Lifestyle

Toasting the holidays with these savory bites

Mushroom tarts are another crowd-pleaser to try this holiday season when preparing menus for parties and family events. - Chad Coleman/Staff Photo
Mushroom tarts are another crowd-pleaser to try this holiday season when preparing menus for parties and family events.
— image credit: Chad Coleman/Staff Photo

The time of year has officially arrived when any hope of seriously watching what I eat will be put off until well after we ring in 2011. There’s no way I plan to pass on all the yummy holiday foods I love. It seems that the only way I can realistically avoid going up a couple of pant sizes by the end of this year is to eat small plates of everything I want. And let’s face it, everything is what most of us want to eat at holiday parties where the food is irresistibly tempting and generously abundant. One reason that I love open-house holiday parties is because appetizers aren’t just the opening act getting us ready for the main show — they are the main show.

Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, arrives very early this year and begins on Dec. 2 for eight days. A traditional dish to serve on this Jewish holiday is called latkes: potato pancakes, typically served with a side of apple sauce and sour cream. Like so many other traditional dishes, often handed down from generation to generation, there are a lot of different latke recipes floating around. But as all serious latke aficionados know, this is one dish where less is more; and one dish that the cook must adhere to certain protocol to honor the latke the way the latke deserves and is meant to be — crispy on the outside, tender on the inside. Breaking the rules here almost always guarantees a greasy, soggy, why-did-I-even-bother end product, where your family and friends will politely smile as they think to themselves, “Oy vey!” But no matter how the latkes turn out, everyone will still love you to pieces for even making the effort.

One great thing about this recipe is that these latkes are bite-sized, instead of being a whole plateful. To dress them up, I’ve topped them with a nontraditional layer of apple butter and a dollop of crème fraiche (a French sour cream, usually found in a special section of the grocery store). Hey, I’m in a party mood.

Potato Latkes

Yields approximately 21 (1½ inch in diameter)

Ingredients:

1 pound russet potato (I used one very large one)

½ medium-sized onion (about ½ cup minced)

½ teaspoon salt

1 egg

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

¾ cup peanut oil (for frying)

Apple butter or apple sauce (for garnish)

Crème fraiche or sour cream (for garnish)

Directions:

Forget everything else you might have learned about making latkes, unless it follows these same directions. First of all, we’re leaving the peeling and grating of the potatoes as our last step before frying. Begin by chopping the onion very small. I did mine in the food processor, but you can do it by hand; set aside. In a medium bowl, beat the egg with the flour and salt. Now you’re going to pick up speed and not waste any time letting the peeled, grated potatoes sit around. If you do, they’ll begin to turn color quickly and become an unappetizing brown color if left out for too long. So, keeping that in mind, wash, peel and cut the potatoes into small enough pieces to fit in the feeding tube of the food processor fitted with the medium shredding disc; or you can grate by hand using the course side of the grater.

Next, place the grated potatoes inside a piece of cheese cloth or a very thin dish towel. You’re now going to wring the water out of the potatoes (over a bowl) to catch all the liquid. Don’t allow the liquid to go down the drain. Keep twisting and twisting the cheese cloth as much as you can to release all the liquid, which is uber important because the drier the potatoes are, the crispier the latke. At this point, place a large sauté pan on medium high heat with about ¼ cup of the oil. (Peanut oil is the best for frying because it can take the high temperature without burning and smoking, as other oils do.) As the oil is heating, take the bowl with the drained potato liquid and carefully pour it into the sink until you’re left with just the potato starch that is resting on the bottom; add all of that white paste-like consistency in the bowl with the egg mixture and blend it in; then stir in the grated potatoes and onions, and mix well.

When the pan has been heating for about 1 ½ to 2 minutes, drop a small tablespoon of latke mixture in the hot oil, careful not to over-crowd, then flatten them down to about ½ inch. Remember to keep them small in size. You will be doing a few batches. Cook for about 3 to 5 minutes or so on each side, until they’re crispy brown. If they seem to be browning too quickly, reduce the heat to medium. When each batch is done, place on a cooling rack resting inside of a rimmed baking sheet and place in a warm oven. I left mine in for hours and they stayed crispy this way. I don’t advise draining and resting them on paper towels, which can make them go soft and lose their crispiness – heaven forbid. When ready to serve, top with a layer of apple butter (or apple sauce) and a dollop of crème fraiche (or sour cream). I don’t advice storing these in the refrigerator and reheating. They’re never the same that way and this is about honoring the integrity of the crispy latke.

There is so much stress around getting everything done this time of year that’s it’s a blessing to have something homemade and scrumptious you can just take out of the freezer and pop in the oven. Here’s one of those sophisticated time-saving recipes by Carolyn Thacker that’s truly delicious. These bite size tarts makes an impressive appetizer to serve your Christmas guests or bring to a friend’s party. It was given to me about 20 years ago by Shelley Hill-Grant, a fabulous cook and hostess extraordinaire. The only thing I changed about this recipe was switching out the green onion with shallot. Another time saving way to make this dish, besides freezing it, is to prepare the oh-so-easy tart dough and line your tart pan ahead of time, then store in the refrigerator for a couple days before filling and baking, which is what I did.

