Charles Siskin: Pick Up Artist

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Okay, you know the drill. You and your bride are at a holiday party and someone is thrusting a tray of those sweet little pigs in a blanket in your face. Spare me. I’m not by nature one who enjoys those delicate little fluffs of food that are offered at parties under the guise of hors d’oeuvres. Growing up chubby I thought of it as “bird food”, now I just call it unimaginative.

When I was catering events, often I surrendered to those crowd pleasing little suckers and their cost factor.
 Oddly enough, even in a market of professed gourmands it was hard to push foods that were unfamiliar no matter how cleverly you presented them. Whether it was Buckhead in Atlanta, Seaside along the Florida Gulf Coast or locally, the trick was to make your way through the crowd with that tray full of shrimp that disappeared in a third of the time David Blaine can hold his breath underwater.

Having left those catering days behind me a decade or more ago, I have found new respect for finger foods as a younger crowd has emerged to embrace other than the traditional in their eating habits. We have the vegetarian, the vegan, the gluten intolerant and those who welcome the opportunity of tasting foods of different cultures.

So while I still prefer to pass the shrimp, fresh Gulf of course, I much prefer to lay my hors d’oeuvres out on a festive table my wife has prepared and let guests pick and choose from a selection of interesting options. One thing guests enjoy, (big crowd pleaser) is a smoked or cured fish.

Salmon is the traditional choice obviously, but consider trout, tuna, cod, halibut or Mahi-Mahi. If you have a smoker and want to take the time to smoke it yourself, perfect, or put it on your grill, (those grill marks look awesome). 

Make your presentation sing with small dishes of condiments like diced red onions, caper berries and crème fraiche.  Add a touch of holiday elegance with a Petri-sized dish of good but not extravagant caviar.

For one of my daughter’s wedding, I had a station with chilled bottles of vodka served neat and someone carving smoked salmon laid over blinis (mini pancakes) or if you celebrate Chanukah, as we do, a small potato pancake called a Latke, with the aforementioned condiments for guests to choose their own toppings.  It can be that one presentation that causes buzz during and after the party.  

While on the subject of presentation let me offer the option of a Feliz Navidad party this Christmas. Set up a Frozen Margarita Station and put out such reliable favorites as Pull Apart Nachos with “help-yourself” condiments like sliced jalapenos, diced cilantro, couple of salsa options like black bean and corn or a mango or pineapple salsa, sour cream and cubes of queso fresco cheese.

I think lamb is favored by more people than will admit it. Recently on a trip to Southern California I had a lamb sandwich that came with a red pepper coulis. The lamb was shredded rather than sliced, a bit of a surprise, but it worked.  

For a twist on the traditional beef tenderloin I think 2-bite pieces of focaccia or pita are perfect for slices of perfectly rare boneless leg of lamb, which can be sliced thin, think Gyro, to make it easier for small bite eating. 

Add to that a topping of tzatziki sauce (cucumbers, plain yogurt, fresh dill and garlic) or a dollop of Greek yogurt tossed with a dice of pitted Greek olives. Consider a homemade hummus as well. So simple to put together and so much better than the 2 for 1 containers you pick up at Publix’s. While on the subject of Greek foods consider one of my favorite dips, Melitzanosalata. It is an assertive eggplant dips that is great served with crudités spread on toasted trianagles of pita.

If you don’t want to serve lamb, then consider thin slices of pork medallions served with homemade cranberry chutney. And now and forever you can never go wrong with tenderloin of beef. For a twist consider stuffing it with spinach and sundried tomatoes. Makes beautiful rounds when sliced and consider a mustard sauce along with a horseradish mayo to accompany.

Why does a hostess feel compelled to serve those little cherry tomatoes that have been carefully sliced in half and filled with some kind of cream cheese concoction? Warning: those juicy little suckers are like torpedoes sending juice and seed splattering guest’s holiday outfit. Time for a serious second Martini.

Overlooked by many, eggplant is one of my favorites for its versatility and one of my favorite new hors d’oeuvres is eggplant that has been sliced into fairly thick slices(batons), salted then drained, dipped in egg and coated with panko bread crumbs. Brown it carefully in olive oil making sure to keep its shape then top with a slice of fresh mozzarella; stick the slice under the broiler long enough for the mozzarella to melt slightly then finish off with a dice of grilled red peppers and sweet onions and a garnish of fresh rosemary. The cheese plus the red and green garnish pretty much speaks to the season.

I also like Samosas, available already prepared at Whole Foods, which are the Indian version of Australian meat pies and English Savory pies. Serve the Samosas with a side of Chutney, Major Grey of course. Consider a bamboo steamer filled with Oriental dumplings that have been baked not steamed. Steamed become a bit slippery.

I’m not a fan of pick up desserts like cookies and lemon squares dusted with powdered sugar or a chafing dish full of warm chocolate fondue for dipping fruit; more clothes to clean. 

Forget the sugar plums, maybe bowls of white chocolate macadamia nuts or really exceptional chocolate truffles from Sees Candy which you can order on Amazon- is there anything not available on Amazon?- at the door to speed guests on their way. 

Whatever you are planning for your guests, take the high road this season, don’t go low. La vie est bon, Happy Holidays.


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