Let's Get This Party Started

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cheesePlatter.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

Holiday meals are the stuff that memories are made of.  Ritualistic dishes, predictable (and often dreaded) guest lists, a stressed out hostess, and the inevitable family drama combine for pure holiday magic. Whether you are just beginning to establish some edible traditions, or seeking desperately to add a new twist to the rote and routine, punchy autumn appetizers offer a fun and memorable way to jump start the party.

Hors d'oeuvres don't have to be elaborate or fussy. You can build any number of fabulous little taste explosions using a few key ingredients and some creative flavor combinations. 

Here are my tips for appetizer success:

(1.) Quality Crackers (or Toasts)
The best appetizers are bite sized, easy to pick up, and require no utensils.  This is why you will almost always find crostini and canapés at a cocktail party...and also why those go very quickly.  Sliced toasted baguettes, or other miniature toast-like items make the best base for such things.  Find a good pre-made brand, or make your own--just slice bread and toast until completely crunchy throughout.  Adding a bit of olive oil and salt makes them even tastier.  Good crackers are also essential for any party that offers cheese and dips, because they can sit out for hours without getting stale.  It's well worth a bit of experimentation to find the best, as these are the building blocks for your creations.

(2.) Cured Pork Products
Sorry, vegetarians--just skip ahead.  Bacon, prosciutto, pancetta, and sausage pack a wallop of flavor and seasoning into everything they touch.  Wrapping anything soft, sweet, and juicy in prosciutto takes it to another world.  Try spreading a bit of rosemary mustard on the prosciutto and swaddling roasted squares of sweet potato in meaty, mustardy delight.  Or throw a couple of tablespoons of sugar onto your  bacon as it cooks to caramelize a bit, and find yourself with an addictive, alluring garnish for autumn root vegetables.

(3.) Perfect Purees
It's fall.  Try making purees of the season's colorful best: butternut squash, mushrooms, sweet potatoes, white beans... generally all you have to do to rock the house is cook the main ingredient simply (roasting is best for squashes, sautéing for mushrooms), puree and season it properly, and add some sort of secret ingredient like crème fraîche, browned butter, fresh herbs, or truffle oil.  These thick, flavorful concoctions can be spreads for your crostini, mini-sandwich fillings, pretty garnishes for something else... or even main meal side dishes if that's more your style.

salmon-and-mushroom-crostini.jpg(4.) Crème Fraîche
You can not find a more versatile, user-friendly party ingredient than this.  Tastes like butter, tastes like cream, but unlike either of those, crème fraîche keeps its luscious, decadent texture at all temperatures.  Add a few tablespoons to your pureed veggie spreads, or use as the spread itself--nothing beats a crème fraîche crostini topped with smoked salmon and caviar.  You can also flavor it by adding chopped herbs, grated lemon zest, or pumpkin pie spice to create a special garnish for other appetizers.  But plain white looks and tastes great too.

(5.) Fun Colors
The holidays are supposed to be festive, so turn up the color! Dark brown pumpernickel crackers look sexy and sophisticated, but bright orange fuyu persimmon slices make great bases for canapés, too. Try topping them with fresh thyme leaves and a slice of pungent sheeps' milk cheese. Dress up boring old baked brie with dried red cranberries soaked in cognac and roasted almonds.  Garnishing other items with red berries, pomegranate or pumpkin seeds, fresh green herbs, and zingy white cheeses amps up both the flavor and the visual appeal.  You don't have to get fancy, though... coarsely ground black peppercorns can transform crackers with cherry preserves and cubed generic gouda into edible and sophisticated high drama. 

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