Satisfy guests with snacks based on few ingredients

June 14, 1995|By William Rice | William Rice,Chicago Tribune

With the overwhelming displays of salsas, chips, prepared dips and spreads in specialty-food shops and supermarkets, it seems food manufacturers and in-store chefs have freed us from the need to make appetizers ever again.

Some of these products are mundane, but others are freshly made and very good. I serve them to company and snack on them myself without the least hesitation.

But part of me, the part that loves the challenge of deadlines, misses that frantic search through the refrigerator and pantry to find something -- anything -- that could be thrown together to appease the pre-meal hunger of guests just about to knock on the door. Another part of me fears that, being served these purchased, prefabricated treats, my guests will recognize them as the very same stuff they serve at home.

So, with the porch-and-patio party season fast approaching, I went to the drawing board (cutting board, actually) with a stopwatch in hand and devised the quartet of dips and spreads that follows.

As I would serve at least a pair of them to company, I made each of my key ingredients -- cream cheese and eggplant -- the base of two recipes. As time is a factor, I limited the number of ingredients. If your grocer's inventory is worldly, you may be able to obtain all of the ingredients in a single store. If you can't get balsamic vinegar, substitute red wine vinegar. If you lack chili pepper with garlic sauce, mince a small clove of garlic and add hot-pepper sauce to taste.

Hot and Cool

Cream Cheese Spread

Makes about 36 appetizers

6 ounces soft cream cheese, at room temperature

1/4 cup finely chopped sweet red bell pepper

1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons seeded and minced hot chili pepper, such as serrano

1 tablespoon minced green onion

1 tablespoon minced parsley

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar, or red wine vinegar

1 large cucumber, peeled and cut crosswise into 1/4 -inch rounds

Place cream cheese in a medium-size bowl. Add bell pepper, chili pepper, green onion and parsley. Beat with a fork until thoroughly blended.

Add salt and vinegar and blend again. Taste and correct seasoning if desired with additional chili pepper, salt, vinegar. If not serving immediately, cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

To serve, place a liberal teaspoon of the spread on a cucumber round. Or use as a dip by placing the bowl in the center of a tray and surrounding it with cut-up raw vegetables including radishes and cauliflower and broccoli florets.

Cream Cheese and Smoked Trout Spread

Makes about 50 appetizers

6 ounces soft cream cheese, at room temperature

3 ounces smoked trout with cracked pepper, chopped ( 1/2 cup) (see note)

1/4 cup chopped fresh dill

1 tablespoon lemon or lime juice

1/4 teaspoon salt

Lavash crackers or toasted bagel halves

Place cream cheese in a medium-size bowl. Add smoked trout, dill, lemon juice and salt. Beat with a fork until thoroughly blended. Taste and correct seasoning, if desired, with lemon juice and salt. If not serving immediately, cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

To serve, place a liberal teaspoon of the spread on a Lavash cracker or cover the flat side of a bagel half generously and cut vertically into bite-size pieces.

Note: Substitute smoked shrimp or salmon, adding freshly ground pepper to taste.

Eggplant and Pesto Dip

Makes about 25 appetizers

1 eggplant (about 1 pound)

1 tablespoon pesto sauce, bottled or homemade, cilantro pesto preferred

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon lemon or lime juice

Lavash crackers

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Place eggplant in a pan and bake in the oven until very soft, about 45 minutes.

Remove eggplant from the oven and allow to cool. Peel away skin, then separate seeds from pulp. Discard seeds and chop the pulp. There should be about 1 cup chopped pulp. (Save half the pulp to make eggplant Oriental dip -- recipe follows -- or double the quantity of pesto, salt and lemon juice.)

Place 1/2 cup chopped pulp in a small bowl. Add pesto, salt and lemon juice. Beat with a fork until thoroughly blended. Taste and adjust seasoning if desired with pesto, lemon juice and salt. If not serving immediately, cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

To serve, place a liberal teaspoon on a Lavash cracker or spoon into the cavity of a small mushroom cap.

Eggplant Oriental Dip

Makes about 25 appetizers

1 eggplant (about 1 pound)

2 teaspoons finely chopped green onion

1/4 teaspoon Oriental chili paste with garlic

1 teaspoon tamari

1/8 teaspoon salt

sesame rice crackers

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Place eggplant in a pan and bake in the oven until very soft, about 45 minutes.

Remove eggplant from the oven and allow to cool. Peel away skin, then separate seeds from pulp. Discard seeds and chop the pulp. There should be about 1 cup chopped pulp. (Save half the pulp to make eggplant and pesto dip or double the quantity of green onion, chili paste, tamari and salt.)

Place 1/2 cup chopped pulp in a small bowl. Add green onion, chili paste, tamari and salt. Beat with a fork until thoroughly blended. Taste and adjust seasoning if desired with chili paste, tamari, salt. If not serving immediately, cover bowl tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

To serve, place a liberal teaspoon on a sesame rice cracker.

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