grapes. And you can't go wrong with a dish of olives (make sure to put out a small bowl or plate for the pits!), and salted nuts. Try my recipe for Honey-Glazed Marcona Almonds.

But the perfect thing to serve guests is a big warm hug paired with a cold beer or a nice glass of sparkling wine. This year I think we're all just thankful to be surrounded by the people we love.

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