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Holiday happy hour: Easy appetizers for your holiday party table

December 21, 2015

Warm Butternut Squash and Cheddar Dip.

It’s tough to survive the holidays without putting on a few extra pounds. All those parties and family get-togethers have a way of tempting us with tasty treats that aren’t exactly calorie-conscious. From the cookies and other sugary sweets to the endless parade of mini-quiches and bacon-wrapped shrimp, we’re doomed if we dare show up even the tiniest bit hungry. And that doesn’t even take into account the alcohol.

We could offer to party-throwers a menu of heart-healthy recipes, but let’s be honest: Party-goers crave something they know isn’t especially good for them.

Here’s the challenge: You want your food to be so delicious-looking that it makes everyone’s mouth water, but healthful enough that no one feels guilty about eating a ton.

Below are recipes for some simple-but-tasty hors d’oeuvres that, save for the decadent blue cheese-pecan tart that’s worth every hip-hugging calorie, are relatively guilt free. Why go for the cheese ball, for instance, when you can make a creamy cheese dip with winter’s favorite vegetable, butternut squash? Instead of the standard shrimp cocktail, how about thin strips of lemongrass-marinated beef wrapped around crunchy scallions?

The best part is all can be assembled beforehand and then refrigerated, ready to be popped into the oven or finished off on the stovetop just before your guests arrive.

That way, you can have some fun, too.

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LEMONGRASS BEEF AND SCALLION ROLLS

PG tested

This dish is an easy version of the Japanese dish beef negimaki, Roll them ahead, wrap in plastic and store in the fridge until you’re ready to grill and serve. You’ll find lemongrass stalks in Asian markets.

1 1/2 pounds top round steak

4 lemongrass stalks, trimmed, pounded and minced

1 garlic clove, minced

2 tablespoons fish sauce

1 tablespoon honey

2 teaspoons or soy sauce

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

6 scallions

Toasted crushed sesame seeds, for serving

Place meat in freezer for 30 to 45 minutes, then slice as thinly as possible against the grain.

Combine lemongrass, garlic, fish sauce, honey, soy sauce and pepper in a large bowl and mix well. Add beef and toss to combine. Let beef marinate for up to 1 hour at room temperature, or up to 4 hours in the refrigerator.

Trim scallions and cut crosswise into halves or thirds, so that they are a bit longer than the width of the slices of beef. Bring 1 inch water to a simmer in a medium-size skillet over medium-high heat. Add scallions and blanch just until their color deepens, 15 to 20 seconds. Drain.

Preheat an outdoor grill, stovetop grill or panini press.

Roll each piece of beef around 1 or 2 pieces of scallion, and brush the excess marinade on outside of each roll. If desired, thread rolls onto wooden skewers or toothpicks that have been soaked in water.

Grill until just cooked through, 2 to 3 minutes per side, sprinkle with sesame seeds and serve hot.

Serves 4 to 8.

— "Paleo Planet: Primal Foods From the Global Kitchen" by Becky Winkler (Harvard Common Press, November 2015, $24.95)

ZESTY LINGUICA SPREAD

PG tested

This easy appetizer is a savory blend of spicy sausage and mildly tangy cream cheese. If you can’t find Portuguese sausage, substitute the more readily available chorizo. You can serve the spread with crackers, toast points or filo cups — I spooned it into buttery puff pasty cups. Yum.

1/2 pound linguica or chorizo sausage, casing removed

1 1/2 teaspoons olive oil

1/4 cup finely chopped onion

4 ounces cream cheese, softened or whipped

1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley

Dash or two hot sauce, to taste

Cut sausage into small pieces. Heat oil in skillet and add pieces of sausage and the onion. Saute until sausage get some color and the onions are soft and lightly golden, about 4 minutes. Cool completely, then transfer to the bowl of a food processor.

Process about 20 to 30 seconds or until meat and onions are fairly fine. Transfer to bowl and fold in cream cheese and parsley, mixing thoroughly. Add hot sauce, blending well. Serve immediately or cover and chill. Bring out 1/2 hour before using. Spread on toast points or fresh bread or add rounded teaspoons to miniature filo cups.

Makes 1 cup.

