Served in shot glasses, carrot ginger soup

When at a large event, I love filling up on those salty and often crispy tidbits that are often better than dinner itself.

But not all appetizers need to be hot to satisfy my appetite for pre-dinner edibles. I like my appetizers to be diverse — some chilly-cold and crunchy fresh and others, creamy dips for vegetables and crackers or sliced French baguettes.

Picking just the right combinations of tastes is half the battle. If appetizers are just the beginning of a fabulous evening of entertaining, choose those textures and flavors that enhance your existing menu. This holiday season, serve up these enticing starters, alone or as a meal. As always, the recipes you’ll find here offer fresh ingredients, unusual flavors, a few classic combinations and certainly something for every palate.

Ahi Poke Salad

Pronounced po-keh, this raw tuna salad is perfect as an appetizer or first course.

2 pounds fresh (or frozen and thawed) ahi tuna steaks, cut into 1-inch
¾ cup soy sauce
½ cup chopped green scallions, white and green parts
1 cup very thinly sliced red or Bermuda onion
1 Tbsp. sesame oil
1-3 Tbsp. sesame seeds (white and black if possible), to taste
1 Tbsp. crushed red pepper (optional)
1 avocado, cut into 1-inch pieces (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
Fresh lime or lemon wedges, garnish

Combine all ingredients in a glass bowl and toss well. Cover and chill. Allow to marinate for 30 minutes or up to 8 hours.

Makes 8 servings (or more if served as an appetizer). Serve as a first course, or as an appetizer with tortilla chips, lettuce leaves, cucumber slices or endive leaves, or alone, on small plates.

These are savory and tart and a great appetizer served in a chafing dish.

  1 large egg
1 pound ground beef
4 slices firm sandwich bread, soaked in water and squeezed dry
1 cup minced onions
1 tsp. minced garlic
¼ cup chopped parsley
Salt and pepper to taste

Almond Sauce:
  2 cups chicken stock (make from base or bouillon)
¼ cup lemon juice
Grated zest of 1 lemon
Salt and pepper
2 tsp. sugar
½ cup sliced or slivered almonds (toasted)
2 Tbsp. olive oil
Salt to taste

For the meatballs, lightly beat the egg in a large bowl. Add the meat, then add the bread, mashing it with your fingers. Add the onion, garlic, parsley, and salt and pepper to taste. Work with your hands into a soft, well-mixed paste. Shape into balls the size of large walnuts and dredge in plenty of flour.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment and arrange the meatballs on the sheet. Bake for 10 minutes.

Transfer the meatballs to a baking dish. Add all sauce ingredients to the baking dish and turn the meatballs with a spatula to coat. Cook for 20 minutes more.

Served in shot glasses, carrot ginger soup

Onions and carrots are both naturally sweet, so this creamy soup pairs nicely with ginger. And since there is barely any fat and no meat (unless you add chicken broth), it’s both vegan and gluten-free.

2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 cup chopped onions, any variety
½ cup chopped celery
1 tsp. minced garlic
2 cups water (or chicken broth)
1 cup coconut milk
1 pound carrots, unpeeled and sliced into 1-inch rounds
2 Tbsp. grated fresh ginger
½ cup white wine
Sea salt and white pepper, to taste
Fresh chopped cilantro leaves, garnish

Heat oil in saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the onions, celery and garlic and saute until the onions are translucent. Add the water, coconut milk, carrots and ginger and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer, cover the pot and cook for about 30 minutes, until the carrots are very soft.

Remove from heat and cool until the soup is warm.

Transfer the mixture to the pitcher of a blender or bowl of a food processor and blend or process until smooth (you may need to do this in batches). When the soup is blended, pour it back into the pot. Add wine and seasonings (start with 1 tsp. salt and ½-tsp. pepper) and bring to a boil again. Reduce heat to simmer and cook, uncovered, for 10 minutes more. Adjust seasonings to taste.

Serve as is or sprinkle with parsley, cilantro and drizzle with half-and-half, if desired. Makes 12 shooter servings.

Asparagus Gruyere Tarte

Cut this into squares and serve — the trick is to leave it looking whole, so don’t disassemble to serve.

Flour, for work surface

1 package (2 sheets) frozen puff pastry (about 17-18 ounces)
3 cups Gruyere cheese, shredded
1½-2 pounds medium fresh asparagus (tough stem ends trimmed)
3 Tbsp. olive oil
Salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 375°F.

Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment, place the 2 sheets of puff pastry on the baking sheet and press together to cover the baking sheet (up the edges of the pan, if possible).

Using a fork, pierce the pastry all over (about 24 times). Bake until golden, about 15 minutes.

