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TODAY

Saturday, December 16

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Airbags

Two weekends ago, I had the pleasure of helping to host a fundraiser for Women In Media and News. WIMN is a non-profit which seeks to increase the quantity and quality of reporting about women and women's issues.

Jennifer Pozner, the executive director, had tried to find a local restaurant to donate food but when all her contacts fell through she emailed me wondering if I could do anything to help. I think she assumed I'd ask other restaurants, but instead I got out a list and wrote down types of ingredients I would need to feed about 40 to 60 people. If you're going to invite people to sit shoulder-to-shoulder in a crowded room and listen to depressing statistics about the under-representation of women in news stories, you better have their bellies full.

Thankfully, I was not only up to the task, but I was thrilled with the idea of cooking for a couple of dozen feminists, journalists and activists. Unfortunately, the day I was due to go shopping was a very hectic one and I managed to forget my list at home. I tried remembering what was on it, but my hungry and over-extended brain wasn't cooperating. So I entered my local indie grocer and did what I would do if I were making dinner for myself; I take a look at what was available and come up with recipes based on what looks good.

It may seem like I'm bragging (and maybe I am a little) but in less than 30 minutes I had all the ingredients I needed to make four cooked appetizers, and I had them all for less than $25 each. Four years ago I would have been too nervous to do this, but after having several large parties (have you ever cooked a traditional St. Patrick's dinner for 18 people?), I've grown very comfortable cooking for lots of people.

My advice to anyone considering throwing a party where you serve cooked apps for a couple of dozen folks is to make a list, take it with you to the store, and prepare as much as possible a day or two before the party. Instead of spending the party assembling and chopping, you will be warming things up as your guests arrive.

Here are -- in order of ease -- the four recipes that earned me multiple compliments from the generous people who came: cooked bruschetta, stuffed mushrooms, mini-spinach pies, and mango-coconut shrimp. All of these can be prepared the day ahead of time with just the actual baking taking place in the hour or so before your guests arrive. Or you can keep them on trays and bake them while your guests are mingling. Someone will surely be willing to help you fill empty platters, simply because it will mean that they get first dibs on fresh-out-of-the-oven apps.

Cooked Bruschetta
1 tablespoon of olive oil
1/2 a small yellow onion, chopped fine
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1/4 cup of balsamic vinegar
1 pound of the ripest tomatoes you can find, chopped in small pieces
Salt and pepper to taste

Over medium heat, sauté the olive oil and the onion until translucent, about three to five minutes. Add the garlic and stir constantly for about two minutes. Now add the balsamic vinegar and simmer for about 10 minutes. This will reduce the vinegar slightly and bring out the maximum amount of sweetness from the garlic and the onion.

Turn off the heat, stir in the tomatoes until mixed thoroughly. Transfer to a bowl, cover and refrigerate for up to two days before serving. Before serving taste and add salt and pepper as needed. You can add fresh basil if you like. Chop two loaves of French bread on an angle and serve with the tomato mixture.

Stuffed Mushrooms
2 tablespoons of olive oil
1 small yellow onion
2 cloves of garlic
2 pounds of fresh button mushrooms (remove and reserve stems and wash to remove dirt)
2 teaspoons of dried basil
4 ounces of cream cheese or Neufchatel
4 to 6 tablespoons of olive oil with a liberal sprinkling of salt and pepper

In a skillet, heat olive oil and add onion. Cook over medium-low heat for 10 to 15 minutes. You don't want the onions to brown, but you do want them to cook thoroughly. Stir every minute or so. While these cook you should be able to trim the ends off the mushroom stems and then mince the remaining stems.

Once the onions are very translucent, add the garlic, the mushroom stems, and the basil and stir constantly for three to four minutes. Turn off and remove from the heat and stir in the cream cheese until everything is thoroughly blended.

Take the mushroom caps and dip them in the olive oil and place them on a baking sheet. Using a small spoon, or your fingers, fill the caps with the cheese mixture, dividing evenly. Place in an oven at 350 degrees F and cook for 15 to 20 minutes or until the cheese is bubbly. Transfer to serving platter.

