By Cymbre Foster
Special to the Record-Eagle
---- — With minimal effort, you can put on an elegant New Year's spread that will give your guests plenty to nosh on well after the ball drops.
Start with a do-it-yourself champagne bar, suggested Peggy Donaghy, owner of Ethnic Garden Catering in Suttons Bay.
Put a variety of champagnes on ice; line up the glasses and put out pretty pitchers of mixers like fruit juices, mango nectar and pomegranate syrup.
"You can also include garnishes like orange slices, pomegranate seeds or sliced quince, which has an edible rind and is pretty," said Donaghy.
She said it's fun to offer selections of at least three or four different champagnes or sparkling wines. She likes bottles of bubbly from L. Mawby Vineyards such as Talismon, Sandpiper and of course Sex. "That's a fun one for New Year's Eve," Donaghy said.
When you're laying out the buffet table, Donaghy suggests serving slices of beef tenderloin on focaccia, French or ciabatta breads. It's easier to have the meat already on the bread and guests can add their own sauces such as a traditional horseradish or blue cheese sauce.
Phyllo dough can be a cook's best friend at the holidays, creating elegant looking hors d'oeuvres with little fuss.
"You can buy the phyllo dough cups and fill them with mushrooms, cheese and egg and give it a Mexican flare by adding green chilies," said Donaghy.
Fruit and veggie trays can be spiffed up with some homemade dips or sauces. Or take Paula Dean's advice and serve up dip in a hollowed out pepper.
Another way to add veggies to the menu is by slicing cucumbers and topping with a slice of smoked salmon and a sprig of dill.
"It's pretty and easy," said Donaghy.
Today's host or hostess should be sure to offer some gluten-free options, which can be as easy as including a rice or multi-grain gluten free cracker.
For the vegan on your guest list, she suggested grilling tofu and tucking it into lettuce wraps or whipping up a tofu dip for spreading on bread or crackers or eating with veggies.
Another vegan alternative is caramelizing sweet onions and garlic in olive oil and butter as a savory topping on crostini. Top with a basil leaf and a cherry tomato slice for a colorful display, said Donaghy.
Shrimp cocktail is a perennial favorite and Donaghy suggested buying raw shrimp and cooking them yourself for the best flavor. Pair them with a store-bought cocktail sauce or a wasabi mayonnaise.
If you want to buy locally and still keep it simple, check out the indoor Saturday Farmers Market at the Village at Grand Traverse Commons, where vendors offer an array of ready-to-serve appetizers from cheeses to chutneys.
"You'll find a nice selection of cheeses from several vendors," said Paula McIntyre, co-founder of the blog, Up North Foodies. "They would be delicious paired with any of the beautiful chutneys from Ann Dover, all atop the homemade crackers available from another vendor there."
Looking for food with an ethnic flare? McIntyre said that several vendors sell a variety of Greek appetizers and pastries, including dolmas, spanikopita, baklava and more.
"If you're up for making a few easy appetizers, give the Smoked Whitefish Dip from 'A Matter of Taste' a try," said McIntyre.
Larry Burdek, owner of Chef's Pride Catering in Traverse City, suggested stirring up a hot crab dip.
And don't forget the obvious nibblers, too, like nuts and olives.
To make it a little more special, Donaghy suggested serving Marcona almonds.
"They're crisp and salty, fried in olive oil and you can add some dried cherries," she said.
Burdek suggested using stuffed olives. Filled with goodies like garlic, jalapenos and blue cheese, these can be found on grocer's shelves or at your favorite deli.
Pick up a jar of dilly beans from the farm market and pair them with olives and pickles for another quick and easy appetizer, suggested McIntyre.
Burdek also recommended serving up other darlings of the buffet table like deviled eggs, ham roll-ups, slices of hickory sausage, bunches of grapes and chunks of smoked cheddar.
Also practically effortless is an appetizer of homemade crackers and dip made with your own homemade ricotta cheese. The best thing about these crackers is that they require almost zero prep, and can be seasoned however you like — a simple sprinkle of coarse sea salt, or a more complex blend of seeds and spices.
You'll need no special ingredients or equipment to make the ricotta, which relies on slightly acidic buttermilk to form cheese out of a blend of heavy cream and whole milk. Simply add a touch of salt.