Remove from oven and sprinkle with 2/3 of the Gruyere. Arrange the asparagus over the cheese. Brush with oil and season with salt and pepper to taste. Bake again for 10 minutes. Raise the heat to a low broil and cook 4-6 minutes more. Cool to warm and serve (cut into pieces).

These small turnovers, baked until golden, are traditional South American street-food appetizers.

  1 cup finely chopped onions
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. minced garlic
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon dried oregano
1 pound lean ground beef
2 Tbsp. raisins
2 Tbsp. chopped pimiento-stuffed olives
1 hardboiled egg, chopped

  2 pre-made pie crusts (or 24 empanada wrappers)
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 Tbsp. water

Cook onion in olive oil in a heavy medium skillet over medium heat, stirring frequently, until softened. Add garlic, cumin and oregano and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Stir in beef and cook, breaking up lumps with a fork, until no longer pink, about 4 minutes.

Add raisins, olives, salt and pepper to taste. Cool and stir in the egg.  Brush empanadas with oil and bake on an oiled baking sheet in a 375°F oven until golden, 15-20 minutes.

Roll out one pie crust to ⅛-inch thickness. Cut into rounds. Put 1 tablespoon of filling on half of the round. Fold the other half of the round over and using a fork, press down on the edge of the dough to seal. Prepare all the empanadas and place on a rimmed, parchment-lined baking sheet.

Preheat oven to 375°F.

Make an egg wash — combine the water and egg and beat well with a fork. Brush the empanadas with the wash and bake for 20 minutes until the empanadas are golden.

Or — deep fry or pan fry in vegetable oil, without the egg wash.

So simple and delicious, served with gourmet crackers and a sliced fresh French baguette.

8-ounce cream cheese, room temperature
1 cup walnuts, chopped
Salt and ground pepper
8 ounces crumbled blue cheese

Combine all ingredients and mash well. Makes 3 cups of spread.

My catering client Bunny Kratchman is a fabulous cook. She “gifted” me this recipe many years ago and it’s always a winner. Serve it with your thin-sliced black pumpernickel breads or cucumber rounds.

1 envelope unflavored gelatin
¼ cup cold water
½ cup boiling water
½ cup mayonnaise
1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
1 Tbsp. grated onion
½ tsp. hot pepper sauce (such as Tabasco)
¼ tsp. ground paprika
1 tsp. salt
2 cups cooked salmon (boneless and skinless)
1 Tbsp. drained capers
½ cup whipping cream or sour cream

Dissolve the gelatin in ¼ cup cold water. Add boiling water and stir until dissolved.

In one hour, add mayo, lemon juice, onion, tabasco, pepper and salt and stir well. Chill to consistency of unbeaten egg whites. Add the salmon and capers and beat well with electric mixer. Fold in the sour cream and pour into a 4-cup oiled fish mold or a mold of your choice. Chill until solid. Unmold and serve with crackers or black breads.  Makes 20 appetizer servings.

In Spain, a classic tapas dish like these are sautéed in butter. This lighter, shortcut version uses healthier olive oil and baking to limit the mess. Serve these on small toasts or in a baking dish with French bread on the side.

1½ pound mushrooms, stems removed
3 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. fresh minced garlic
Kosher salt and pepper to taste
2 Tbsp. dried parsley
Fresh juice from ½ lemon or lemon wedges, garnish

Preheat oven to 375ºF. Remove stems from mushrooms by snapping them off. If mushroom caps are very large, halve or quarter them

Toss mushrooms with olive oil, garlic, salt, pepper and parsley. Transfer to a baking dish and bake, uncovered for 15 minutes. Use a large spoon to toss the mushrooms and bake again for 15 minutes more. Toss with lemon juice and serve in the baking dish or serve on individual French bread rounds. Makes 12 servings.

This is the easiest appetizer because you don’t even have to wrap the brie in pastry — just bake and serve.

1 large brie (about 2 pounds)
½ cup Dijon mustard
1 cup apricot preserves
1 cup dried cherries
1 cup golden raisins
1 cup slivered almonds
1 cup chopped pecans

Freeze the brie for 1 hour or until very cold. Use a sharp knife or grater to remove the white outer rind from the cheese.

Preheat oven to 350ºF. Place the brie in an attractive baking dish. Spread the mustard over the brie. Warm the apricot preserves in the microwave so that they’re easier to spread. Spread the preserves over the mustard. Sprinkle the cherries, raisins, almonds and pecans over the brie. Cover the baking dish with foil and bake for 20 minutes. Remove foil and bake for 10-15 minutes more. Serve hot with sliced French breads and assorted crackers.

Annabel Cohen
Food Columnist

All recipes ©Annabel Cohen 2017