Mini-Spinach and Cheese Pies
1/2 small yellow onion, chopped fine
1 tablespoon of olive oil
1 thawed package of frozen spinach
3 to 5 ounces of crumbled bleu cheese
1/2 cup of chopped walnuts
1/2 package of phyllo dough (at room temperature)
2 tablespoons of melted butter
Salt and pepper to taste

Put the spinach in a piece of cheesecloth and squeeze until all the moisture is out of the spinach. You can also use a couple of layers of paper towels. You want this to be as dry as possible.

While you're draining the spinach, in a skillet over medium-high heat, sauté onion in the olive oil, stirring occasionally. Cook for five minutes until the onion just starts to brown. Once the spinach is drained, add to the skillet and toss with the cooked onion and cook for about two minutes while stirring constantly. Turn off the heat and mix in the crumbled bleu cheese. Put into a serving bowl.

In the skillet toast the walnuts over medium-high heat for five to seven minutes or until they seem darker and they smell wonderful. Add this to the spinach and bleu cheese and stir until everything is combined. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least four hours, or overnight. You want the mixture to be cold and dry so it doesn't make the puff pastry go flat.

Once you're ready to assemble the pastry, clean and dry an area of your countertop that is larger than the puff pastry. You're going to place a layer of phyllo dough, brush it with melted butter (especially the edges) and add another layer of dough on top until you have four to six layers of dough. Four layers is the minimum required to get puffiness, six layers will get you super-puffy crust so decided the crust to content ratio.

Taking a serrated knife cut the sheets lengthwise into three strips. Cut the dough widthwise so you have squares of dough. Place about a teaspoon of the spinach and cheese mix on the dough. Tear along the "dotted lines" and meet the opposite corners of the dough so you have a triangle. Brush the edges with more melted butter and brush a little on the top before transferring to a baking pan. Continue until you've used all your mixture or all your dough.

Bake in a 350-degree oven for about five to seven minutes or until brown. These have a tendency to burn quickly so keep an eye on them. Since you're mostly just cooking the dough, you could also put them about four inches under the broiler for about two to three minutes. They're more likely to burn with this method so be very aware.

Mango-Coconut Shrimp
2 pounds of deveined shrimp with shells removed (40 count or smaller)
Mango juice
1/8 cup of soy sauce
1 tablespoon of chili sauce
1 peeled piece of ginger about the size of 1/2 a wine bottle cork
Large pinch of ground pepper, or two peppercorns
1/2 cup of coconut

Wash the shrimp and remove the shells if they aren't already. Dump them into a one gallon-capacity plastic zipper bag. Add in the soy sauce, chili sauce, ginger and the pepper. Pour mango juice until this covers the shrimp. Squeezing all the air from the bag, seal it and refrigerate overnight. (So you don't have to clean your refrigerator the day of a party, put this into a bowl -- just in case.)

The following day, drain the liquid from the zipper bag into a small saucepan. Turn over a simmer and cook for 10 minutes. Keep an eye on it so it doesn't boil over. Simmer it for about 1/2 hour or until it is reduced to a light syrup consistency. Once it's close to reaching this consistency, put the coconut into a small non-stick skillet and place it over medium-high heat. Stir constantly with a wooden spoon. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F.

After about three to four minutes the coconut will start to darken. You want it to get as dark as you can without burning it. Once the coconut is toasted, pour it onto a chopping board and cut into smallish pieces. Turn the heat off under the sauce.

Cover your baking sheet with aluminum foil or parchment paper. Holding the shrimp by the tail, dip the shrimp into the sauce, shake off the excess and dip the shrimp into the coconut. Place onto the baking sheet, being careful not to let the shrimp touch.

Once you have a full tray, bake for five minutes. Transfer to a serving tray and be prepared for accolades and compliments.

Here's a good rule of thumb, when trying to determine how much food to buy or make for an appetizer party:

4 bites per person during the first hour
2 bites per person during the second and third hour
1 bite per person during the fourth and fifth hour

And during the sixth hour -- depending on how much you've had to drink -- a trip to any restaurant with Golden in its name.

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