First course, of course

Setting the tone for parties with hors d’oeuvres

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    Bacon-wrapped Dates With Parmesan in a selection of hors d'oeuvres, perfect for any party, on August 8, 2013.

    The Blade/Amy E. Voigt
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  • Bacon-wrapped Dates With Parmesan in a selection of hors d'oeuvres, perfect for any party, on August 8, 2013.
    Bacon-wrapped Dates With Parmesan in a selection of hors d'oeuvres, perfect for any party, on August 8, 2013.

    The bacon-wrapped Parmesan-stuffed dates went first, of course. They always do.

    My wife and I did some of the cooking for a recent party event, and although I made what looked to me like a good-sized mountain of Parmesan-stuffed, bacon-wrapped dates, they disappeared before everyone even had a chance to go through the buffet line.

    That’s what you get, I suppose, for serving bacon-wrapped anything at a party. You could wrap bacon around a Crescent wrench and people would take grab it first at a party.

    Good parties begin with good hors d’oeuvres. They help break the ice and set the tone, they give the attendees something to do — or at least something to nibble on — while they first meet each other. If the hors d’oeuvres are particularly memorable, they will only make the party seem that much better. Even if the focus of the party is not on the food, a clever hors d’oeuvre or two is the first step to assuring its success.

    Which is where the bacon-wrapped Parmesan-stuffed dates come in. They have become my go-to hors d’oeuvre for parties, particularly when there will be people there I don’t know. They’re impressive, they are easy to make (though a little bit time-consuming), and everybody, absolutely everybody, loves them.

    For people who do not want to eat bacon, you could leave it out and just serve dates that have been stuffed with Parmesan cheese and then baked. That’s just as good. And if there will be vegans in the crowd, well, that is one reason it is so important to serve more than one hors d’oeuvre at any party.

    So at that recent party, we also made cheese wafers, insanely delicious little biscuits that must be a southern specialty because a.) they resemble cheese straws, only flatter and rounder, and b.) I’ve only had them in the South.

    Although they are almost ethereally light, cheese wafers deliver an enormous taste. Like so many other addictive treats, the secret to this apparent paradox can be summed up in one word: calories.

    Basically, cheese wafers are nothing but sharp cheddar cheese and butter, along with just enough flour to hold them together, plus a dash of cayenne pepper for seasoning. They will never be mistaken for a healthy dish, but who wants to eat healthy things at a party?

    Actually, many people do — if only to balance out the fat in the cheese wafers. And so we also made caprese skewers, which are natural and good for you and every bit as pleasing as the other hors d’oeuvres. On top of that, they look great, too.

    "Protein Dip" in a selection of hors d'oeuvres, perfect for any party, on August 8, 2013.

    For these tempting little bites, we took the always-popular concept of a caprese salad — tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil, splashed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar — and shrunk it down to finger-food size. Instead of tomato slices we used cherry tomatoes, and instead of slices of mozzarella we used those little mozzarella balls. After carefully folding a single basil leaf around the piece of cheese, we threaded it all onto a colorful toothpick.

    And to give additional visual appeal, we used two different cherry tomatoes on each skewer, one red and one yellow.

    Also making hors d’oeuvres for the party was our friend Judy Stone, who brought the dish for which she is most famous in some circles, her mystery dip. The dip is popular enough, and the name vague enough, that some of its many fans have spent restless hours trying to guess what is in it. The truly addictive flavor is unusually hard to pin down, and some people think it contains shrimp or crab legs.

    As it turns out, it has neither. Ms. Stone was kind enough to provide us her recipe, and its ingredients are simple: mozzarella, mayonnaise, sour cream, a sprinkling of Parmesan, and a few everyday spices (garlic, onion, parsley). Perhaps that is why the dip is so versatile. She uses it in everything from omelets and French bread (broiled on top, with chopped tomatoes) to a topping for bell pepper slices, celery, and crackers. Once, she said, she mixed it into a pot of macaroni and cheese.

