Appetizers alfresco

Easy-to-make starters, spread on bread or crackers and accompanied by zesty, innovative dips, are perfect for hot summers.

311_soft cheese (photo credit: Bob Fila/KRT/MCT)
311_soft cheese
(photo credit: Bob Fila/KRT/MCT)
On really hot days, nothing beats simple, no-cook appetizers. They are perfect for summer parties, whether on the patio or at a picnic.
All sorts of foods can be made into quick savory treats. Soft cheeses and cooked meats are easily turned into spreads and dips, and can be served in several different ways – in a bowl accompanied by bread or crackers, spread on little toast slices as crostini or on fresh bread as canapes. For a more colorful presentation, use spreads as fillings for vegetables – halved small tomatoes, hollowed-out cucumber chunks, celery sticks or small pepper halves.
Almost every cuisine boasts easy-to-make meal starters. The Middle East is celebrated for its tasty spreads, and there’s much more than humous, tehina and eggplant salad. You can use fava beans to make Egyptian humous-like bussara, which is flavored with garlic and fresh coriander, or blend tehina with cooked chard or other leafy greens. For Mediterranean eggplant dips that are a little different from the familiar ones, mix chopped roasted eggplant with pureed roasted sweet peppers, a little garlic and olive oil; it’s a no-cook appetizer if you buy the roasted eggplant and peppers from a deli. Chopped grilled tomatoes are a good addition to this eggplant-pepper dip. For a creamy Turkish and Persian twist on eggplant salad, replace the usual tehina with labaneh or rich, drained yogurt.
France is famous for its meat pâtés, but I like French cheese spreads as well. I am especially fond of herb cheese from Lyon in eastcentral France, made of soft white cheese mixed with creme fraiche, white wine and chives. Although it began as a topping for boiled potatoes as part of a workmen’s supper, it makes a popular party spread for bread or a dip for raw or cooked vegetables.
American-style dips are favorites of John Weiss, author of The Outdoor Chef’s Bible. At cookouts he serves them as a prelude to a barbecue main course. He makes a dill dip by mixing grated Parmesan, diced cucumber and dill into ranch salad dressing – creamy mayonnaise flavored with buttermilk or sour cream. To make a simple salmon dip composed primarily of pantry ingredients, he blends canned salmon with an equal amount of softened cream cheese, and then stirs in chopped green onion, ketchup and prepared horseradish; you can add these flavorings to your taste. He serves the dips with crackers, tortilla chips and plenty of raw, crunchy vegetables.
Michele Braden suggests that dips have received a bad name because people made them from artificially flavored packaged mixes, and prefers to call homemade dips “dunks.” In her book, Fast & Fabulous Hors d’oeuvres, she notes that dunks can be vinaigrette types, Mexican or Asian style, or creamy ones based on sour cream or mayonnaise. Dunks are versatile, wrote Braden, and “can also be used for salad dressings, bread spreads, marinades and/or entree sauces.” Braden likes dill sour cream flavored with mustard and wine vinegar as a dunk for boiled baby potatoes, and two-ingredient pickled mango dip, made of yogurt mixed with pickled mango, for raw or lightly cooked vegetables.
Betty Rosbottom, author of First Impressions, recommends innovative dips, like reddish creole sauce, a vinaigrette-type mixture whirled quickly in the blender from olive oil, tarragon vinegar and aromatic flavorings – garlic, green onions, celery, hot pepper sauce, ketchup and mustard. She serves the zesty sauce with lightly cooked whole green beans for dipping, or with celery or sweet pepper sticks. Her simple, light tomato-yogurt dip is surprisingly tasty and yet involves very little effort. It’s made of low-fat yogurt mixed with chopped ripe tomatoes, fresh dill, salt and freshly ground pepper and is accompanied by toasted pita triangles.
Serve these recipes as savory starters for a dinner, or make them the center of a casual outdoor party.
My mother made her vegetarian pâté this way and served it as an opener for Shabbat meals. It’s easy because the only cooking necessary is sauteing the onions. The well-browned onions are combined with canned peas and chopped pecans. My mother preferred to use a meat grinder to blend the mixture rather than a food processor, to achieve a better texture.
Serve this pate on a bed of lettuce garnished with tomato wedges and radishes, with fresh halla or other bread or with crackers.
3 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 large onion, chopped
two 400 gr. cans peas, drained
1⁄2 cup pecans
1 hard boiled egg
salt and freshly ground pepper
Heat oil in a large skillet, add onions and saute over medium heat, stirring often, for 10 minutes or until golden brown.
In a meat grinder or food processor, grind peas, pecans and sauteed onions with their oil. If using a meat grinder, grind egg with the other ingredients. If using a food processor, coarsely grate the egg, then lightly stir it into the mixture in a bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Serve cold.
Makes 8 to 10 servings.
Serve this dip as a spread for fresh baguette slices or toast or with the traditional accompaniment of hot boiled or steamed potatoes. Lyon chef Jean Paul Lacombe likes variations made with goat cheese or soft sheep’s milk cheese and recommends serving the spread with carrot and celery sticks, radishes and beets.
450 gr. cream cheese or soft white cheese
1⁄3 to 1⁄2 cup creme fraiche or sour cream
3 or 4 Tbsp. dry white wine
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 to 2 tsp. white wine vinegar
1 or 2 minced shallots or white parts of green onions, or 4 minced garlic cloves
2 Tbsp. chopped chives, or more to taste
1⁄4 cup finely chopped parsley
salt and freshly ground pepper
Beat cheese with a wooden spoon until very smooth. Beat in cream, followed by wine, oil and vinegar. Stir in shallots, chives and parsley, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve cold in a bowl.
Makes 8 to 10 servings.
This tasty, easy-to-prepare appetizer, a mixture of crumbled feta, roasted red peppers, green onions and garlic, is from Melissa’s Everyday Cooking with Organic Produce, written by my friend Cathy Thomas. When I tasted it at a party celebrating the book’s publication, it was made with sweet, slightly hot Spanish pequillo peppers and was served in leaves of Belgian endive. It’s also delicious when made with roasted sweet peppers and rolled up in small romaine or other lettuce leaves or spread on fresh pita or crackers.
You can substitute Bulgarian cheese for the feta.
4 roasted red bell peppers (see Note below), cored, seeded, chopped or 200 gr. roasted red bell peppers from a jar or from the deli, drained, chopped
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp. fresh lemon juice
1⁄4 cup minced green part of green onions
100 gr. to 120 gr. crumbled feta cheese freshly ground pepper to taste (optional)
3 to 4 heads Belgian endive, separated into leaves (optional)
In medium bowl combine peppers, garlic, oil, juice, green onions and cheese. Taste, and add pepper if you like.
Either serve it from the bowl; or if you like, place a spoonful of mixture on each endive leaf – the amount needed will vary depending on the size of leaves. Arrange leaves on a platter and serve cold.
Makes 20 to 30 small hors d’oeuvre servings on Belgian endive leaves, or 6 to 8 servings as a dip.
Note: To roast and peel a pepper: Broil pepper on rack of a broiler pan under a preheated broiler about 5 centimeters from heat, turning it every 5 minutes, for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the skin is blistered and charred. Enclose pepper in a bag and let it steam for 10 minutes, or until cool enough to handle. Peel pepper with the aid of a paring knife. Discard seeds and ribs. Pat pepper dry.
Faye Levy is the author of 1,000 Jewish Recipes.