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The Front Burner

Appetizers are stars for summer gatherings

By Donna Ellis

12:03 PM EDT, May 29, 2012

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We tend to think of the winter holidays as a time to create appetizers for those cocktail parties we like to host. But spring and summer have their appetizing merits, too. Casual outdoor-indoor get-togethers – for graduations, showers, even weddings, are perfect excuses to transform seasonal ingredients into walk-around foods that are stars of the gatherings we've planned.

Hence, our exercise du jour is to create some colorful, flavorful munchies that go beyond nachos and salsa.

We begin…

Fruited gazpacho

Remember how "hot" gazpacho was in the late '70s? We recall those memories and update them with this "liquid salad" that stars both veggies and fruits. This hot-sweet concoction is zesty, cooling, colorful and healthy. What more could you want in one dish?

Be sure to serve it well chilled in a punch bowl, with cups for sipping and spoons for scooping up all the goodies.

P.S. We always felt that traditional gazpacho was really a very chunky Bloody Mary. So, it you want to create a Fruity Mary, add a "spirited" glow with some vodka and/or fruit liqueur.

P.P.S. If you have a gelatin mold, you can freeze some of the ingredients and a small amount of water to float in the punch bowl and help keep the gazpacho chilled.

2 1/4 cups finely chopped tomatoes (a scant 1 pound)

2 1/4 cups finely diced honeydew melon (scant 1 pound)

2 1/4 cups finely diced cantaloupe (scant 1 pound)

1 cup finely diced mango (1 medium)

1 cup finely diced, peeled, seeded cucumber (about 1 medium)

1 cup finely diced peaches (about 2 large)

1 1/4 cups fresh orange juice (can use store bought, not from concentrate), plus more juice to thin soup if desired

1/2 cup finely chopped sweet onion, e.g. Vidalia

Half of a cubanelle pepper (mild), finely chopped

1/3 cup chopped, fresh mint

3 tablespoons chopped, fresh basil

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon coarse black pepper

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl. Chill 2 to 4 hours before serving. Makes 8 to 10 cups.

Eggplant "caviar"

Serve the eggplant mixture with toasted pita chips. You can make the chips and the eggplant mixture ahead. Chill the eggplant but bring to room temperature before serving.

When choosing eggplant, make sure stem end is green and fresh-looking, and that the eggplant itself is firm to the touch, deep purple in color, shiny and has no dings.

Pita chips

6 (6-inch) pitas

Cooking spray

3/4 teaspoon salt

Eggplant

About 2 1/4 pounds eggplant, cut in half lengthwise

3 tablespoons chopped, fresh flat-leaf parsley, plus whole sprigs, for garnish

7 teaspoons minced shallots

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons small capers, drained

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 teaspoon coarse black pepper

Small pinch of dried hot red pepper flakes

3 canned anchovy fillets, patted dry, minced

1 large clove garlic, minced

Lemon wedges, for serving

For the pita chips, heat oven to 350 degrees. Split pita loaves in half and cut each half into 8 wedges. Arrange wedges in a single layer on a spray-coated cookie sheet. Coat wedges with some more cooking spray. Sparingly sprinkle wedges with some salt. Bake for 15 minutes, until lightly browned. Cool on wire racks. If not using right away, store in airtight containers when completely cool.

For eggplant, heat broiler. Arrange eggplant halves, cut sides up, on a lightly spray-coated baking sheet. Broil about 5 minutes from heat source, watching carefully, for about 15 minutes, until tender. Remove to wire racks to cool for 10 minutes. Peel eggplants and coarsely chop pulp. Place in a large bowl. Add parsley, shallots, olive oil, lemon juice, capers, sea salt, black pepper, hot red pepper flakes, anchovies and garlic. Let flavors marry about 30 minutes before serving. If not using right away, cover and chill; bring to room temperature before serving.

To serve, place eggplant "caviar" in an attractive serving bowl. Garnish with parsley springs. Serve lemon wedges on the side. Don't forget the pita chips. Makes 8 or more servings.

Seafood nachos

We all know that "nachos" pretty much means crunchy munchies. These munchies combine Chinese wonton wrappers, California avocados and Japanese wasabi to flavor Maryland crab and "wherever" tuna for some special summery treats.

You can make the nacho cups ahead and store air tight. Make the avocado mixture no more than 4 hours ahead.

48 wonton wrappers

About 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 to 3 very ripe California avocados

3 tablespoons finely chopped shallot

3 tablespoons finely minced Roma tomatoes (seeds removed)

1/4 cup fresh lime juice, divided

1 1/4 teaspoon wasabi paste (wasabi powder available from McCormick's; see your supermarket spice rack)

1/2 to 3/4 pound (cooked) blue crab meat (claw or back fin)

1/2 pound fresh tuna steak, studded with sesame seeds and peppercorns and seared so it's crusty on outside, rare in the middle, finely diced

Sprigs of flat-leaf parsley and cilantro, garnish

For the wonton cups, heat oven to 375 degrees. On a work surface covered with wax paper with a little oil on it, stack 12 of the wonton wrappers and trim to 3-inch diameter (use a cookie cutter or eyeball it). Brush some of the oil on one side of a wrapper, top with another wrapper and brush; this way each cup will be lightly oiled on both sides. Continue until you've stacked up the 12 wrappers. Place the 12 wrappers in each of 12 muffin tin cups. Repeat with 12 more wonton wrappers. Bake the 2 tins of wrappers for 7 to 10 minutes, until crisp and golden brown; switch positions of muffin tins halfway through baking time.

While the first two batches bake, trim, stack and brush the remaining 24 wonton wrappers.

When the first two muffin tins are done, remove to racks and cool for 7 minutes. Remove cups to cooling racks to cool completely. Place prepared unbaked wonton wrappers into the muffin tins and bake 5 to 7 minutes. Switch racks halfway through. Remove to cooling racks, cool 5 minutes, then remove to racks to cool completely.

For the wasabi guacamole, scoop out avocados into a shallow pie plate. Mash with a fork. Stir shallots, tomatoes, 2 tablespoons of the lime juice and wasabi to taste (go easy).

Toss crab meat with 1 tablespoon of the lime juice. Add pepper (and salt) to taste. Toss finely chopped rare tuna with remaining 1 teaspoon lime juice. Taste for seasonings.

To serve, spoon some of the avocado mixture into each wonton cup. Top 24 avocado-filled wontons with crab mixture. Top 24 avocado-filled wontons with tuna mixture. Arrange the seafood nachos on an attractive serving platter. Top each with a sprig of fresh parsley and/or cilantro. Makes 48 nachos.