    And while we did not happen to take them to this particular event, whenever we give parties at home we like to serve spiced nuts in little dishes around the living room. The idea is that the guests come upon them while mingling, sometimes far from the rest of the food. It is a little surprise for them, a delicious bit of unexpected wonderfulness.

    Usually, when I make them I make the subtly sweet vanilla walnuts from the exceptional Frog/Commissary Cookbook. But I wanted to try something a little bit new, a little more savory. So I turned to that same cookbook and made bourbon pecans. Despite the name, the flavor of taste is not pronounced; they are also flavored with Worcestershire sauce, Angostura bitters, and cumin.

    Caprese Skewers in a selection of hors d'oeuvres, perfect for any party, on August 8, 2013.
    Caprese Skewers in a selection of hors d'oeuvres, perfect for any party, on August 8, 2013.

    These nuts were every bit as tempting as the vanilla walnuts, though they come with quite a kick. If you don’t want your snacks to be spicy hot, simply tone down the cayenne and black pepper.

    The same goes for what the equally delicious curried walnuts — another misleading name, because they do not contain curry powder. The word “curry” does not necessarily imply the use of curry powder; it actually just refers to a combination of spices (curry powder itself is a combination of spices). But if the name “curried walnuts” still throws you, just call them “spiced walnuts.” Then serve them at a party.

    Your guests will think better of you for it.

    Contact Daniel Neman at: or 419-724-6155.



    Bacon-Wrapped Dates with Parmesan

    • 1 small wedge of Parmesan cheese, whole
    • 12 pitted, dried dates
    • 4 slices bacon

    Preheat the oven to 450°.

    Cut 12 slivers of Parmesan, each small enough to fit in the cavity of a pitted date. Insert a sliver of Paremsan into each date.

    Cut the bacon slices into three equal pieces, lengthwise. Wrap each bacon slice around each stuffed date, then place the dates on a baking sheet. Bake them for 15 minutes. Serve them hot or cold, immediately or later. It really doesn't matter, as they are delicious any way.

    Yield: 12 servings; Source: My Beverly Hills Kitchen: Classic Southern Cooking with a French Twist, by Alex Hitz


    Judy's Mystery Dip

    • 1 cup sour cream
    • 2 cups mayonnaise
    • 1 tablespoon seasoned pepper, see cook's note
    • 1 teaspoon garlic salt
    • 1 teaspoon onion flakes
    • 1 teaspoon parsley flakes
    • 1 teaspoon sugar, see cook's note
    • 1 teaspoon flavor enhancer such as Accent, see cook's note
    • 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
    • 1 pound shredded mozzarella cheese

    Cook's note: Seasoned pepper is available in the spice aisle of grocery stores. The recipe's creator uses a sugar substitute in place of sugar. Flavor enhancers such as Accent are made from monosodium glutamate, which causes headaches in some people; it can be left out of the recipe if you choose, but add a little salt to taste.

    Mix together all ingredients except the shredded mozzarella cheese. Stir in the shredded cheese (the mixture may seem too moist before this step) and refrigerate until ready to serve with crackers or crudites.

    Source: Judy Stone; Yield: 4 cups





    Curried Walnuts

    • 1 pound walnut halves
    • ½ cup sugar
    • 2½ tablespoons corn oil
    • ½ teaspoon salt
    • ¼ teaspoon pepper
    • ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper, see cook's note
    • 1¼ teaspoons ground cumin
    • ¼ teaspoon coriander
    • ½ teaspoon ginger
    • ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
    • ½ teaspoon chili powder

    Cook's note: These nuts are spicy hot. If you like your food with less of a kick, use less cayenne.

    Preheat the oven to 325°.

