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Party picks New Year's nibbles include a bite-size assortment of imaginative treats

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Would you really want to ring in the new year with drinks and a crockpot of cocktail wieners, simmering in a weird concoction of mustard and grape jelly that was supposed to imitate barbecued sausages?

No way.

Much has changed since the olden days. Today's party fare reflects current eating and cooking styles; the setting is less rigid and the options more diverse as ethnic influences have expanded our culinary options. Bite-size tastes have become the party nibbles of choice, and who doesn't love to nosh on an assortment of delicious goodies?

Basically, anything can become nibbles or small bites. The recipes that follow offer a handful of ideas. The most important element in all of them is imagination.

For example: a twist on a classic favorite, the baked potato. I wanted an appetizer of manageable size with a crunchy, savory topping. In all finger foods, crunch or texture is important because it allows a bite-size morsel to leave an immediate impression on the palate. Red potatoes with Gorgonzola cream, bacon and walnuts are tiny red potatoes that are rubbed with olive oil and kosher salt, baked, then halved and topped with a savory mixture of chives, sour cream, Gorgonzola and ' for the crunch ' toasted walnuts.

At a New Year's Eve party, as at any meal with friends, food should be prepared in advance to allow the host to enjoy the festivities. Cumin- and cayenne-spiced cashews, and warm Mediterranean eggplant dip with herbed pita crisps are easily made ahead of time.

The timing and presentation of the food have their own straightforward logic.

Start out with, perhaps, one or two cold dishes to serve as the guests arrive, then assemble and serve warm or hot items, such as crunchy coconut shrimp with pineapple-jalapeno marmalade.

A hands-on party is sometimes a great way to break the ice. Guests can coat and fry their own shrimp or even fill the scallion biscuits with the smoked salmon spread and pickled onions.

And, of course, don't forget the champagne, and some nonalcoholic alternatives.

Warm Mediterranean Eggplant Dip

Makes 12 servings

1 medium eggplant (about 14 ounces), trimmed and sliced crosswise 1/2-inch thick

4 tablespoons olive oil

2 teaspoons coarse (kosher) salt

1 medium yellow squash

1 medium zucchini

5 medium white mushrooms, cleaned and diced 1/4 inch

1/2 medium red onion, finely chopped

1 tablespoon minced garlic

2 tablespoons dry red wine

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1 (6-ounce) jar marinated artichoke hearts, coarsely chopped, liquid reserved

1 large tomato, diced 1/4 inch

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup tomato sauce, preferably homemade

1/4 cup finely diced pimento

1 tablespoon drained capers

1 tablespoon minced kalamata olives

2 tablespoons minced fresh basil

1 tablespoon minced flat-leaf (Italian) parsley

herbed pita crisps (recipe follows)

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Spread eggplant slices on baking sheet and drizzle 2 tablespoons oil on top. Season with 1 teaspoon salt. Bake at 450 degrees 25 minutes. Let cool slightly, then chop finely and set aside.

Meanwhile, using sharp knife, cut 1/4-inch-thick, lengthwise slice of skin of yellow squash. Place squash cut side down on work surface and cut off remaining skin in 1/4-inch-thick lengthwise slices all around. Cut skin slices into 1/4-inch dice. Repeat with zucchini. (Save squash pulp for another use.) Set aside.

In large, heavy nonreactive saucepan, heat remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil over moderately high heat until shimmering, 1 to 2 minutes. Add mushrooms, onion and diced yellow squash and zucchini. Cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables begin to brown lightly, about 4 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring, for 1 minute.

Stir in red wine, vinegar and artichoke liquid. Add tomato, crushed red pepper, black pepper and remaining 1 teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring, until tomato softens and mixture is thick, about 5 minutes.

Stir in artichoke hearts, tomato sauce, pimento, capers, olives, basil, parsley and reserved eggplant. Reduce heat to moderately low and cook until heated through, about 3 minutes. The dip can be made up to two days ahead; reheat before serving. Serve warm with herbed pita crisps. You can accompany the dish with roasted garlic and chevre or feta cheese.

Herbed Pita Crisps

Makes 32 crisps

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon dry basil leaves

3/4 teaspoon coarse (kosher) salt

4 large whole-wheat pita bread pockets, cut into eighths

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

In large bowl, combine olive oil, basil leaves and salt. Add pita pieces and toss to coat well.

On 1 or 2 greased baking sheets, spread out pita pieces in single layer. Bake at 425 degrees 4 minutes. Turn them over and continue baking for 3 to 4 more minutes until golden and crisp. Let cool, then store in airtight container. These triangles can be made in advance and stored in airtight containers. If necessary, recrisp at 400 degrees for 2 minutes.

Mini-Scallion Biscuits With Smoked Salmon Spread

Makes 15 biscuits

1 small red onion, quartered lengthwise and very thinly sliced crosswise

1/4 cup seasoned rice wine vinegar (see note)

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 1/4 teaspoons salt

1/4 teaspoon dry mustard

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1/3 cup vegetable shortening

2 large scallions, minced

1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley

3/4 cup plus 1 1/2 tablespoons milk

smoked salmon spread (recipe follows)

15 small fresh dill sprigs, for garnish (optional)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

In medium bowl, toss onion and vinegar. Cover and set aside to marinate for at least 30 minutes and up to 3 hours.

Into large bowl, sift flour, baking powder, salt, dry mustard and black pepper together. Cut in shortening with pastry cutter or 2 knives, then stir in scallions and parsley. Lightly stir in enough milk with fork to make soft dough. Turn dough out onto lightly floured surface.

Lightly pat dough out to 3/4-inch thickness. Sprinkle dough lightly with flour. Cut into 15 rounds with 1 1/2-inch biscuit cutter. (Do not twist cutter when cutting dough.)

Place biscuits, sides touching, on greased baking sheet. (Biscuits can be prepared to this point then refrigerated, tightly covered, up to 4 hours before baking.)

Bake at 425 degrees for about 18 to 20 minutes, until golden.

Let biscuits cool for about 10 minutes. Split biscuits in half horizontally. Spread biscuit bottoms with smoked salmon spread and top each with a little of the pickled onion and 1 dill sprig. Arrange biscuits on serving platter, replace top half of biscuits slightly askew and serve immediately.

Note: Seasoned rice wine vinegar can be found in the Asian foods section of well-stocked grocery stores.

Smoked Salmon Spread

Makes 3/4 cup

4 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature

3 ounces thinly sliced cold smoked salmon

1/2 teaspoon prepared white horseradish

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon finely minced fresh dill

In food processor, combine cream cheese and half smoked salmon and process until smooth. Add horseradish and lemon juice and process, scraping down sides as necessary, until smooth. Add dill and process until incorporated.

Transfer spread to small bowl. Finely chop remaining salmon and stir it into spread until distributed.

The spread can be made up to two days in advance and refrigerated, covered. Bring it to room temperature one hour before serving. If available, salmon roe, often referred to as "salmon pearls," makes a beautiful and delicious garnish. Recipe can be doubled easily.

' Adapted from "Pacific Northwest the Beautiful Cookbook," Collins San Francisco, 1993

Pub Date: 12/30/98

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