Archive for the ‘Recipes – Appetizers’ Category

More Cheese, please….

I have to confess, I’m a big cheese fan and the holidays are coming. Yes, the two are connected – what other time of year can you count on for cheese in some form or another everywhere you go? You’ll see it in cubes and on crackers, diced and in slices, in dips, with chips on display for the snackers.  Plan on cheese in parfaits, in breakfast and spreads, in salads, in sandwiches and gift baskets ahead.

My friends are rolling their eyes about now since it is July and I’m already thinking about the holidays. But they know I’ve got a planning gene, and in my way of thinking the best way to ensure maximum cheese exposure is to start planning now.

I will surely be making a Baked Goat Cheese Dip, a proven winner on the holiday table. Just three ingredients – four if you include some sort of garnish – are all it takes and you’re on your way to stardom. Start with 2 – 8 oz. logs of soft goat cheese in a baking dish that you can serve in. Crumble one log and pour half of a 24 oz. jar of a good marinara sauce over cheese. Crumble remaining log and add more marinara to taste (I usually use about 16 – 18 oz of sauce).  Bake at 350 degrees until brown and bubbly, about 20 – 25 minutes.  Serve with thin slices of crusty bread or garlic toast.  Something green, like torn fresh basil or parsley makes a nice garnish.

I also plan on sliced soft Goat Cheese on Crostini (aka garlic toast) topped with fig jam and a salty ham like prosciutto, finished with a drizzle of honey.  Then there is ricotta cheese with so many uses – it makes a nice spread with a little honey, a touch of vanilla and pinch of salt mixed in (some add grated lemon zest). I serve this with fresh berries, or on breakfast waffles along with some chopped pecans, fresh orange slices and a sprinkle of cinnamon for a tasty and pretty presentation.  Soft goat cheese mixed in equal parts with cream cheese is a good base for mini sandwich spreads that are easily changed up by layering with various jams and jellies, sundried tomatoes packed in oil, chopped nuts, pesto, or chopped olives. Red pepper jelly and toasted pecans is a favorite combination. The goat cheese and cream cheese mixture works as a dip for bread sticks as well, that have been wrapped in a thin slice of ham.

A Holiday Buffet Star – Gorgonzola and Pear Spread with Pistachios

Nuts are abundant during the holidays, too. I take 2 pecan halves and stick them together with the goat cheese / cream cheese mixture and slices of guava paste. Then there is the Gorgonzola and Pear Spread, pictured above, a buffet magnet if there ever was one. The simplified version is to take ½ – 1/3 cup crumbled gorgonzola cheese, 8 oz. cream cheese, 2 oz. sour cream and one drained can of pears in 100% juice (save juice).  Combine cheeses and sour cream at room temperature. When soft add about 2 tablespoons of pear juice or more to taste and mix well. If you have it, add some chopped pieces of pear paste (available in Whole Foods and some grocery stores). Add chopped pears, saving a few for garnish with other fruit and chopped nuts, if desired. Serve with some nice quality crackers. While I’m thinking of it, you can substitute the pear theme in this spread with fig preserves and fig paste, or other fruit combinations.

For a quick dessert, combine cream cheese and peanut butter (2:1 ratio), add some maple syrup to taste, and thin if needed with a little whipping cream for a no-bake parfait. Top with real whipped cream and drizzle with maple syrup for an incredibly rich and creamy dessert. Here’s another – combine Greek yogurt (about 1 cup) with 2 tablespoons of cream cheese or mascarpone, a teaspoon or two of brown sugar and a squeeze of lime juice. Adjust flavors as needed then drizzle over fresh chopped mango and sprinkle with crumbled ginger cookies and flaked coconut. Serve in layers in a parfait glass for some holiday class.

You can substitute mascarpone for cream cheese, or Neufchatel in any of the recipes above, and know that we’ve not even scratched the surface of ways to use these cheeses. Look for obsessive ways with Parmesan and other cheeses in blogs to come. Season’s greetings! It will be here before you know it.

