Hors d'oeuvres going high style

Entertaining: In her latest cookbook, Martha Stewart uses fresh ideas to elevate party favorites to finer fare.


This is not one of those reviews that pokes fun at Martha Stewart, patron saint of the domestic arts. Although the woman can find countless ways to fuss over a single flower arrangement, she also comes up -- aided by a large editorial staff -- with plenty of creative ways to make entertaining more interesting.

In her latest cookbook, "Martha Stewart's Hors d'Oeuvres Handbook" (Clarkson Potter, $35), cocktail munchables, tea sandwiches and other party favorites are elevated to finer fare than anyone thought possible back in the days when cheese balls rolled in chopped nuts were high-society snacks.

These are recipes for entertaining with a twist.

Few of the 300 recipes in the book are as easy to put together as dumping salsa and chips in bowls. Even some with a minimum of ingredients require up to five steps. And if you do all your shopping at the supermarket, be prepared to find recipes here calling for ingredients such as black sesame seeds, fresh chervil, radish sprouts, lump crab meat and manchego cheese.

(This is Martha, after all.)

So why bother? Because the food not only looks stylish, it also tastes pretty great. Because even when a few extra steps are required for preparation, the recipes are not difficult. And because these are fresh ideas for entertaining and your guests are worth it.

We were tempted by the bite-size empanadas filled with chicken, Cheddar and chopped Granny Smith apples; the shrimp and cucumber canapes with a shallot and parsley butter; and the figs in a blanket (figs rolled in thin slices of pork tenderloin and finished with a glaze of honey, balsamic vinegar and brown sugar).

We ended up trying phyllo-wrapped asparagus "straws" with prosciutto. Crunchy and warm, the asparagus gets a savory edge from the prosciutto and Parmesan cheese. They can be rolled up one to two hours ahead of time.

The tiny Cheddar cheese biscuits, split and filled with sliced glazed ham, is a recipe that would work at a wedding shower or a family picnic. The Cheddar-and-sage seasoning makes the biscuits worth eating on their own or simply dabbed with a little butter.

For the height of summer, try the cherry tomatoes, scooped out and stuffed with Roquefort cheese and chopped watercress. We liked them with red cherry tomatoes, but they'll look even better in a mix of red, orange and yellow.

The beautifully styled color photographs in the book are par for the course in a Martha Stewart production.

Always a plus when entertaining is a recipe that can be made in advance. If a dish has to be served hot, it should be possible to assemble everything ahead of time, ready to go in the oven at the last minute. And if it takes a little more effort, the recipe should at least be one that everybody is salivating over. This book covers all strategies.

The 10 chapters include "Layered and Stacked," "Skewered and Threaded" and "Bites and Pieces," as well as myriad ways to wrap, roll and stuff your way to a place in the hosts' hall of fame. Also within its 496 pages is a section on drink ideas that will keep the party moving. Equipment chapters, ingredient-source lists and menu ideas help with organizing.

It's a good book. If you find yourself agreeing, don't think of it as joining the cult of Martha. Just accept it as part of a plan for her complete takeover of our lives.

Crispy Asparagus Straws

Makes 2 dozen straws

Preparation time: 25 minutes

Cooking time: 5-8 minutes

24 asparagus spears, woody ends trimmed (see note)

6 sheets of phyllo dough, thawed if frozen

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

12 thin slices prosciutto (about 6 ounces total), cut in half crosswise

4 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated on the medium holes of a box grater

Place the asparagus in a steamer basket over 1 inch of boiling water. Cover tightly and steam until just al dente and bright green, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a colander to cool.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees with the rack in the center. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside. Place 1 sheet of phyllo on a dry surface. Keep the remaining sheets covered with a clean, slightly damp towel. Brush the 1 sheet lightly with melted butter and cut into 4 rectangular pieces, each 5 by 7 inches.

Place 1 piece of prosciutto on the phyllo, lining it up along 1 short edge of the rectangle. Arrange an asparagus spear on the top of the prosciutto along the same short edge of the rectangle, letting the tip lay exposed beyond the top edge of the dough by 3/4 inch or so. Sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon Parmesan. Roll up and secure the edge of the dough with additional butter, if necessary. Repeat with the remaining ingredients, transferring the straws on the prepared baking sheet. The straws may be made 1 to 2 hours ahead up to this point, covered with plastic wrap, and refrigerated.

Before baking, sprinkle the tops of the straws with the remaining cheese. Cover the asparagus tips with foil to protect them from the heat. Bake until golden brown, 5-8 minutes. Serve either whole or in bite-size pieces.

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