Party picks New Year's nibbles include a bite-size assortment of imaginative treats

December 30, 1998|By Kathy Casey | Kathy Casey,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Would you really want to ring in the new year with drinks and a crockpot of cocktail wieners, simmering in a weird concoction of mustard and grape jelly that was supposed to imitate barbecued sausages?

No way.

Much has changed since the olden days. Today's party fare reflects current eating and cooking styles; the setting is less rigid and the options more diverse as ethnic influences have expanded our culinary options. Bite-size tastes have become the party nibbles of choice, and who doesn't love to nosh on an assortment of delicious goodies?

Basically, anything can become nibbles or small bites. The recipes that follow offer a handful of ideas. The most important element in all of them is imagination.

For example: a twist on a classic favorite, the baked potato. I wanted an appetizer of manageable size with a crunchy, savory topping. In all finger foods, crunch or texture is important because it allows a bite-size morsel to leave an immediate impression on the palate. Red potatoes with Gorgonzola cream, bacon and walnuts are tiny red potatoes that are rubbed with olive oil and kosher salt, baked, then halved and topped with a savory mixture of chives, sour cream, Gorgonzola and ` for the crunch ` toasted walnuts.

At a New Year's Eve party, as at any meal with friends, food should be prepared in advance to allow the host to enjoy the festivities. Cumin- and cayenne-spiced cashews, and warm Mediterranean eggplant dip with herbed pita crisps are easily made ahead of time.

The timing and presentation of the food have their own straightforward logic.

Start out with, perhaps, one or two cold dishes to serve as the guests arrive, then assemble and serve warm or hot items, such as crunchy coconut shrimp with pineapple-jalapeno marmalade.

A hands-on party is sometimes a great way to break the ice. Guests can coat and fry their own shrimp or even fill the scallion biscuits with the smoked salmon spread and pickled onions.

And, of course, don't forget the champagne, and some nonalcoholic alternatives.

Warm Mediterranean Eggplant Dip

Makes 12 servings

1 medium eggplant (about 14 ounces), trimmed and sliced crosswise 1/2-inch thick

4 tablespoons olive oil

2 teaspoons coarse (kosher) salt

1 medium yellow squash

1 medium zucchini

5 medium white mushrooms, cleaned and diced 1/4 inch

1/2 medium red onion, finely chopped

1 tablespoon minced garlic

2 tablespoons dry red wine

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1 (6-ounce) jar marinated artichoke hearts, coarsely chopped, liquid reserved

1 large tomato, diced 1/4 inch

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup tomato sauce, preferably homemade

1/4 cup finely diced pimento

1 tablespoon drained capers

1 tablespoon minced kalamata olives

2 tablespoons minced fresh basil

1 tablespoon minced flat-leaf (Italian) parsley

herbed pita crisps (recipe follows)

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Spread eggplant slices on baking sheet and drizzle 2 tablespoons oil on top. Season with 1 teaspoon salt. Bake at 450 degrees 25 minutes. Let cool slightly, then chop finely and set aside.

Meanwhile, using sharp knife, cut 1/4-inch-thick, lengthwise slice of skin of yellow squash. Place squash cut side down on work surface and cut off remaining skin in 1/4-inch-thick lengthwise slices all around. Cut skin slices into 1/4-inch dice. Repeat with zucchini. (Save squash pulp for another use.) Set aside.

In large, heavy nonreactive saucepan, heat remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil over moderately high heat until shimmering, 1 to 2 minutes. Add mushrooms, onion and diced yellow squash and zucchini. Cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables begin to brown lightly, about 4 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring, for 1 minute.

Stir in red wine, vinegar and artichoke liquid. Add tomato, crushed red pepper, black pepper and remaining 1 teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring, until tomato softens and mixture is thick, about 5 minutes.

Stir in artichoke hearts, tomato sauce, pimento, capers, olives, basil, parsley and reserved eggplant. Reduce heat to moderately low and cook until heated through, about 3 minutes. The dip can be made up to two days ahead; reheat before serving. Serve warm with herbed pita crisps. You can accompany the dish with roasted garlic and chevre or feta cheese.

Herbed Pita Crisps

Makes 32 crisps

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon dry basil leaves

3/4 teaspoon coarse (kosher) salt

4 large whole-wheat pita bread pockets, cut into eighths

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

In large bowl, combine olive oil, basil leaves and salt. Add pita pieces and toss to coat well.

On 1 or 2 greased baking sheets, spread out pita pieces in single layer. Bake at 425 degrees 4 minutes. Turn them over and continue baking for 3 to 4 more minutes until golden and crisp. Let cool, then store in airtight container. These triangles can be made in advance and stored in airtight containers. If necessary, recrisp at 400 degrees for 2 minutes.

Mini-Scallion Biscuits With Smoked Salmon Spread

Makes 15 biscuits

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