Everybody Loves Salsa

Thank you, Gord, for requesting a recipe for salsa, the number one condiment in America (and we thought it is ketchup!).  The word Salsa can refer to any fresh or cooked ‘sauce’ as well as an exhilarating Latin dance of Afro-Cuban origin, both of which contain hot and spicy elements. Most often the term is synonymous with a combination of just a few, but importantly, fresh chopped ingredients, including red-ripe Roma or plum tomatoes, white onions, spicy chilies, lime juice, garlic, and cilantro.

The beauty of salsa comes from its vivacious taste and texture, something that is lost in translation to the jarred form.  Other differences include the use of vinegar instead of lime juice and a soupier consistency in the jar salsa.  Fresh salsa is quick to make and is far superior to the processed version although the latter has its place. Jarred salsa has a shelf life of 6 months to a year and once opened about 30 days in the refrigerator.  Fresh salsas last about 7 days refrigerated, which in my house is 6 days longer than necessary.

Simple Salsa Ingredients: lime, tomatoes, jalapeno, onion, garlic, cilantro, and seasonings

A short-cut version for making salsa involves a food processor and canned, whole tomatoes, a fair stand-in for when fresh tomatoes are pale and long out of peak season.  For that method, canned tomatoes with their juice go in first and are briefly processed.  Roughly chopped onions and stemmed, seeded jalapeno follow (to taste) with a few short pulses of the processor, then cilantro is added along with lime juice and garlic. At this point continue to pulse until the texture you desire is reached, check for flavor and add salt, pepper, and a pinch of sugar (if needed).  Some will add various colors of bell peppers for a milder and more colorful presentation, use purple onions instead of white onions, and vary the heat by returning some seeds of the chilies to the mix or adding a combination of chilies (dried and fresh).

Following is a basic hand-made fresh salsa with a few ideas on its many uses.  For more recipes, refer to the undisputed authority on authentic Mexican cooking, Chef Rick Bayless and his many magnificent books or his website.  My slightly milder variation on his Salsa Mexicana is below:

Fresh Salsa

Serves:  4 – 6; Equipment: Cutting board, mixing bowl, knife, strainer, measuring spoons

½ medium white onion, diced (about ¼” pieces), rinsed in cool water and drained

4 – 5 plum or Roma tomatoes, diced

½ small stemmed, seeded chili, minced (ex: Jalapeno or Serrano)*

2 large cloves garlic, minced

1/3 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro, stems removed

Juice of a fresh lime

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Pinch of sugar, and freshly cracked pepper

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and season to taste (watch the salt if using tortilla chips). Chill for at least an hour or more to harmonize flavors.


  • Make a shrimp cocktail with the addition of sauteed shrimp and scallops as pictured above
  • Combine salsa with fresh avocado for a chunky guacamole
  • Add salsa to burritos, quesadillas, black beans or pinto beans
  • Use as a topping for fish or grilled meats
  • Puree salsa with some fresh celery and a dash of Worcestershire (thinned if needed with tomato juice) for a Bloody Mary
  • Make it fruity with the addition of chopped fresh mango, papaya, or pineapple
  • Use roasted chilies for a smokey essence
  • And a personal favorite, add some diced cucumber a little tomato juice, and call it an Americanized version of gazpacho (topped with a dollop of sour cream).

* Note that the chilies come in many sizes, and the one in the upper picture was the smallest on hand. I used about a quarter of it although I’m a bit of a panzy when it comes to the hot stuff.

Enthusiasts will enjoy learning about how the heat of chilies is measured by visiting ‘Eat More Chiles”. Both the chili membrane and seeds contain the heat but the membrane is more concentrated. The bottom line is let your taste buds be the judge. Chilies are subject to nature’s whims and will vary by weather and season, so use a little bit at a time, taste, then add more if needed (and don’t rub your eyes after handling them!).

A Real Happy Meal

Spring is in full swing in Central Florida.  Everywhere, flowers are blooming and tender baby vegetables are overflowing the produce bins.  I love this time of year when farmers’ markets are brimming with eye-candy, vibrantly-colored fruits and vegetables, and sweet aromas that border on intoxicating.

