Today is the Age of the Foodie, a period of intense interest in things gustatory—the more unusual and complex to prepare, the better. This age is not as cosmically important as the Age of Invention or the Iron Age, but it has had a significant impact on home cooks. Gone are the days of using slices of that pink pork product whose name is now synonymous with unwanted email on white bread for sandwiches.
For many, food preparation has become an extreme sport. Soufflé of quail eggs accompanied by homemade goat sausages for breakfast? Naturally. Squid ink risotto with sea urchin for luncheon? Certainly. Foam of heirloom petit pois as a side dish to loin of Kobe beef rubbed with truffled rare spices for a weekday dinner? Of course.
The stakes are higher during the holiday season when food fit for foodies is de rigueur for entertaining. Parties typically center on numerous hors d’oeuvres rather than the traditional sit-down dinner. Even people who love to cook and entertain are busy with family, work issues and volunteer commitments. So how do you meet the challenge?
Catering at the foodie level is often too expensive. Preparing everything from scratch is not feasible because of the time press. Easy choices, such as salted fish, olives, nuts and plain sliced meats, all of which have been acceptable over the centuries, don’t make the mark in these days of high food expectations.
Fortunately, there is a solution. Prepared food. Even master chef Julia Child—she who started it all—used select, ready made products on occasion. The trick is to make the food your own with simple twists. Happily, the quantity, quality and variety of prepared foods today makes her suggestion much easier—and tastier.
IT ALL STARTS WITH THE DOUGH
It’s logical. Food in or on dough in one form or another is a staple comfort food worldwide. Soft, boiled pierogies and knishes from Eastern Europe, crisp spring rolls from China, toothsome pizzas from Italy and flaky empanadas from Mexico are a few examples. Based on that knowledge, I have long acted on the theory that almost any food paired with the right dough can become a treat. More than once I have put leftovers into puff pastry, achieving a completely different and lauded result.
But are tasty commercial doughs and prepared accompaniments available off-the-shelf? Can a host who enjoys food put together a dozen delicious holiday platters with minimal effort? To answer those questions, I went hunting up and down the aisles at local grocery stores, armed with pen, paper and a phone camera to record sightings as I stalked my quarry.
Happily, there were immediate results. The good news is that there are literally dozens of ready-made doughs at the larger chains. They’re spread out all over the stores, though, so there’s some effort involved in finding them. For example, pita, flavored wraps and some burrito/tortilla products are in the specialty bread section, while other brands of those products are in the dairy area; taco shells are yet elsewhere.
Frozen sections have a selection of flaky empanada rounds. Asian spring roll wrappers are also available frozen, while aisles of Asian foods have rice paper wrappers (although both can be time-consuming to work with for the busy or inexperienced cook). Those who want the thinner Shanghai-type wrapper will have to go further afield to ethnic stores, as well as for the Indian naan, a dense, moist bread that also nestles fillings in big, chunky rolls.
Want still more options? Sweet pastry shells are in the baking aisles. Both puff pastry, buttery and flaky, and phyllo dough, that super thin, crunchy component of Greek food, are very difficult to make from scratch, but they are available in the freezer section. Buy them in sheets, or save work and get them already formed into shells. Freezer sections also house gluten-free dough products of all types.
Okay, you have your dough. Now what to put in it? There are still cans of fish and meat spreads, but they are like prehistoric leftovers from the days when Hormel and Underwood products ruled the shelves. With new food packaging technologies, and today’s emphasis on freshness, prepared foods have moved to cooler cases, salad bars and personal service counters filled to the edges with plates of possibilities.
Take crab cakes, for instance. Buy them ready to go, taste, and then correct the product with a dollop of your favorite spice or by mixing in a bit of green mustard with tarragon, available right off the shelf. Pinch off small portions of the crab cakes and place them in small puff pastry shells. Or buy stew, again correcting the taste, thicken it with cornstarch or a flour slurry; then again fill up puff pastry shells.
Another option is sweet pastry shells filled with cheese or vegetable spreads, also corrected for taste. Or head for the salad bars, which have so many basic products that you don’t even have to boil eggs or open cans of tuna. Turn the prosaic egg salad into something special with flavored mayonnaise—chipotle, Thai hot chili or wasabi.
Still not enough options? Try filling the shells with cheeses and toppings. Jams of most sorts can top off cheese. The boutique groceries have red currant and elderberry. Fig is a classic with blue cheese. Or spice things up with a chutney such as Major Grey’s. Crab and fish products go with hollandaise, or perhaps a touch of truffle oil.
The only thing that really takes time is deciding how to pair the dough with the fillings, but that is easy and fun to figure out. Try out your own ideas as dinner entrees over the weeks before your party.
I have my personal favorite flavor profiles. It might be heresy, but in general I think wheat tortillas taste better than corn tortillas with spicy Mexican food. Flavored wraps tend to have a bread-like taste rather than the flavor stated, but they roll easily, stand up to handling well, look colorful on a platter and are wonderful with veggies. Try tomato with very thinly sliced roasted root vegetables, olives and roasted garlic, all of which are available at salad counters. Just fill, roll and eat.
If the above ideas are still too time consuming, buy ready made Chinese dumplings. Instead of the usual soy sauce, try a combination of soy and yuzu or lemon juice with some freshly grated ginger. Or fall back on crackers, of which there are dozens of artisanal options, with the fillings/toppings suggested for dough.
More prepared possibilities for you to choose from are in the chart opposite. Just mix, match and enjoy your ready-made party! Bon appétit!
FAST CHEESE-FILLED PHYLLO DOUGH SHELL RECIPE
courtesy Cynthia F. Weisfield
Phyllo dough shells
Feta cheese spread
Za’atar, a Middle Eastern spice mix
Tomatoes in fine dice, optional
Scallions in thin slices, optional
- Purchase ready formed phyllo dough shells.
- Purchase your favorite feta cheese spread. You will need ½ – ¾ ounces per small shell, 1-1 ½ ounces per large shell. Small is preferred.
- Mix 1 tablespoon (or to taste) of za’atar into each pound of cheese.
- Follow any baking instructions for the shells.
- Fill the shells.
- Sprinkle tomatoes and/or scallions on top if desired.
Serve the appetizer at room temperature or slightly warm from a quick bake.
For other ideas, try: “Simple Appetizers: Easy Recipes for Effortless Entertaining” by Ryland Peters & Small