Keep Your Cool and Entertain European Style
The festive season that begins around Thanksgiving and winds down January 2 is anything but a holiday for cooks. Entertaining is essential, but what’s needed is a quick getaway from the kitchen for busy hosts, and a break from big heavy meals for their overextended guests. Read on for a trio of European-themed cocktail parties that require little more than a whirlwind tour of a supermarket deli, specialty shop, or well-stocked pantry. Each menu is followed by one simple recipe, which is optional, but the only dish that would need to be prepared from scratch.
In Paris and other French cities, lighthearted street parties celebrate the arrival of Beaujolais Nouveau, a fresh young wine always released at one minute past midnight on the third Thursday in November. Then the race is on, as vendors compete to receive the first bottles, some arriving by high-speed helicopter, motorcycle, even hot-air balloon. It’s a fun marketing ploy that has inspired much smaller fetes in the U.S., usually promoted here as a good match for Thanksgiving turkey, and for those who don’t care for the astringent tannic flavor of aged red wines. Though one American critic sniffed that it’s akin to eating cookie dough, the lively and unpretentious Beaujolais Nouveau is just right for a casual buffet of rustic French hors d’oeuvres.
Start with a few baguettes and one or two other crusty peasant loaves from a good bakery. Buy one or more pâtés, cornichons (tiny dill pickles), and wholegrain mustard. Also look for large, plump green olives or the small black picholines. For a cheese board, choose at least three different shapes and intensities, accompanied by seedless red grapes and toasted walnuts.
For a quick fix, place a six- or eight-ounce wheel of Brie or Camembert in a shallow ovenproof serving dish, then top it with sliced almonds and a pat of butter. Bake at 350°F just until the almonds are browned and the cheese looks puffed, about 15 minutes. When guests cut into the rind, the warm cheese oozes out, ready to spread on bread or apple slices with the crisp almonds.
Toast “Santé!” (health) with Beaujolais—nouveau or aged—or with hard or fresh cider. Calvados is a French apple brandy, a fine way to end the evening.
Herbed Chèvre Spread, Four Ways
Each version makes about 1 pound
French chèvre (a soft goat cheese) is light in flavor and texture. Though common in most supermarkets, it can be expensive, so you could substitute an equal amount of Neufchâtel (which is sometimes labeled as reduced-fat cream cheese).
- 12 ounces chèvre, at room temp
tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
- Seasoning (see variations that follow)
Use a fork to mash the cheese with the butter until well incorporated; then thoroughly blend in the seasonings of your choice. Add salt to taste. Form into a log, wrap airtight in plastic, and refrigerate for at least two hours
(to allow the flavors to blend) or for up to a week.
Garlic-Pepper Chèvre: Blend in 2 finely minced garlic cloves and 1 teaspoon cracked black pepper. Roll the finished log in additional cracked black pepper.
Herb Chèvre: Blend in 2 finely minced garlic cloves,
2 tablespoons snipped fresh chives, and 1 tablespoon each of minced fresh parsley and rosemary. Roll the finished log in additional minced parsley.
Mediterranean Chèvre: Blend in 2 finely minced garlic cloves and 1 tablespoon each of drained small capers and minced sun-dried tomatoes. Roll
the finished log in toasted pine nuts or chopped
Fig and Ginger Chèvre: Blend in 2 tablespoons minced dried figs and 1 tablespoon minced crystallized ginger (sometimes packaged as candied ginger). Roll the
finished log in finely chopped toasted walnuts.
Recipe adapted from The Rustic Table: Simple Fare from the World’s Kitchens by Constance Snow
(William Morrow, 2005)