With the world economy in turmoil, holidays and chill winds upon us, and no invitations to holiday soirees in the mailbox, I ask myself: What would Ma and Pa and their daughters, Laura, Mary, Carrie and Grace - you know, the intrepid Ingalls family of the
books and television series - do to cheer everyone up?
They would host a party, serving only sweet potatoes from their Midwestern prairie root cellar if that was all they had.
The Ingallses come to mind this holiday season because, as a child, I marveled at how they met hard times with resignation and resourcefulness.
Many of us, through necessity or fear of what 2009 will bring to financial markets, will not be splurging on holiday entertaining. But this doesn't mean we have to be resigned to eating a can of baked beans alone.
Sure, a potluck is one way to cut the costs of throwing a party, but it is possible to do it alone - thriftily and elegantly - by throwing a mid-afternoon open house.
The key to this is creating an appetizer bar with nibbles that come in part from our contemporary "root cellars" that we call pantries.
These nibbles can be a combination of simple, homey and ritzy-looking.
An updated definition of resourceful? Top high-quality potato chips with smoked salmon and a dollop of flavored cream cheese. Or transform homey macaroni and cheese into comforting cocktail bites by forming it in mini-muffin tins. (See recipes below.)
Put food on toothpicks. Think contrasting flavors or a flavor balance of sweet, salty and spicy, as with the feta and olive skewers suggested by cookbook author Ellie Krieger in The Food You Crave. Think retro, which means serving new takes on old ideas, such as the olives wrapped in flavorful dough described below, a throwback to cocktail parties of the 1950s.
In Perfect Recipes for Having People Over, author Pam Anderson suggests inviting guests to create some of their own hors d'oeuvres by placing a variety of breads and chips (such as toasted pita wedges) and dips in the center of the table.
She recommends sticking with items that need little or no preparation, such as marinated artichokes or sliced pepperoni. Visit ethnic markets to discover jarred spreads, such as the red pepper-eggplant mixture called ajvar, which is popular in the Balkan states. Many Middle Eastern markets carry excellent canned, stuffed grape leaves that are surprisingly inexpensive.
And many Indian or Sri Lankan groceries make their own or sell jarred spreads made of cilantro or tamarind. These are tangy complements to cream cheese, either as a base or a dip.
Set these in a basket beside pappadum, the cloudlike, crispy Indian flatbreads that are sometimes labeled puppodum. These rounds may also be purchased in Indian markets. They are typically deep-fried, but may also be microwaved. Simply place them in a single layer on a microwave turntable and microwave on high power, watching constantly through the oven door. When they rise up into curvy crispness, stop the oven and remove them. Continue with another batch.
Don't forget an offering made of chicken. One, maybe two supermarket roasted birds, picked clean, can be fashioned into enough chicken salad to feed a crowd.
Good old egg salad on toast rounds and deviled eggs are also familiar but comforting finger food.
And don't forget to include something sweet. Christmas cookies are always welcome, almost a command performance in some homes. I'm recommending chocolate shortbread wedges as a new addition to the dessert tray this year.
All of which brings me back to the stalwart Ingalls family, whose spirit in tough times is uplifting for those of us who encountered them in childhood.
Remember when Ma Ingalls held onto the clothesline in a blizzard to get to the barn to milk the cows and gather eggs to sustain the family? And all of the times when Pa hunted, caught, skinned and butchered their entree?
All so commendable and inspiring, and I am encouraged by their good example. To a point. I'm heading for the deli counter for logs of salami, which do not try to escape.
Makes 24 skewers
2 teaspoons fennel seeds
2 teaspoons finely grated orange zest
3 tablespoons orange juice
1 teaspoon cracked black peppercorns
4 ounces feta cheese, cut into 24 1/2-inch cubes
24 fresh mint leaves
12 pitted green olives, cut in half
1/4 large English cucumber (seeded, if desired), cut into ½-inch chunks
24 6-inch skewers
1. In a medium bowl, combine the fennel seeds, orange zest and juice, and pepper. Gently stir in the feta and marinate for 1 hour at room temperature or up to 3 hours in the refrigerator.
2. To make the skewers, place a mint leaf about 3/4 inch up on the skewer, then add an olive half and a chunk of cucumber. Gently place a cube of the marinated feta on the end. These can be made several hours in advance and stored in the refrigerator until ready to serve. Allow to come to room temperature before serving.
Per skewer: 17 calories, 1 gram protein, 1 gram carbohydrates, trace sugar, 1 gram fat, 4 milligrams cholesterol, 92 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Makes 6 cups of chutney
2 12-ounce packages fresh cranberries
2 oranges, washed, seeds removed, and chopped with peel left on
1/2 cup chopped red onion
4 tablespoons fresh ginger, julienned
2 sticks cinnamon, each 3 inches long, broken into halves
1 teaspoon salt
3 cups sugar
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper, or less to taste
2 teaspoons mustard powder
1/2 cup chopped pecans, walnuts or pistachios
1/2 cup quartered dried figs
1/4 cup dark raisins or currants
1. Combine all of the ingredients in a large, heavy saucepan or enamel pan. Cook over moderate heat, stirring now and then until sugar dissolves and chutney comes to a boil. Cook until the cranberries pop, but do not overcook them or stir the mixture too much or it will become pasty.
2. Remove from the saucepan to plastic or glass containers and store, sealed, in the refrigerator, where chutney will keep well for at least one week.
Per quarter-cup serving: 145 calories, trace protein, 34 grams carbohydrates, 28 grams sugar, 2 grams fat, no cholesterol, 98 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 36 crisps or 9 servings
1/4 cup packed fresh parsley, plus extra for garnish
3 ounces cream cheese
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
36 whole bite-size potato chips (see note)
3 to 4 ounces thinly sliced smoked salmon, sliced or pulled into bite-size pieces (see note)
1. Process parsley in a food processor until coarsely chopped. Add cream cheese, lemon zest, juice, a pinch of salt, and a few grinds of pepper. Process until pale green and smooth.
