Spontaneous sociable needn't mean subpar snacking

The Front Burner

  • Quesadillas are fun, festive and easy.
Quesadillas are fun, festive and easy. (istockphoto )
November 24, 2011|By Donna Ellis

One reason most of us love the holiday season is that it provides opportunities to spend more time at home with family and friends. One reason most of us who are the family chefs dislike the holiday season is the stress it provides when we spend more time at home with family and friends.

Certainly, some of the get-togethers are planned down to the last detail. But what's often more fun are those gatherings that tend to be spur-of-the-moment, or at least spur-of-a-day-or-so in advance. Inevitably, there's the stress of deciding what to feed folks after we've issued our generous last-minute invitation.

Our exercise du jour, then, is to plan ahead for those wonderful, spontaneous gatherings that aren't planned ahead. Certainly, we all have foodstuffs in the larder that we keep on hand in case of a can't-get-to-the-grocery emergency. Now's the time to take stock and figure out how to use these sometimes disparate items to create a seemingly coordinated menu. And just as we do when planning family meals, there's usually a theme that's most popular with the gang.

It simply takes a little creativity to come up with a plethora of good tastes based on what's already in the house, or what you like to get during a stock-up trip to the grocery or the membership warehouse.

Here's what we mean.

Tex-Mex

50-50 quesadillas

Although these days most home cooks worth their aprons would be embarrassed to serve tortilla chips and salsa to guests (even though the family noshes on them all the time), you probably have the chips and salsa and even queso dip on hand. If not, go for a couple of slightly more "exotic" salsas, like mango, pineapple or black bean. And do buy some guacamole (jar or frozen) and keep that available too.

To star in your last-minute show, fix these crab and chicken quesadillas, using stock-up ingredients that have a relatively long shelf life in the fridge. The quesadillas will only take you about 20 minutes to fix. So while they enjoy the beer or sangria or even pre-mixed Margaritas that you keep in stock, you can do these "grilled cheese sandwiches."

If you're seeking another comestible offering, chop about 1/4 cup vidalia onion and add to 1 can black beans (drained) in a medium pot. Add some chicken broth to moisten, cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, while you do the quesadillas.

1 cup chopped scallions, divided

2/3 cup reduced-fat sour cream, divided

4 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro, divided

1 tablespoon minced garlic (from a jar), divided

3 medium jalapeño peppers, seeded, pith removed, finely chopped, divided

1 pound good-quality blue crab claw meat (the homogenized product from Phillip's has a really long fridge life)

1 pound cooked boneless chicken breast, finely chopped

1 1/2 cups frozen corn kernels, "cooked" in the microwave, patted dry, divided

1 1/2 cups shredded Monterey Jack cheese, divided

1 1/2 cups shredded yellow cheddar cheese, divided

16 to 18 (8-inch) flour tortillas

Sliced scallions greens and/or cilantro sprigs, garnish

In each of two bowls, combine half the scallions, sour cream, cilantro, garlic and jalapeño peppers. Add the crab meat to one bowl; add the chicken to the other bowl. Stir half the cooked corn into each bowl.

Heat broiler. Arrange tortillas on a work surface. Combine the Monterey Jack and cheddar cheeses. Sprinkle some of the cheese mixture onto each of the tortillas. Spoon the crab mixture on half the tortillas and fold each over/in half. Spoon the chicken mixture on the other half of the tortillas and fold each over. Arrange on baking sheets. Broil each type of tortilla about 6 inches from heat source until tortillas are lightly browned and cheese appears to be melted. Let stand about 3 minutes before slicing each quesadilla in half width-wise. Arrange on platters. Garnish with cilantro sprigs and/or finely sliced scallion greens. Makes 32 to 36 quesadillas.

Tex-Mex casserole

Here's a casserole-type dish you can use as a dunk for tortilla chips or as a fill-your-own taco. It doesn't take long to thaw frozen chicken breasts in the microwave and doesn't take much longer to put together this taco filler.

2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken in bite-size pieces

1 tablespoon reduced-sodium taco seasoning mix

1 tablespoon olive oil

About 1 1/3 cups bottled salsa (medium heat is fine)

1 1/2 cups shredded cheddar cheese

2 (4-ounce) cans mild whole green chilies, drained, thinly sliced

1/2 cup reduced-fat sour cream, for serving

1/4 cup sliced ripe (black) olives, for serving

Shredded lettuce, chopped onions and tomatoes, guacamole, for serving

Tortillas chips or taco shells, for serving

Heat oven to 425 degrees.

In a bowl, combine chicken and taco seasoning. In a large, non-stick skillet, over medium-high, heat olive oil. Add chicken mixture and cook 4 minutes, until browned, stirring often.

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