— "Authentic Portuguese Cooking" by Ana Patuleia Ortins (Page Street Publishing, October 2015, $32)

WARM BUTTERNUT SQUASH AND CHEDDAR DIP

PG tested

This warm dip for the holidays is totally unexpected but totally delicious. It features all the tastes of the season, plus cheese. Who doesn’t love cheese?

Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling and greasing

1 large butternut squash (about 3 1/2 pounds)

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

4 tablespoons unsalted butter (1/2 stick), plus more if needed

20 sage leaves

1 large onion, thinly sliced

4 medium cloves garlic, minced

8-ounce package cream cheese, at room temperature

1/2 cup sour cream

8 ounces cheddar cheese, shredded

Crackers or pita chips, to dip

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with foil. Grease a small baking dish with olive oil and set aside.

Peel, seed, and dice the squash into 1-inch cubes. Alternatively, use the microwave: Poke holes all over the squash with a fork or make shallow slits in the skin with a knife. Microwave squash for 3 minutes or until the skin and flesh have softened slightly. Peel squash and cut into cubes. Discard seeds.

Place squash cubes on the prepared sheet and drizzle with olive oil. Toss to coat. Season generously with salt and pepper. Roast squash until fork-tender and lightly browned, about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, melt butter in a large pan over medium heat. Add sage leaves and fry in butter until lightly crisped and beginning to darken slightly. Remove pan from heat and remove sage leaves using a slotted spoon. Set aside.

Return pan to heat, add onion, and season with salt and pepper. Continue to cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until onion has caramelized, about 30 minutes. Add more butter if onion begins to stick to pan. Stir in garlic at the very end and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.

Place roasted squash, caramelized onion mixture, and about 2/3 of the crispy sage leaves into the bowl of a food processor. Process until well combined. Add cream cheese and sour cream and process until smooth. Season with salt and pepper, if necessary. Transfer squash mixture to prepared baking dish and mix in half of the cheddar cheese throughout. Top with remaining half of cheese. (At this point, the dip can be covered and refrigerated for up to 3 days before baking and serving.)

When ready to serve, bake dip at 400 degrees until cheese is entirely melted and browned in spots, about 20 minutes. Top with remaining crispy sage leaves and serve warm with pita chips or crackers for dipping.

Serves 10.

— seriouseats.com

CAESAR-STUFFED EGGS

PG tested

Deviled eggs are an easy, inexpensive hors d’oeuvre for holiday tables. Take them to next level by adding the flavors of a Caesar salad. Sounds strange, but it works.

16 large free-range, organic eggs

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

Fine sea salt

2/3 cup olive oil

2 cloves garlic, grated or pasted

1 tablespoon anchovy paste

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper

1/2 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese, or 1/4 cup Pecorino Romano mixed with 1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

1 cup packed finely chopped romaine lettuce hearts, plus more for garnish.

Place eggs in medium saucepan with water to cover. Bring to rapid rolling boil. Cover pan, remove from heat and let stand 10 minutes.

Crack shells and let stand for 10 minutes in very cold water. Peel eggs. Halve them lengthwise and remove yolks. Set whites and yolks aside separately.

In medium bowl, whisk lemon juice and mustard. Season with salt. While whisking, stream in oil slowly, pouring it down the sides of bowl, to emulsify. Stir in garlic, anchovy paste, Worchestershire, pepper and cheese. Taste and adjust seasonings — It should taste like a thick Caesar dressing.

Mash egg yolks into dressing. Stir in chopped lettuce. Spoon mixture into small plastic food storage bag. Snip off one corner to make a small opening and pipe the filling into the egg white halves. Garnish with a bit more finely chopped lettuce.

Makes 16 servings.

— "Everyone Is Italian On Sunday" by Rachael Ray (Atria Books, Nov. 2015, $39.99)

PECAN MAPLE BLUE CHEESE BOURBON TART

PG tested

This might be the richest, most decadent tart you’ll ever eat. It’s sweet, salty and savory all in one bite. The gingersnap crust especially speaks to the season.

