While appetizer, main course and dessert is the usual and expected pathway for a dinner party, I love making a few appetizers and adding a couple of cheeses (and somehow wine always appears), and suddenly you have a more interesting evening for your taste buds and your friends.
The usual explanation for appetizers is to “excite the palate” and “stimulate your appetite,” but how many people show up for dinner and then have to be coaxed into eating by first eating something else? Sometimes it’s just a speed bump to keep guests busy, buying time so the host can pull together the rest of the meal.
I’m suggesting a few small items, all made in advance, so you can smoothly offer one or two dishes and then bring out a couple more that not only excite the palate but satisfy it, too.
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From Kathy Alex, "Cooking with Friends in France" cooking school
When my wife and I took a cooking class years ago at La Pitchoune, Julia Child's former retreat in the hills of Provence, this was one of the first and easiest items we learned to make. It combines items grown or gathered nearby and turns them into a spread. The key, besides having good ingredients, is anchovy fillets. This adds the bit of umami savoriness that pushes it beyond just being an olive dip.
1 pound Niçoise olives, pitted
2 anchovy fillets
1 clove garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons capers, drained
3 tablespoons olive oil
Black pepper to taste
Water crackers or crostini (slices of toasted French bread) for serving
Place olives, anchovies, garlic and capers in food processor and process until pureed. Slowly add the olive oil while the processor is running. You may need a little more oil but add slowly. Taste and add pepper and pinch of salt, if necessary. Serve in a crock, surrounded by crackers/crostini or make them individually ahead of time.
Piquillo Peppers Stuffed with Cheese
I love a lot of the foods of Spain but nothing tops piquillo peppers. If you have a jar of these in the cupboard, you have an instant Spanish tapa if unexpected guests stop by.
The peppers come from the village of Lodosa in the Navarra region of northern Spain. Named after its distinctive shape, piquillo means “little beak” in Spanish. These bright red peppers are handpicked in the fall, fire-roasted and peeled.
You can go fancy and make a quick sauce for the plate by running a couple of peppers in the food processor with a dash of sherry vinegar, but all you need is a thin slice of cheese that melts easily and piquillo peppers. Then bake them for a few minutes and you have a tasty hot tapa.
Once you try this you can replace the cheese with chopped tuna, precooked risotto, leftover cooked beef that’s been chopped up — just about anything tastes better warmed up in a piquillo pepper.
10 oz. Fontina cheese (yes, I know everyone else uses Manchego cheese to maintain the Spanish theme, but Fontina melts much quicker and easier. You can also shred the cheese and add Manchego to add a different flavor)
4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh chives (plus more for garnish)
4 tablespoons fresh finely chopped basil (plus more for garnish)
12 oz. roasted piquillo peppers from a jar (about 24 peppers), drained
3 1/2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground pepper
Equipment: One sheet pan covered with parchment paper
Preheat oven to 325°F. Shred the Fontina cheese into a small bowl and add chives and basil. Use a teaspoon to deliver a heap of the cheese mixture inside each pepper.
Slide into the oven for about 10 minutes but start checking at 5 minutes to see if the mixture has melted.
In the meantime, make a vinaigrette by slowly whisking the olive oil into the vinegar. When combined, add a good dash of salt and a couple of grinds of pepper.
When the peppers are hot and cheese mixture is oozing out, place on serving plate and drizzle the vinaigrette over the top. Finish with more finely chopped chives and basil spread over the red pepper. Serve warm with bread or crackers.
Serves 4 as a dip with other items
To make a good baba ghanoush, you must roast the eggplant over an open flame. I hold it is self-evident that that’s what outdoor gas grills are made for. If you have a gas burner on your stove, you can roast it there but, from personal experience, just know it will make a mess.
Lebanon claims the dish originated there but you see variations throughout the Middle East. It is a typical meze (starter) of the region, often served as a side to a main meal and as a dip for pita bread.
1 large eggplant
2 to 4 garlic cloves (depending on your love of garlic), chopped
5 tablespoons tahini (a smooth paste made from sesame seeds)
Juice of one lemon
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
Place the eggplant directly on the grill of a gas grill or on the coals of a barbecue. Turn the eggplant often to evenly char the skin. Continue until the eggplant looks black on the outside and deflated.
