Taking the stress out of entertaining with easy apps

Scott Phillips/'Fine Cooking Appetizers&#821Greek salad on a stick makes a light and attractive appetizer.

Scott Phillips/'Fine Cooking Appetizers&#821Greek salad on a stick makes a light and attractive appetizer.

Dinner is a good 45 minutes away, your guests have arrived, and they are starving.

There's an app for that. An appetizer, that is.

In fact, there are 200 of them in a new book "Fine Cooking Appetizers" by the editors of that magazine (Taunton Press, 2010). They run the gamut from easy (see the Greek Salad Skewers and Sweet & Spicy Roast Nuts, below) to complicated (chicken liver, pork and veal pate with pistachios).

Now, if you are the kind of home cook who throws her or his heart into cooking the main course, you really don't have time to prepare a lot of fancy apps. Plus, you don't want your guests stuffing themselves too much before the main event. The first chapter in this book, "Quick & Simple," helps you play it low-key.

If making even "Quick & Simple" apps is too much for you, there are items straight from the supermarket that will make perfect hors d'oeuvres. My advice is to eschew a cheese plate (too filling) and salsa and chips (too predictable) and put out an array of small servings of foods like:

• Marinated or stuffed olives. (Green olives stuffed with garlic or blue cheese make a great appetizer.)

• Steamed and salted edamame (fresh soybeans) in their pods (available in the freezer aisle of many supermarkets).

• Baby carrots.

• Pistachios or peanuts in their shells (opening them keeps your guests entertained).

• Savory olive-oil crisps ("torta de aceite") sold in some supermarkets, specialty stores and at tienda.com.

• Crackers and store-bought tapenade (olive spread).

• Stuffed grape leaves.

• Smoked mussels or oysters.

But if you want to do a bit of preparation, the Fine Cooking book will show you how.

GREEK SALAD SKEWERS

1⁄4 English (seedless) cucumber

4 teaspoons kosher salt or sea salt

4 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

1⁄4 pound feta cheese, cut into 16 small cubes

8 pitted Kalamata olives, halved

8 ripe grape or cherry tomatoes, halved

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Cut four 1⁄2-inch-thick diagonal slices from the cucumber, and then quarter each slice. Set the cucumber pieces on a large serving platter, and season with 1⁄4 teaspoon each salt and pepper. Top each with a cube of feta and then an olive half. Stab a toothpick through a tomato half, and then thread through one of the cucumber stacks, pushing the toothpick down to secure it. Drizzle with the olive oil, sprinkle with some more black pepper, and serve.

Yield: 16 individual apps

SWEET & SPICY ROAST NUTS

1 pound mixed unsalted almonds, pecans and cashews

11⁄2 tablespoons light brown sugar

2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme

1⁄2 teaspoon chipotle powder (see Cook's note)

kosher salt

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Cook's note: Chipotle powder is made from smoked jalapeno peppers and can be found in supermarkets, specialty stores and online. If you absolutely must use a substitute, try 1⁄8 to 1⁄4 teaspoon cayenne.

Position a rack in the center of the oven, and reheat the oven to 400 F. Spread the nuts on a large rimmed baking sheet, and roast until they start to brown, about 10 minutes.

While the nuts are roasting, combine the sugar, thyme, chipotle powder and 1 teaspoon salt in a small bowl. Transfer the nuts to a large bowl, add the butter, and toss well. Add the sugar mixture, and toss again to coat evenly. Season with more salt to taste, transfer to small bowls, and serve while still warm or at room temperature. Keep covered in an airtight container for at least three days.

Yield: 31⁄2 cups

Recipes from "Fine Cooking Appetizers" by the editors of Fine Cooking (Taunton Press, 2010)

EASY FOCACCIA

flour for work surface

1 pound whole-wheat or white frozen pizza dough, thawed (available in most supermarkets)

cornmeal for pan

extra-virgin olive oil, as needed

1⁄3 cup Kalamata olives, pitted and sliced

leaves from 1 sprig fresh rosemary, coarsely chopped

coarse sea salt

Position a rack in the oven, and preheat the oven to 425 F.

On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the dough into a 10- to 12-inch round. Place on a cookie sheet that has been dusted with cornmeal. Brush the dough with olive oil, and sprinkle all over with the chopped olives, rosemary leaves and salt. Bake until golden, 15 to 20 minutes. Slice into wedges, and serve warm or at room temperature.

Yield: at least 12 thin slices

Recipe from my files

• Marialisa Calta is the author of "Barbarians at the Plate: Taming and Feeding the American Family" (Perigee, 2005). For more information, go to www.marialisacalta.com.

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