For crust

20 whole gingersnap cookies

1 cup toasted pecans

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/3 cup oat flour

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

For filling

2 large eggs

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup sour cream

2 tablespoons dark maple syrup

1 tablespoon good bourbon

1 cup crumbled good blue cheese, like Jasper Hill Bayley Hazen Blue

1/2 cup coarsely chopped toasted pecans

For garnish

1/2 cup whole pecans

1 teaspoon granulated sugar

1/2 teaspoon maple sugar

Make the crust: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Break the gingersnaps into large pieces with your hands, then grind to crumbs in a food processor with the pecans, salt, and flour. Pour the crumbs into a large bowl and stir in the butter.

With your hands, press the buttery crumbs into one standard 9- to 9 1/2-inch tart pan or 6 4- to 5-inch mini tart pans.

Bake for 10 to 12 minutes for mini tarts or 12 to 15 minutes for a large tart, until the crust is matte and toasted. The crust may puff up slightly when baked; use the bottom of a dry measuring cup to press it back into shape, especially around the edges.

Cool completely before filling. The crusts can be made 1 day in advance of baking; cool and cover with a clean towel or plastic wrap and store at room temperature until ready to fill.

Make filling: Beat the eggs and sugar together in a large bowl with an electric hand mixer on medium speed for about 2 minutes, until very pale, thick and frothy.

With a spatula, stir in the sour cream, bourbon, and maple syrup until blended. Fold in the blue cheese and pecans. Pour the filling into the prepared tart crust. (If making mini tarts, reduce the amount of each filling ingredient by half.) Place on a rimmed baking sheet and bake at 375 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes (25 to 30 minutes for mini tarts) until the filling is uniformly puffed and set, with patches of golden brown appearing across its surface. Carefully transfer the tart to a rack and cool completely before garnishing and serving. The tart will deflate as it cools — Don’t worry, it’s totally normal.

Make garnish: Heat the pecans in a small skillet over medium-low heat for about 5 minutes, tossing frequently, until the nuts are very warm to the touch and starting to release their natural oils and aroma. Add the granulated sugar 1/4 teaspoon at a time, stirring with a silicone spatula or wooden spoon to coat the nuts in the sugar as it melts in the hot pan.

Pour the 1/2 teaspoon maple sugar into a small heatproof bowl. Add the nuts and toss to coat until they’re crystallized. Top the tart with pecans in a design of your choice and eat any leftovers.

Makes 1 large or 6 mini tarts.

— Casey Barber, Goodfoodstories.com

CANDIED JALAPENOS (COWBOY CANDY)

PG tested

One popular, and easy, appetizer you see on a lot of holiday party tables is cream cheese topped with some sort of spicy jelly. This year, dress the dish up with a lip-tingling jar of "cowboy candy," or candied jalapeno. It’s easy to make and very pretty; for added holiday cheer, use a mix of green and red peppers. Be forewarned: These are totally addictive.

3 pounds fresh jalapeno peppers, washed

2 cups cider vinegar

6 cups white granulated sugar

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1/2 teaspoon celery seed

3 teaspoons granulated garlic

1 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

Wearing gloves, remove and discard stems from all of the jalapeno peppers. Slice the peppers into uniform 1/8-1/4 inch rounds. Set aside.

In a large pot, bring cider vinegar, white sugar, turmeric, celery seed, granulated garlic and cayenne pepper to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the pepper slices and simmer for exactly 4 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the peppers, loading into clean, sterile canning jars to within 1/4 inch of the top rim of the jar. Turn heat up under the pot with the syrup and bring to a full rolling boil. Boil hard for 6 minutes.

Use a ladle to pour the boiling syrup into the jars over the jalapeno slices. Insert a cooking chopstick to the bottom of the jar two or three times to release any trapped pockets of air. Adjust the level of the syrup if necessary. Wipe the rims of the jars with a clean damp paper towel and fix on new two-piece lids to finger-tip tightness.

If eating right away, place jars in refrigerator. To can, place jars in a canner and cover with water by 2-inches. Bring the water to a full rolling boil. When it reaches a full rolling boil, set the timer for 10 minutes for half-pints or 15 minutes for pints. When timer goes off, use canning tongs to transfer the jars to a cooling rack. Leave them to cool, undisturbed, for 24 hours. When fully cooled, wipe them with a clean, damp washcloth, then label.

To serve, spoon candied jalapenos on top of cream cheese and serve with crackers.

Makes 4 (8 ounce) jars.

— tastykitchen.com

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