2. Scrape cream cheese into a small zipper-lock bag. Squeeze it down to one bottom corner, and snip ¼ inch off the corner. Top each chip with 1 to 2 pieces salmon and pipe on a dollop of cream cheese. Garnish with a small parsley leaf. Serve.
Note: The author of this recipe recommends the Terra Chip brand, but any sturdy unbroken and flattish potato chip works. Vary this recipe by using smoked trout and horseradish-flavored sour cream.
Per serving: 77 calories, 3 grams protein, 4 grams carbohydrates, trace sugar, 6 grams fat, 13 milligrams cholesterol, 143 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Makes 12 servings
1 head garlic
1 tablespoon olive oil
Two 15.5-ounce cans white beans, preferably low sodium, rinsed and drained
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
Salt and white pepper to taste
1/4 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves for garnish
1. In a food processor, combine the beans, roasted garlic, oil and lemon juice and process until smooth. Season with salt and pepper. This will keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
2. Transfer to a serving bowl, garnish with the parsley leaves and serve with your favorite vegetables for dipping.
Per serving: 175 calories, 8 grams protein, 25 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 5 grams fat, no cholesterol, 6 milligrams sodium, 10 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 6 servings
24 "colossal size" Kalamata, pimiento-stuffed or other large olives
3 tablespoons cream cheese
1 1/2 cups grated sharp Cheddar cheese
9 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 to 2 tablespoons milk, as needed
1. Pit the olives with an olive pitter, keeping them as nearly whole and unbroken as possible.
2. Place the cream cheese in a small bowl and beat it with a spoon to soften it slightly. Using your fingers, stuff the olives with the softened cream cheese. Set aside.
3. Combine the Cheddar cheese, flour, Tabasco and salt in a bowl, using a wooden spoon or a rubber spatula. Add the melted butter; mix. Add the milk, starting with 1 tablespoon and using more as needed; mix. Use your hands to knead the dough for a minute until a soft dough is formed.
4. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
5. Pinch off small balls of dough about the same size as the olives. Flatten each ball of dough with your fingers and wrap each olive with it. Place the dough-wrapped olives on a parchment-paper-lined baking sheet about an inch apart. Bake until golden brown, about 25 minutes.
Note: Unbaked, the dough-wrapped olives keep refrigerated, covered with plastic wrap, for a day or two. Serve these alone or beside a dish of ranch dressing for dipping.
Per serving: 268 calories, 9 grams protein, 12 grams carbohydrates, trace sugar, 20 grams fat, 54 milligrams cholesterol, 881 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Makes 16 wedges
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1. Lightly butter a 9½-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom.
2. Whisk together the flour, cocoa and salt in a medium bowl.
3. Using an electric mixer, beat the butter in a large bowl until creamy. Add the sugar and beat well until fully blended. Mix in the vanilla. With the beaters on low speed, mix in the flour mixture until fully incorporated. (At first the dough will resemble fine crumbs, but after a little more beating, the dough will come together in soft clumps.) Spread the dough in the prepared pan, pressing it in evenly with your fingers to flatten and smooth the top. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour or until firm.
4. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Prick the dough with a fork every inch or so, going all the way through to the pan bottom in two concentric circles. Press around the rim with the tines of a fork to make small decorative lines. Bake in the upper middle of the oven for 63 to 65 minutes or until the shortbread feels mostly firm around the edge and semi-firm in the center. Cool on a rack for 10 minutes.
5. Remove the outer ring of the tart pan. Place the shortbread, still on the pan bottom, on a cutting board. While still warm, cut the shortbread into quarters using a thin, sharp knife or a pizza cutter, and then cut each quarter into 4 wedges. (These will be too hard to cut if you let the shortbread cool completely.) Using a narrow metal spatula, carefully transfer the wedges to a rack to cool. Store in an airtight container for up to 3 weeks.
Per wedge: 151 calories, 2 grams protein, 16 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar, 9 grams fat, 24 milligrams cholesterol, 38 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Makes 48 mini-macs, or 12 servings
1/2 pound elbow macaroni
11/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for brushing
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3/4 cup milk
4 ounces or 1 cup packed shredded Cheddar cheese
4 ounces deli-sliced American cheese, chopped
1 large egg yolk
1/4 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika
1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the macaroni and boil until al dente, about 5 minutes. Drain, shaking off the excess water.
2. Brush four 12-cup nonstick mini-muffin tins with butter. Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons of the grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Tap out the excess.
3. In a large saucepan, melt the 11/2 tablespoons of butter. Whisk in the flour over moderate heat. Continue whisking for 2 minutes. Whisk in the milk and cook, whisking until the mixture comes to a boil, about 5 minutes. Add the Cheddar and American cheeses and whisk until they are smoothly melted. Take the saucepan off the heat and whisk in the egg yolk and smoked paprika. Fold in the cooked and drained macaroni.
4. Spoon slightly rounded tablespoons of the macaroni and cheese mixture into the prepared muffin cups, packing them gently. Sprinkle the remaining 2 tablespoons of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano evenly over the tops.
5. Bake in the upper and middle thirds of the oven for about 10 minutes, until golden and sizzling. Let cool for 5 minutes. Using a small spoon, carefully loosen the mini-macs. Transfer to a large serving platter and serve immediately.
Per serving: 175 calories, 8 grams protein, 16 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 8 grams fat, 41 milligrams cholesterol, 233 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.