    Blanch the walnuts in boiling water for 1 minute and drain well. While still hot, put in a bowl and toss with the sugar and corn oil. Let stand 10 minutes. Arrange in a single layer on a rimmed baking tray. Bake for 30-35 minutes, turning every 5-10 minutes. When nuts are brown and crispy, put them into a bowl. Combine the seasonings and toss with the still-warm nuts. Spread the nuts in a single layer to cool completely. Store in an airtight container.

    Yield: 4 cups; Source: The Frog/ Commissary Cookbook, by Steven Poses, Anne Clark, and Becky Roller




    Bourbon Pecans

    • 1 pound pecan halves
    • 3 ounces bourbon, reduced by half to 3 tablespoons
    • ½ cup sugar
    • ½ teaspoon Angostura bitters
    • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
    • 1 tablespoon corn oil
    • ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
    • ½ teaspoon salt
    • ¼ teaspoon pepper
    • 1 teaspoon ground cumin

    Preheat the oven to 325°.

    Blanch the pecans for 1 minute in boiling water. Drain. Combine the reduced bourbon, sugar, Angostura bitters, Worcestershire sauce, and corn oil. Turn the still-hot nuts in a bowl and toss with the bourbon mixture. Let stand 10 minutes and then spread on a rimmed sheet tray. Bake for 30-50 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes.

    When nuts are crisp and lightly brown and the liquid has evaporated, turn the nuts into a bowl. Combine the cayenne, salt, pepper, and cumin. sprinkle over the nuts while tossing. Turn out onto a sheet pan to cool in a single layer. Store in an airtight container.

    Yield: 4 cups; Source: The Frog/ Commissary Cookbook, by Steven Poses, Anne Clark, and Becky Roller




    Caprese Skewers

    • 12 fresh mini mozzarella balls or
    • 1 fresh 8-ounce ball
    • 48 cherry tomatoes
    • 24 large leaves of basil
    • Extra-virgin olive oil Balsamic vinegar

    Cut the mini mozzarella balls in half or scoop out 12 balls from the larger pieces of mozzarella with a melon baller and then cut those in half.

    Spear one cherry tomato on each of 24 long toothpicks (preferably colored brightly or with plastic frills on one end). Next, spear a piece of basil near one end of the leaf. Slide on half of a mozzarella ball, curve the basil leaf over the top of it and spear the leaf on the other end. Finish with another cherry tomato — if using two different colors of cherry tomatoes, put one color on the bottom of the skewer and the other color on top.

    Drizzle good-quality extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar over the top, and season lightly with salt and pepper.

    Yield: 24 servings; Source: Adapted from Elizabeth Goel and Suyai Steinhauer


    1770 Cheese Biscuits

    • 1 pound extra-sharp cheddar cheese
    • 1 cup (2 sticks) butter, well chilled
    • 3 cups flour
    • 2 teaspoons salt
    • Cayenne pepper, to taste
    • Paprika

    Preheat oven to 400°

    Fast method: With a food processor fitted with the shredding blade, shred the cheese. Remove the cheese to a bowl and then shred the butter (you don't have to clean the food processor between uses). Remove the butter to another bowl. Sift half the flour (1½ cups) and half the salt (1 teaspoon) into the processor, and return half the cheese and half the butter. Sprinkle with a little cayenne pepper to taste, and process until dough comes together in a ball. Repeat with the other half of the ingredients.

    Slower method: Shred the cheese on a grater. Cut the butter into small cubes. Sift the flour, salt, and a few sprinkles of cayenne pepper to taste into a large bowl. Cut in the cheese and butter.

    Divide all the dough into four balls, and roll each ball into a log about 2 inches thick. Wrap each log with plastic wrap, and place in freezer for 20 minutes (and no longer) or refrigerator for 40 minutes.

    Cut each roll into rounds about ½-inch thick and place them 1½ inches apart on an ungreased baking sheet. Sprinkle lightly with paprika and bake 15 minutes, 16 minutes if the rolls had been in the freezer.

    Yield: About 50; Original source: Unknown