Mushroom Tarts

24 mini tarts

Ingredients for tart shells:

1 3-ounce package of cream cheese (softened)

½ cup unsalted butter (softened)

1 cup all-purpose flour

¼ teaspoon salt

Directions for tart shells:

Blend the cream cheese and butter well in either a food processor or by hand. Add the flour and salt, and mix well. Shape the dough in a flat disc shape and chill for abaout an hour. Divide the dough into 24 individual balls. Press each ball into a mini tart pan. You can use the back of a little demitasse spoon to deepen the center and press on the sides. Cover and return to the refrigerator until ready to fill. They can store like this for up to 2 days.

Ingredients for mushroom filling:

1 pound fresh mushrooms (finely chopped)

½ cup fresh Italian parsley (finely chopped)

1 whole shallot (finely chopped)

¼ teaspoon salt

Fresh ground pepper to taste

1½ teaspoon dried marjoram leaves

1½ tablespoons butter

1½ tablespoons olive oil

½ cup bread crumbs (I used Panko)

½ cup freshly grated parmesan or romano cheese

Directions for mushroom filling:

If you plan to bake now and not freeze, preheat the oven to 350 degrees with the rack placed in the middle.

Rinse the mushroom and pat dry. Remove the very bottom of each mushroom stem. Finely chop in the food processor or by hand. Transfer to a medium-sized bowl. The food processor also works well to chop the parsley and the shallot. Mix together the mushrooms, parsley, shallot, marjoram, salt and pepper. Melt the butter in a large sauté pan on medium-high heat with the oil. Add the mushroom mixture and cook for about 7-10 minutes, stirring often, until all the liquid from the mushrooms has evaporated.

Transfer back to a medium bowl, add the grated cheese and bread crumbs, and mix well.

Fill the tart shells. They may be frozen at this point by first covering with plastic wrap and then with foil. If you freeze them, defrost at room temperature for an hour before baking. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes. Cool in tart pans for 10 minutes before removing.

Note: I had about ¼ cup of mushroom mixture left over that I added to some ground turkey meat. You can also serve the mushroom mixture as a topping for crostini and forget the tart shell part or baking, or bake the filling inside phillo dough cups, found in the frozen section of the grocery store.

Right after Christmas, the holidays continue with Kwanzaa, beginning on Dec. 26 for seven days. This year-end harvest festival honors African heritage and culture. In celebration of Kwanzaa, I found a scrumptious African meatball recipe from Melissa d’Arabian, which has the most delicious blending of ingredients and spices that complements beautifully without being spicy or having too much heat — just wonderful, interesting flavor. The sauce is too crazy good to miss one drop of, so I chose to serve it on a slice of fresh French baguette. If you don’t eat red meat, I’m sure this recipe will still be just as delicious with ground chicken.

North African Meatballs

Yields 20 bite-sized balls

Ingredients for the sauce:

½ onion, medium size (diced)

2 large garlic cloves (chopped)

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 lemon, just the zest of it

½ cup briny olives (pitted and chopped)

½ cup white wine

¼ chicken stock or broth

1 14½-ounce can crushed or diced tomatoes

2 tablespoons tomato paste (this was my own addition)

1 teaspoon light brown sugar

½ teaspoon dried red pepper flakes (add more if you like a little more heat)

A pinch of cinnamon (I added another pinch)

½ teaspoon salt

Freshly ground pepper to taste

Ingredients for the meatballs:

¾ pound ground beef

1 egg

2 tablespoons tomato paste

3 tablespoons fresh cilantro leaves (chopped)

1 tablespoon fresh ginger (grated)

1 teaspoon ground cumin

A pinch of ground cinnamon (I added another pinch)

1/3 cup bread crumbs or ground oats

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon ground pepper

3-4 tablespoons olive oil for cooking

French baguette slices for serving (not toasted)

Directions for sauce:

In a large sauce pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat and sauté the onion and garlic until softened, but not browned, about 3 minutes. Add the lemon zest and olives, and cook for another minute. Add the white wine, deglaze the pan, and let it reduce for about another minute or two. Stir in the stock, canned tomatoes, sugar, red pepper flakes and cinnamon; reduce the heat to simmer and allow the flavors to blend for about 7 minutes.

Turn off heat and adjust seasoning to taste.

Directions for meatballs:

In a medium bowl, add the egg and tomato paste and whisk together until blended well. Add the cilantro, ginger, cumin and cinnamon, mix altogether; add the ground beef and bread crumbs. Combine well without over-mixing.

In a large sauté pan, heat the oil over medium heat. While the oil is heating, shape 20 bite-sized balls and heat in batches until golden brown on all sides. Add more oil, as needed. At this point, reheat the sauce, reduce to a simmer. Carefully transfer the meatballs to the pan with the sauce; simmer for 20 more minutes.

When ready to serve, place a little sauce on top of a freshly sliced baguette, then a meatball. I cooked this dish a day ahead, which you can probably do even 2 to 3 days in advance. I placed the cooked meatballs and sauce in a small baking dish, covered it and stored it in the refrigerator, then reheated it in a 350-degree oven for about 20 minutes or so.

Enjoy! Happy, healthy, delicious holidays.

Cynthia Shifrin can be reached at cyns0117@aol.com or (206) 232-3722.

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