One of my seasonal favorites is the sunny yellow, orange and ruby-hued sweet peppers.  When eaten raw they make a delicious, quick and low calorie snack. When stuffed and roasted with goat cheese and basil pesto they are sublime.  As simple as it sounds, slice the peppers and remove seeds. Stuff with about a teaspoon each of goat cheese and pesto (the peppers will shrink some so be careful not to overfill).  Drizzle with your favorite oil and roast @ 400 degrees for about 15 minutes.  I serve them slightly cooled with fresh-cracked black pepper and leaves of fresh oregano or basil.

Stuff sweet peppers with your choice of herb cheeses, crab, or pesto and roast at 400 degrees for 15 minutes

As beautiful as they are, there’s more to sweet peppers than meets the eye. Research shows that certain foods such as peppers can help keep hormones and brain chemicals balanced, resulting in a sunnier, calmer state of mind. For some great tips on mood-enhancing foods, watch this five minute video ‘You’re never too old for a Happy Meal’ featuring registered dietician Dr. Sheila Dean of Palm Harbor Center for Health and Healing.

Mushrooms Forever

Mushrooms are one of my all-time favorite foods. I love them sautéed in garlic butter. They are welcome in my omelets, over steaks, in cheese sauces, on pizza and in quesadillas, as well as soups and stir fries. I love them in stuffing, on grilled sandwiches, in casseroles, their caps filled with crab or most anything imaginable.  The only use I don’t have for mushrooms is raw in fresh salads.

There are 5 main flavors associated with foods, according to an old text book picture of the human tongue I saw back in high school: salt, sweet, sour, bitter, and a recent edition, umami (some also add ‘spicy’ for a total of 6 flavors).  Umami is a Japanese word for ‘meaty’ or ‘savory’, a perfect description of the mushroom’s earthy essence.  Mushrooms can give depth and body to a sauce like few things can, making them a stealth ingredient in some of my sauces and soups (pureed and blended to remain anonymous).

The nutrients in mushrooms become more available to the body when cooked. Their strong cell walls take a little time to break down but will freely give up their treasures under heat. Other qualities of mushrooms: they are a low calorie food; a good source of potassium; contain B-vitamins and antioxidants (particularly selenium).  Some even have Vitamin D. One of the most thoroughly researched living things on earth, mushrooms are the basis for numerous antibiotics and other medicines including statin drugs (ex. LovaStatin, a derivative of the oyster mushroom).  Clinical studies are underway to validate the effectiveness of certain mushrooms in the treatment of cancer in humans. Animal studies have already confirmed the mushroom’s anti-tumor, antiviral, and cholesterol-lowering properties.  What’s not to love about mushrooms?  Let’s pay our respects and get cooking!

The following recipe is a scientific mystery. Put the baked mushrooms on a serving dish and they vanish! Great for entertaining and easily made ahead. Bake and serve immediately.

Garlic Mushrooms with Herb Cheese         

Serves: 4 polite guests get 2 each; or 1 selfish guest makes a meal

1 package (6.5 oz) Boursin Light Garlic & Herbs Gourmet Spreadable Cheese

Mushroom Caps (or whole mushrooms, stems removed – about 8 medium size)

2 Tablespoons butter

2 Tablespoons olive oil, or grapeseed oil

2 Tablespoons onions or shallots, minced

1 large garlic clove, minced

Parsley, minced, for garnish

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Remove stems from caps and wipe off mushrooms with a damp paper towel.  Stuff caps (level) with Herb & Garlic Boursin Cheese.  Put all mushrooms in a shallow baking dish.

In a small skillet over medium heat, melt butter and oil with onion (or shallots) and garlic. Sauté vegetables until tender, about 3 – 5 minutes.  Let sauce cool slightly then pour over mushrooms. Garnish mushrooms with parsley then bake uncovered for about 10 – 15 minutes or until done, still slightly firm but not mushy.  Remove to serving platter and drizzle garlic butter mixture over mushrooms. NOTE: You can get fancy and sprinkle on some toasted bread crumbs right before baking, and combine a small, well-drained can of crab meat in the cheese mixture (which will make it go a lot farther and you’ll need more mushrooms. Worse things could happen).

Sources: (American Cancer Society), and Nutrition Fact Sheet – Discover Mushrooms: Nature’s Hidden Treasures, American Dietetic Association, 9/2010).