Holiday Cocktail Party Foods

By Fabiana Santana

The holidays are at time for traditions, especially at the table. A favorite aunt, maybe, is in charge of desserts and a cousin, perhaps, makes the best dressing. Food can be just as much a part of tradition as mistletoe is.

If you haven’t put your stamp on a particular dish yet, there is still time. 50 Great Appetizers by Pamela Sheldon Johns is a charming little book chock full of sampler recipes, perfect for offering your family a little taste of everything. She covers dim sum, tapas, canapés and antipasti, among others. Because, no matter what your culture is, there is always some kind of appetizer on the menu. It’s the perfect go to book for cocktail parties, too.

Adding a bit of flare or personal style to these new school recipes will help make it your own. Maybe try goat cheese in the lasagna this year for added tang or offer cinnamon spiked coffee after the meal.  It’s fun to experiment with new foods and easy to use them to start new traditions. Just think of all the encores for years to come.

This is one recipe taken from Pamela Sheldon Johns 50 Great Appetizers that is a bit retro, but in a cool way. You can substitute turkey, beef or even chicken for the veal and since pineapples may not be the easiest fruit to find this season, canned pineapple chunks will work just fine, as I found out. Just be sure to drain them well, and use the pineapple juice for the sauce. You can cook the meatballs ahead of time and just reheat when you are ready to serve.

Skewered Hawaiian sweet & sour meatballs
Serves 8

Meatballs
½ cup all purpose flour
1 ½ pounds ground veal, or any other meat you prefer
½ cup dried breadcrumbs
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1-teaspoon salt
¼ cup pineapple juice
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 red bell pepper, seeded, deribbed and cut into chunks
½ fresh pineapple, cored and cut into chunks (I used canned, shh!)

Sauce
1-cup pineapple juice (use the drained juice from the can)
½ cup rice vinegar
1-tablespoon soy sauce
½ cup packed brown sugar
1-tablespoon cornstarch

  1. Put the flour in a shallow bowl. In a medium bowl, mix the ground meat, breadcrumbs, onion, garlic, egg yolks, ginger, salt and the ¼ cup of pineapple juice.
  2. Form heaping tablespoons of the mixture firmly into 1-inch balls. Lightly roll the meatballs into the lour, shake to remove excess, and then place them on a baking sheet.
  3. Heat the oil in a large sauté pan over medium high heat. Add the meatballs and cook, turning frequently, until browned on all sides, 4 to 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the meatballs to paper towels to drain. When cool enough to handle, thread each meatball onto a toothpick with 1 chunk bell pepper and 1 pineapple chunk. Arrange on a platter.
  4. For the sauce: combine ¾ cup of the pineapple juice, the vinegar, and soy sauce in a small saucepan. Heat over medium heat, then add the brown sugar and stir until dissolved.
  5. Blend the cornstarch with the remaining ¼ cu pineapple juice in a small bowl and whisk in to the saucepan. Cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens slightly, 2 to 3 minutes. Pour into a small serving bowl and serve alongside meatballs for dipping.

Baking cookies is another tradition worthy of revisiting. These honey soaked cookies are a great Christmas time treat, perfect for decorating with kids.  They are reminiscent of that really great piecrust you couldn’t get enough of, but better.

Honey pot cookies
Makes 24

¼ cup sugar
¼ cup light brown sugar
3 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1-teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 sticks of unsalted butter, chilled and cut into ½ inch cubes
½ cup honey

  1. Mix the dry ingredients in a food processor until well incorporated. Add the butter cubes and pulse until the mixture is combined and resembles course meal or rough, wet sand.  Turn the processor on and stream in the honey until wet dough forms.
  2. Remove the dough from the machine and knead with floured, cool hands for five minutes. Separate the dough in two and form discs. Wrap the discs in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour. After the hour is up, preheat oven to 350 degrees and roll out the dough on a cool, floured surface to about 1/8 inch thick. If the dough is too sticky, work some flour into it until it rolls out like piecrust. Use cookie cutters to cut out shapes and bake for 11-15 minutes until golden.
  3. For icing: mix 1 lb of powdered sugar with 5 tablespoons of water.

Cheese and crackers are easy enough to make, but why not combine the two?  Substitute your favorite cheese for a unique flavor. Crumbled blue cheese is a great choice and results in a luscious cheese straw that will be hard to stop eating. Leftovers can be frozen in Ziploc bags and used as croutons on salads come January when that New Year’s resolution kicks in.

Cheese Sticks
Makes 24

½ stick unsalted butter, softened
½ teaspoon kosher salt, and a bit more for garnish
½ pound of sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 cup all purpose flour

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. In a mixer, blend dry ingredients until well incorporated. Add the butter and cheese and mix until soft dough forms.
  3. Remove the dough and work for 2-5 minutes with cooled, floured hands. Divide the dough in half and roll out each half on a cool, floured surface until it’s about ½ inch thick. Using a pizza cutter, slice the dough into sticks.
  4. Use a metal spatula to lift the sticks and place on a heavy duty-baking sheet that has been sprayed with cooking spray.
  5. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 20 minutes, or until golden on the top. If your sticks are browning too much on the bottom, flip them over halfway through cooking for even browning.
  6. Once done, sprinkle with kosher salt and transfer to a cooling rack.

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