Christmas is still more than a week away, and holiday parties already are making demands on cooks’ precious time.
My co-worker reminded me today of our newsroom Christmas party and asked if I was bringing a dish to share!? Like most self-respecting cooks, I can barely squeeze the everyday grocery shopping in with the Christmas shopping. What to do, short of throwing some chips and dip on the buffet and calling it good?
There are a few credible ways of coping. I referenced columnist Jan Roberts-Dominguez’ take on stress-free appetizers in a post last week. This week, one of the news services moved a welcome story on holiday “bites,” which are easy on the hosts’ kitchen schedule and guests’ party clothes.
“You pop it in your mouth and it’s done,” Chicago caterer Elaina Vazquez told the Chicago Tribune. “The day of the party, we reheat until they’re just warm — you want guests to be able to pick them up.”
Vazquez explains that guests appreciate smaller hors d’oeuvres over four- or five-bite appetizers. Maybe this is the trick to supplying a party spread that people actually will eat after a New Year’s Eve meal. Several years ago, I couldn’t comprehend that my lavish New Year’s spread went untouched. I was just as surprised last night when a friend planning this year’s event ventured that appetizers “never work” on New Year’s.
Why the heck not? No matter how much I’ve eaten, a couple hours later I can always find pleasure in a few beautifully presented appetizers. Are people really that concerned about the season’s cumulative calories that they couldn’t possibly take one more quick trip through the buffet? Then better skip alcohol, too.
On the other hand, I’ve theorized some people want to experience alcohol to maximum effect, without anything in their stomachs. Then again, maybe they just don’t want to juggle a beverage and an appetizer plate while socializing. “Bites,” apparently are the answer.
I was overjoyed to see Vazquezes’ simple, frugal recommendations: bacon-wrapped dates and polenta. I’ve proposed bacon-wrapped dates for several years to the disdain of my husband. Polenta crostini, too. Come to find out, polenta invariably is a crowd-pleaser, says Vazquez.
Try the following recipes for your next holiday event. Each only requires about 15 minutes hands-on time and could be prepared the day before and finished off a few minutes before serving.
Bacon-Wrapped Dates With Chorizo and Red-Pepper Sauce
12 dates, pits removed
6 ounces Mexican chorizo, removed from casing
6 slices bacon, cut in half horizontally
1 teaspoon sweet Spanish paprika
1 (7-ounce) jar roasted red peppers, drained of liquid and diced
1⁄4 cup tomato sauce
Heat oven to 350 F. Stuff each of the dates with about 1⁄2 teaspoon of the chorizo. Wrap each with 1⁄2 strip of the bacon. Arrange dates on a baking sheet and bake in preheated oven until bacon is crispy, about 22 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat a skillet over medium heat and add the paprika. Cook just until fragrant, 30 seconds. Add the peppers and tomato sauce; cook, stirring occasionally, 5 minutes. Transfer to a food processor or blender; pulse until almost smooth. Keep sauce warm before serving.
Remove dates from oven and dab with paper towels. Pour warm sauce on a platter and top with dates. Have wooden picks handy for guests to spear dates.
Makes 1 dozen, about 4 servings.
Polenta Cakes With Tomato Jam and Goat Cheese
1 pint (2 cups) whipping cream
1⁄4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 cups instant polenta
2 tablespoons plus 1⁄4 teaspoon coarse salt, divided
1 (12-ounce) can diced tomatoes in sauce
1 teaspoon tomato paste
1⁄4 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 ounces goat cheese, crumbled
Heat 5 cups water with the cream to a simmer in a large, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the Parmesan and the 2 tablespoons salt. Whisk in the polenta in a steady stream, until thick and smooth, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a greased, 12-by-17-inch, rimmed baking pan. Cover polenta with parchment paper and refrigerate until firm, about 6 hours.
In a saucepan over medium heat, bring the diced tomatoes in sauce to a simmer. Add the tomato paste and cook 5 minutes. Add the sugar and 1⁄4 teaspoon salt. Transfer to a food processor or blender and pulse until slightly chunky. Keep warm.
Cut 1 1⁄2-inch shapes out of polenta (squares, circles, diamonds). Heat the olive oil in a medium skillet and add polenta shapes in batches. Cook until golden-brown on both sides, about 16 minutes. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate. Dab with more paper towels.
Place polenta on a serving platter; top each with a little tomato jam and some of the goat cheese. Serve warm. You could make polenta cakes a day ahead, including frying. When ready to serve, top with tomato sauce and goat cheese and heat in oven.
Makes about 80 cakes, 20 servings.