Place the eggplant in a bowl and cover. Let cool until you can easily work with it. The skin will be black and flake off. Remove it but keep the flesh, which will be smoky. Save the eggplant juices collected in the bowl.
Add the flesh to a food processor and run until smooth. Add the juice in the bottom of the bowl, garlic and tahini, running until smooth.
As the machine runs add the juice of the lemon. If the mixture remains too thick, add water a tablespoon at a time. Finish with a sprinkle of salt and the cumin.
Muhammara Dip in Endive Leaves
Serves 8 with other dishes
Pomegranate molasses, which is available at Hudson Green and Goods in the Oxbow Public Market and Juju's Mediterranean Kitchen, 3375 Old California Way in Napa, but is also easily found on the internet, adds a unique touch of sweetness and sourness.
Clearly from the Middle East, this dip goes a step beyond hummus by combining walnuts and red peppers. Some recipes have less red pepper and more walnut but I like this mix; trouble is, I have this recipe that I appear to have cut and pasted from the internet years ago (before I was more careful of marking the author), but no mention of who wrote it or what book. I searched for it online and found a hundred variations but nothing matched completely. So, I apologize if you are the author of this great dip.
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
½ cup chopped walnuts, toasted and let cool
1 7-ounce jar roasted red peppers (not Piquillo peppers) in oil, drained and blotted dry
¼ cup panko bread crumbs
¼ teaspoon dried Aleppo chili (available at Whole Spice in the Oxbow Public Market)
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 medium heads Belgian endive (you can omit it if you are serving it as a dip, but it does look striking this way)
½ cup pitted Kalamata olives, sliced
Add the garlic to the walnuts in a food processor and run until ground. Add the red peppers, breadcrumbs, pepper flakes, lemon juice, molasses and cumin. Process until smooth. With the motor running, pour olive oil through the feed tube and process until smooth and creamy. If made ahead, cover and refrigerate, then bring to room temperature before serving.
To serve: cut the bottom off each endive, separate the leaves, rinse and pat dry. Trim 16 leaves to make them 2 to 2 ½ inches long. Spoon some dip onto each leaf. There probably will be some dip left over. Garnish with the olives.
Gorgonzola Dolce Crostini with Grapes and Walnuts
Makes 30 crostini
Adapted from a recipe by Chef David Katz
This is a dessert crostini (thin slices of toasted bread, covered with a topping, a specialty of Tuscany). I learned this recipe years ago in a class at Napa Valle College’s Upper Valley Campus called “Antipasti for Wine Country Entertaining” taught by chef David Katz, who, last I heard, is at Panevino in St. Helena, making charcuterie. Gorgonzola Dolce Crostini is a soft, blue, buttery cheese made from pasteurized cow's milk. Flavors are not very assertive but sweet.
30 slices small sweet (not sourdough) baguette, about ¼ inch thick
Extra-virgin olive oil as needed
¼ pound Gorgonzola Dolce cheese
¼ pound mascarpone cheese
Freshly ground black pepper
2 cups walnut halves, toasted
½ pound large red seedless grapes, cut in half (or use slices of pear or fresh fig when in season)
Preheat oven to 350°F. Place the rounds of bread on a sheet pan and brush the top of each round with a little olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and bake for 5 to 8 minutes, until golden on the edge.
Remove pan from oven and allow the crostini to cool. Place the Gorgonzola Dolce and mascarpone in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Process the cheese to a smooth and even consistency.
Refrigerate the cheese in a covered container until use. To assemble, spread each of the crostini with cheese purée.
Sprinkle the cheese with coarsely ground black pepper. Nestle a half grape just off center, cut-side up. Shingle a half walnut against the grape, leaving some of the grape flesh exposed, and serve.
Photos: Connolly Ranch
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Ken Morris has been cooking for comfort for more than 30 years and learning in kitchens from Alaska to Thailand to Italy. He now cooks and writes from his kitchen in Napa. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.