Appetizers that aim to please

Published: Thursday, December 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, November 29, 2005 at 11:12 a.m.

At our house, home entertaining reaches a fever pitch this time of year —whether it’s hosting a New Year’s Eve party for family or friends or surrounding ourselves with the sounds of the Super Bowl at the end of January.

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Whatever the occasion, when dinner isn’t part of the plan, I like to serve something a little more substantial than a bowl of party mix or chips and ready-made dip. But I also like to keep things simple. The appetizing recipes here fulfill both needs with panache.


Too often at our house, pre-planning isn’t part of the plan. Folks we haven’t seen for years have been known to breeze into town with little or no advance notice. Or sometimes we get a craving for social contact that can only be satisfied by inviting people over at the spur of the moment.

Terranova Catering’s owner Barbara Cook has several tasty solutions to this problem, one that she’s often encountered when entertaining in her own home.

“Hummus is an easy-to-prepare item and can be dressed up for a really beautiful presentation or simply spooned into a rustic bowl and set out with a few wedges of flatbread,” she says. “It tastes great with a selection of unusual microbrews, which are increasingly available at Dorn’s, Wine and Cheese Gallery and Wards.” It’s also one of those foods that doesn’t require a trip to the store — the ingredients can be kept on hand in the pantry for those last minute get-togethers. Cook’s hummus also has an interesting story behind it.

“I have an Israeli friend here in town named Osnat Teitlebaum who is also a frequent customer at Terranova’s table at the Downtown Farmer’s Market,” says Cook. “She tasted our hummus and said, ‘Barbara, we need to work on your hummus recipe.’” So with a bit of collaboration, the two women created a recipe that is more authentic than Cook’s original recipe and still appealing to the American palate. “Gainesville has a lot of talented cooks from a variety of ethnic traditions who can be valuable resources for injecting variety into your cooking,” says Cook.

Another favorite and fairly simple recipe of Cook’s that doesn’t require too much time and effort: Tortellini Skewers with Basil and Sun-Dried Tomatoes. The basic ingredients: fresh tri-colored tortellini found in the refrigerated pasta section of the grocery store, along with a jar of sundried tomatoes and fresh basil. After the tortellini is cooked, it is marinated in lemon juice for at least 30 minutes. She serves the tortellini at room temperature on skewers together with sun-dried tomatoes wrapped in fresh basil leaves.

Other food items that are easy to have on hand and can be combined into a really great impromptu antipasto platter include peppered salami, roasted red peppers, marinated artichoke hearts, Mediterranean cheeses, olives or an olive tapanade, sundried tomatoes, string beans tossed with pesto and baked crunchy breads, toasts and bread sticks—most of these should be available at Uppercrust, Dorn’s and the Wine and Cheese Gallery. “Add a couple of interesting Spanish wines and the party is ready to go,” says Cook.


If I’m fortunate enough to have a few days notice and can find avocados in the grocery store, one crowd-pleaser I often serve is guacamole and tortilla chips. There’s a bit of chopping and scooping and mashing involved, but I can usually prepare a batch of fresh guacamole in less than 30 minutes.

The only cooking that’s required comes in the form of roasting and grinding whole cumin seeds — the “secret” ingredient that makes this guacamole special. (It’s really not that difficult—I’m a lowmaintenance cook; I wouldn’t do it if it took too much trouble.) And after experiencing the full-bodied flavor of roasted ground cumin, it’s tough to imagine ever using store-bought powdered cumin again. I use a 6-inch cast-iron skillet for roasting the cumin seeds and a mortar and pestle for grinding them. A clean pepper mill or spice grinder also works. (Whole cumin seeds can be found in many area grocery stores, as well as Asian and Indian grocery stores.) As for the guacamole, the rest is easy. Stir, season and serve.

Another fresh dip that goes well with tortilla chips is a simple, homemade salsa developed by Diane Howard, a licensed social worker and graduate of the culinary arts program at Florida Community College in Jacksonville. This colorful salsa is made with tomatoes, onions, jalapeno peppers, cilantro, lime juice, olive oil and salt. (I make a similar version with an added 1/4 teaspoon roasted ground cumin.) Fresh salsas like this one also perk up the flavor of tacos, tostadas, black beans and rice or chicken and rice. For those who don't like it hot, omit the chili peppers.


Guacamole and hummus aren’t exactly diet foods. With so many people these days watching their waists, the considerate host will want to serve something on the lighter side. But too often, low-fat foods are low in flavor, as well. The reason, explains Howard, is that a lot of the flavor in foods comes from fat. “If you really want to give low-fat foods flavor, you need to ratchet up the seasonings.”

Howard has done just that with the two recipes here. One of her party favorites is Caponata Bruschetta, an eggplant-and-plum tomato spread that is served on thinly sliced, toasted bread. Another is baked artichoke dip made with cannellini beans, Parmesan cheese and a touch of brandy. “Hot artichoke dip is great in the fall and winter because it’s warm.” she says. This recipe, made without mayonnaise, also contains a lot less fat than conventional hot artichoke dips. Howard recommends serving it with toasted bread triangles or low-fat crackers.


