Saturday, June 15, 2024

‘Tis the season to gather with friends, family — and good food!

It’s only in the last few years I’ve begun to really appreciate appetizers as more than just filler before the main meal. They have an identity and a purpose all their own that can be just as important — and impressive — as what’s coming next.

Appetizers are also an integral part of the successful Happy Hour, no matter what you’re drinking. They can be a delightful conversation starter and serve to brighten and lighten the atmosphere as guests arrive, are introduced and settle in.

They deserve to be more than store-bought snacks out of a bag or package, yet not so complicated that you can’t (or won’t) deal with making them. And like traditional dinners for special occasions, certain “appies” are classic favorites too.

The best appetizers are deliciously memorable, either because they’re so different or unusual or because they’re something classic done perfectly (or updated just as perfectly). The Creamy Onion Dip below is a good example; we all know and love it, but when the onions are oh-so-slowly caramelized, and Greek yogurt is added for a bit of tang, this traditional dip becomes even better.

If you’re bringing something to a gathering, make it easy to eat (not too messy!) and just as easy to transport and serve. If your appetizer needs something specific to serve or eat it properly, bring that along too. (Case in point: toothpicks.)

Bacon-wrapped dates? Yes, please!

And do tell your host what you’re making so he or she can plan the rest of the menu accordingly. Extra points if it can be eaten with one hand and is something small that partygoers can finish in a few bites.

Crunchy Spiced Chickpeas

 Be sure to dry them out for an hour before cooking, which adds to their crunchiness.

  • 2 cups cooked chickpeas, rinsed if canned
  • 1 scant Tbsp. olive or coconut oil
  • 2 Tbsp. smoked paprika, harissa, za’atar, ground cumin or coriander
  • ½ tsp. salt

Rinse chickpeas well; spread out on a paper or cloth towel. Pat dry, then let dry for about an hour. Heat oven to 400 F.

In a rimmed cookie sheet, spread chickpeas evenly. Bake in center rack of oven until crunchy, about 30 minutes, stirring and rotating every 10 minutes. (Chickpeas will continue to get crunchy as they cool.)

Place hot chickpeas in a shallow bowl, drizzle with oil, spices and salt, and toss. Serve warm or cooled. Let cool completely before storing.

Fabulous Creamy Onion Dip

 Caramelizing the onions slowly yields a depth of flavor that a packaged mix can’t begin to compare to!

  • 1½ Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 medium yellow onions, thinly sliced
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 1 cup full-fat Greek yogurt or sour cream
  • 2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
  • 1 clove garlic, finely grated
  • Olive oil for drizzling
  • Optional: 2 shallots, thinly sliced, ¼ cup finely chopped chives

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onions and shallots, if using; season with salt and pepper. Cook 15–20 minutes, stirring occasionally until onions soften and begin turning golden brown.

Reduce heat to low; continue cooking, stirring often so onions don’t stick, another 45–50 minutes until onions are a deep golden brown and reduced by about half their original size. (Resist the urge to turn up the heat to make them caramelize faster!) Transfer onions to cutting board and finely chop. Place in a large bowl with sour cream, yogurt, lemon juice and garlic. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer to serving bowl. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with chives.

creamy onion dip
The secret to this delicious dip: caramelized onions.

Cheese Pennies

Delicious and addictive … you’ve been warned!

  • 2 cups grated sharp, aged cheddar cheese
  • 8 Tbsp. unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1½ cups flour
  • ¾ tsp. salt
  • ½ tsp. dry mustard
  • 2 Tbsp. cayenne pepper or paprika

Using a mixer or food processor, combine all ingredients (except cayenne/paprika) to make a cohesive dough, sprinkling in a tablespoon or so of water if it doesn’t come together. Gather dough into a rough ball and transfer to a lightly floured work surface. Roll into a 16-inch log, about 1½-inches in diameter. Wrap in plastic wrap; chill in the freezer for 30 minutes.

Using a serrated knife, slice the log crosswise into 1/8-inch rounds. Place on ungreased or parchment-lined baking sheet, leaving about a half-inch between them. Sprinkle with paprika/cayenne.

Bake in 400 F oven for 11–13 minutes until beginning to brown. Remove from oven; cool on pan for several minutes before transferring to racks to cool completely.

Bacon-Wrapped Dates Stuffed with Goat Cheese

An easy alternative is to just stuff dates with goat cheese and serve them raw. This recipe takes it up a notch. Vegetarians—omit the bacon.

  • 8 slices bacon, thinly sliced
  • 16 medium Medjool dates, pitted
  • 4 oz. goat cheese
  • Wood toothpicks

Preheat oven to 350 F. Slice dates lengthwise on one side to create an opening. Remove pit. Using a spoon, stuff a little goat cheese into the cavity of each date; press sides together to close.

Cut bacon slices in half. Wrap each date with a slice of bacon; secure with a toothpick. Arrange dates evenly on a foil-covered, rimmed cookie sheet. Bake 10 minutes.

Remove from oven and use toothpick to turn each one to lay on one side. Bake another 5–8 minutes until a little browned, then turn the dates to the other side and cook 5–8 minutes more. Remove from oven and transfer to a paper towel-lined plate. Cool 5 minutes before serving.

Janet Blaser is the author of the best-selling book, Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expatsfeatured on CNBC and MarketWatch. She has lived in Mexico since 2006. You can find her on Facebook.

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