Smoked Whitefish Pate
1/2 lb. smoked whitefish
3/4 lb. cream cheese (room temp.)
2 T. horseradish
1/2 t. ground black pepper
1 t. Tabasco sauce
Chopped green onion
2 t. chopped parsley
Remove any skin and bones from whitefish. Place the cream cheese and whitefish in a food processor and whip until smooth. Add the horseradish, pepper and Tabasco and puree for 1 minute. Mix in green onion and garlic. Divide the pate into 4 ramekins or place in a casserole dish and bake in preheated 375° oven for 10 minutes. Garnish with parsley. Serve with matzo crackers.
-- A Matter of Taste
Hot Crab Dip
4 oz. heavy cream
3/4 lb. cream cheese
2/3 t. hot sauce
2/3 t. horseradish
¼ T. minced garlic
½ t. season salt
1 oz. green onion
¾ lb. crab
Heat in double boiler till 160° and serve with crackers or toast rounds. Makes 30 oz. dip. Figure 2 to 3 oz. per person.
-- Larry Burdek, Chef's Pride Catering
Buttermilk Ricotta Cheese Dip
3 c. whole milk
1 1/2 c. buttermilk
1 c. heavy cream
1/4 t. kosher salt
Fleur de sel or pink sea salt, about 1/8 t.
1 to 2 T. extra-virgin olive oil
Fresh herbs, such as thyme, oregano or basil
Zest of 1/2 lemon or orange
In a large, stainless steel saucepan over medium heat, combine the milk, buttermilk, cream and salt. Slowly bring the mixture to a gentle simmer. As the milk solids begin to separate from the whey, give it a stir, then return it to a gentle simmer. When you see steam rising and solid chunks (curds) forming, turn off the heat and let the mixture cool for about 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, line a mesh strainer with several layers of cheesecloth. Using a ladle, spoon the cooled curds and whey into the strainer. Place one layer of the cloth over the cheese. It will strain quickly at first. The longer you let it sit, the drier and more concentrated the cheese will become. Strain the cheese at room temperature for 1 to 2 hours.
Once strained, discard the liquid. The cheese can be used immediately, or covered and refrigerated for up to 2 days.
When ready to serve, place the ricotta in a decorative bowl. Use a spoon to form a well in the center. Sprinkle the cheese with the fleur de sel, then fill the well with olive oil. Sprinkle with fresh herbs and citrus zest. Makes 12 servings.
12 round fresh flour or corn tortillas, at room temperature
2 T. olive oil
Seasonings (such as fleur de sel, truffle salt, dehydrated minced garlic, minced dried onion, sesame seeds, etc.)
Heat the oven to 350°.
Brush the tortillas on both sides with a thin layer of olive oil. Sprinkle with salt or the seasonings of your choice. Arrange the tortillas on 2 baking sheets (or bake them in batches). The tortillas can be close together, but not touching. Bake on the oven's center rack for 20 to 25 minutes, rotating the pans after 12 minutes, until slightly puffy and golden brown.
Let cool and break into irregular shapes. Makes 12 servings.
Baked Phyllo Wontons
3 T. olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 c. scallions, finely chopped
3/4 lb. lean ground pork
2 t. low sodium soy sauce
1/4 t. crushed red pepper
Salt and pepper to taste
2 T. water chestnuts, finely chopped
1/4 c. fresh cilantro, finely chopped
20 sheets 9-by-14-inch frozen phyllo dough, thawed
In a large nonstick skillet, heat 1 T. oil over medium heat. Add garlic, scallions and pork. Brown pork completely and stir to a fine crumble. Season with soy sauce, crushed red pepper and salt and pepper. Stir in water chestnuts and cilantro. Remove from skillet and drain in a colander. Let cool.
Layer 4 phyllo sheets, spraying each with cooking spray. Cut 12, 3-inch squares from phyllo stack. Place about 2 t. filling in center of square. Brush phyllo from edge of filling to each point of square lightly with water. Gather points of square and pinch together just above filling. Repeat process 4 times to make 60 pouches.
Place filled pouches at least 1 inch apart on ungreased cookie sheet or baking pan.
Bake in preheated 350º oven for about 12 to 15 minutes or until golden brown.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.