Serves 8-10

From Barbara Cook, Terranova Catering Company


6 cloves garlic

2 1/2 cups garbanzo beans (chick peas), cooked or canned (drain before using)

1/2 cup lemon juice

1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 can (4 ounces) tahini (sesame paste)

1/2 teaspoon salt

Pinch of cayenne pepper

1/4 cup toasted pine nuts

1 fresh red pepper, cut into wedges

1 package Mediterranean flat bread or pita, cut into wedges


  • Place garlic, garbanzo beans, lemon juice, cumin, olive oil, tahini and salt into a food processor. Process until smooth. Pour into serving bowl and garnish with pine nuts, a pinch of ground cayenne pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil. Serve on a platter with slices of red pepper and flat bread or pita.

  • Hummus can be made up to two days in advance and flat bread can be cut and stored in plastic. Return hummus and bread to room temperature before plating, garnishing and serving. “Gainesville has a lot of talented cooks from a variety of ethnic traditions who can be valuable resources for injecting variety into your cooking.”



    Serves 8-10

    From Barbara Cook, Terranova Catering Company


    1 pound fresh tri-colored cheese tortellini

    1 jar sun-dried tomatoes in oil, drained and halved

    Medium sized fresh basil leaves

    4-inch wooden skewers

    Zest of 2 lemons to use as garnish


    Zest of 2 lemons (use microplane zester or box grater)

    4 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice (approx 2 - 3 lemons)

    3/4 cup olive oil

    Salt and black pepper


  • Cook tortellini until tender. Drain and rinse. Toss with a splash of olive oil and cool in a single layer on a cookie sheet to prevent sticking. Whisk marinade ingredients until well combined and thick. Salt and pepper to taste. Toss cooled tortellini and marinade together in a bowl to coat each piece. Cover and marinate for 30 minutes.

  • Thread one tortellini and one sun-dried tomato wrapped in one basil leaf onto each skewer. Place on platter. Drizzle with extra marinade if needed. Sprinkle with lemon zest for color. Serve at room temperature.

  • Tortellini can be marinated up to one day in advance, covered and refrigerated. Assemble skewers up to four hours in advance. Return to room temperature before serving.


    Serves 6-8

    From Diana Tonnessen


    3 small (or 2 large) ripe avocados

    1 medium tomato, diced

    2 cloves garlic, minced

    1/3 cup fresh cilantro, minced

    1 jalapeno or 2 fingerhot peppers, minced (optional)

    1 teaspoon roasted ground cumin (see instructions)

    1-2 teaspoons salt, or to taste

    2 tablespoons fresh lime juice (about one lime)


  • Cut the avocados in half lengthwise, remove the seed and scoop out the flesh into a medium- sized bowl. Mash with a potato masher until fairly smooth. Add remaining ingredients to bowl. Stir until all ingredients are evenly blended. Taste and adjust seasonings, if necessary. Serve with warm tortilla chips.


    Whenever a recipe calls for ground cumin, I always use roasted cumin that I grind myself with a mortar and pestle. Although true aficionados of this seasoning advocate roasting only as much cumin as you will use for the recipe at hand, I often make much more than is necessary and store the whole roasted cumin seeds in a small jar, ready to grind as needed. Roasted cumin seeds hold their flavor for several weeks provided they are stored whole.


  • Place whole cumin seeds in a small (6-8 inch), dry skillet on high heat. (Cast iron works best.) Roast the cumin seeds, stirring now and then, until evenly browned. Using a spice grinder, clean pepper mill or mortar and pestle, grind the roasted cumin seeds to a fine powder.


    Serves 25

    From Diane Howard


    2 medium eggplants, peeled and diced into 1-inch cubes

    4 tablespoons raisins

    3 Vidalia onions, diced

    2 medium tomatoes, diced

    2 cloves garlic, minced

    1/4 cup parsley, chopped

    3 tablespoons capers

    2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

    3 tablespoons olive oil

    1 loaf French bread, sliced


  • Saute the onions and garlic in the oil. Add the eggplant and cook until soft. Add the tomatoes, capers, parsley, balsamic vinegar and raisins. Allow the flavors to blend and serve on thinly sliced toasted bread.


    Serves 4-6

    From Diane Howard


    1 cup tomatoes, diced

    1/4 cup cilantro, chopped

    2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

    1/4 cup onion, diced

    1/2 jalapeno pepper, diced fine

    2 tablespoons olive oil

    Pinch of salt


  • Mix ingredients in a medium bowl until blended. Serve with tortilla chips.


    Serves 10

    From Diane Howard


    2 14-ounce cans artichoke hearts (not in oil)

    3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

    1/8 teaspoon pepper

    10 ounces fresh spinach

    4 cloves garlic, minced

    1/4 cup water, divided

    2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

    1/2 teaspoon Tabasco sauce (or 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper)

    1 15-ounce can cannelloni beans

    4 ounces Neufchatel cheese, room temperature

    1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese

    6 green onions, diced

    2 tablespoons brandy (optional)


    Drain the artichoke hearts and place in a medium sized mixing bowl. Squeeze fresh lemon juice over artichoke hearts, toss with pepper and set aside. In a skillet, pour 1/8 cup water, half of the garlic and half of the spinach. Steam and toss until the spinach is limp. Drain excess water. Set aside. Slice half of the artichokes and add them to the spinach mix. Place mustard, Tabasco, cannellini beans, green onions, Neufchatel and half of the parmesan cheese into a food processor. Blend well. Coarsely chop the remaining artichokes and add them to the mixture. Pour the mixture into an 8 x 11 glass baking dish coated with nonfat cooking spray. Top with grated parmesan cheese and bake for 30 minutes at 350 degrees. Serve hot with toast squares or low-fat crackers.

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