I recently went to a gathering of old college buddies. Reunions often turn out to be curious in the unexpected and unpredictable ways many of us have changed over the years. But in this case, my puzzlement was caused by the wording of the invitation itself. The cash bar was no surprise; after all, unless a hedge fund manager was underwriting the event, it would be foolhardy to offer free drinks to this crowd. What threw me was the phrase “Heavy Hors D’Oeuvres.” As opposed to what? Light hors d’oeuvres? Were we talking about the weight of the food or the amount and variety? I had no idea.
It turned out that there were a lot of hot and cold hors d’oeuvres, enough to constitute a light meal, although some food was on the heavy side. It was good to have a variety of snacks to go along with the drinks.
Americans have reputations for being snackers, and often that carries negative connotations of obesity and poor nutrition. At the same time, we’re criticized because we frequently drink alcoholic beverages in the absence of food. Both of those observations are valid, though they do seem contradictory. In many societies, it is customary to nibble on something while drinking. Think of tapas in Spain or mezedes in Greece. The practice of accompanying alcohol with food is a sensible one in terms of both enjoyment and sobriety.
Who doesn’t enjoy eating a variety of foods, either as a prelude to a meal or as the meal itself? This has given rise to restaurants that feature “small plates,” appetizer-size portions that can be combined to make a meal. In truth, the appetizer section of restaurant menus is often more interesting than the entree section. I don’t know why, but it sometimes prompts me to make a meal entirely of appetizers. And count me among those who love dim sum at Chinese restaurants. Tasting menus are an extension of the same desire for variety. Instead of having an appetizer and a main course, diners are offered a succession of very small portions of signature items.
When I lived in Chicago there was a holdover law dating back to the temperance movement that prohibited bars from offering free food. To get around this absurdity, savvy tavern owners would charge a pittance for something to eat as long as you bought a drink. One place offered fried chicken on Sundays for a nickel. A bar near the office laid out a sumptuous array of foods, a literal smorgasbord, for which patrons paid a quarter. I don’t know if such places still exist, but if they don’t, they should.
Where I live now, in Acadiana, many bars have a tradition of serving a free supper one night a week. It might be a rabbit spaghetti, fried fish, chili, gumbo, jambalaya or even something more elaborate. (I once walked into a country bar where the owner was putting out trays of fried soft-shell crabs. Talk about lagniappe!) For someone who is so inclined and can keep his days straight, it’s possible to get a free meal at a different bar almost every night of the week.
With all the parties this time of year, we’ll have plenty of opportunities to enjoy something to eat with our drinks. The following recipes are a few possibilities that don’t require a great deal of time or effort to prepare.
Mushrooms Stuffed with Boudin
Boudin is a versatile sausage that can be enjoyed on its own or incorporated into a variety of preparations.
• 1 pound small white mushrooms
• 1 tablespoon olive oil
• 1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
• 1/2 pound boudin
Preheat broiler and grease a baking sheet.
Wash mushrooms and dry thoroughly. Remove stems and reserve for another use.
In a large bowl, toss mushroom caps with olive oil and salt.
Remove boudin from casing and stuff mushroom caps.
Place stuffed mushrooms on baking sheet and broil until nicely browned, about 5-6 minutes.
Makes about 3 dozen stuffed mushrooms.
Gorgonzola and Roasted Walnut Spread
This is an all-purpose spread that can be served on small slices of pumpernickel, croutons or crackers. It is also wonderful melted over a grilled steak.
• 1/2 cup walnuts
• 3/4 cup gorgonzola
• 4 tablespoons butter
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Place walnuts on baking sheet and roast in preheated oven, tossing occasionally, until lightly toasted, about 8-10 minutes.
Rub walnuts between your fingers to flake off walnut skins.
Transfer walnuts to bowl or food processor and pulse until finely chopped.
Add gorgonzola and butter and process until smooth.
Makes about 1 cup.
Nothing could be simpler, more delicious or more elegant than crab salad.
• 1 pound lump crabmeat
• 2 tablespoons lemon juice
• 1/4 cup mayonnaise
• 1 tablespoon chopped parsley
• Cayenne pepper to taste
• Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
• Croutons or crackers
In a medium bowl, combine crab, lemon juice, mayonnaise and parsley.
Toss gently to combine and season with cayenne, salt and pepper.
Serve with croutons or crackers.
Makes about 2 cups.
This assertive sauce from the Piedmont region of Italy is a welcome departure from the mayonnaise and sour cream dips often served with raw vegetables. It is also delicious spooned over steamed vegetables.
• 4 tablespoons butter
• 4 garlic cloves, minced
• 1 (2 ounces) can anchovy filets, drained
• 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
• Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
• Bread sticks
• Assorted vegetables, such as carrots, celery, bell peppers, fennel, zucchini, broccoli, cauliflower, cut as for crudities
Combine butter, garlic and anchovies in saucepan over low heat.
Using a large spoon, mash anchovies and simmer until garlic is softened.
Add olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
Serve hot with vegetables and bread sticks for dipping.
Makes about 1 cup sauce.
Chicken Wings Tom Yum
Tom yum paste is a hot and sour chili paste seasoned with lemon grass, lime, shallot, garlic and other ingredients.
It is used to make soup in Thailand and Laos, but it can also flavor other dishes, such as these chicken wings.
The paste is easy to find in Asian markets, but purchasing chicken wings in the supermarket is another matter.
Shoppers now have the option of choosing whole wings or what are sometimes labeled “party wings,” which are the second and third joints of the wing that have been separated and are sold without the wing tips.
There are also packages labeled “drumettes” and “wingettes.” Take your choice.
Using lime juice in the recipe intensifies the piquancy of the dish, while mango nectar tones it down.
• 12 chicken wings
• 1/4 cup tom yum paste
• 1/4 cup lime juice or mango nectar
If using whole wings, separate the three sections with a knife.
Reserve wing tips (first joint) for making stock.
Combine tom yum paste with lime juice or mango nectar in a bowl.
Add wing sections and coat thoroughly. Cover and marinate for an hour or longer.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Place a rack on a heavy baking sheet.
Place wings on rack and roast for 15 minutes in preheated oven.
Turn wings over and roast until nicely browned and cooked through, about 10 minutes.
Drain on paper towels.
Makes 24 “wings.”