Appetizing hors d'oeuvres

Party starters to kick things off, in several languages.

By , Plymouth, Mass.

No matter how you spell it, or even if you can't (I always have to look it up) hors d'oeuvres set the tone and taste buds for a party. They can be as easy and elegant as an endive leaf with a dollop of crème fraîche topped with a dozen beads of salmon caviar, and as bizarre as that 1950s phenomenon Flaming Cabbage Head Weenies (see recipe below). And who could forget California Dip, that epoxy party mix of sour cream and Lipton Onion Soup? That bad boy had more sodium than a salt lick.

Most civilized cultures have their own take on hors d'oeuvres. Russians have their zakuska; the Spanish love tapas and entremeses; Germans nibble on vorspeise. For Swedes, a simple plate of tilltugg – usually just cheeses and hard tack – is enough. Italians pull out all stops with a broad assortment of antipasti: roasted peppers, marinated mushrooms and anchovies, olives, cured and fresh fish and vegetables, and on and on. And just to clarify: Antipasto does not mean "before the pasta," but "before the food." Pasta is from the Latin pastas, meaning food.

My most memorable zakuska experience was in Moscow when I was in my early 20s.

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It was our last dinner in the Soviet Union, and, after 10 days of unbelievably horrible food, as a special treat, the waiters brought out individual silver dishes of caviar and small rounds of dark bread. Most members of the group turned up their collective noses at the black sturgeon eggs. I inhaled mine, after which the group slid their silver dishes down to me. I devoured nine open-faced caviar sandwiches. Heaven.

If you're planning a party of just drinks and appetizers, too many may not be enough. Otherwise, the basic rule before a sit-down dinner, is less is more. They are, after all, meant to whet the appetite, not bury it.

HOT ARTICHOKE-PARMESAN DIP

14 ounce can of artichoke hearts, well drained

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1 cup mayonnaise

1/4 cup minced shallot or onion

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/2 cup dry bread crumbs

Olive oil

1/2 teaspoon paprika

Plain, bland crackers

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Using a food processor, pulse the artichoke hearts until coarsely chopped, about three or four times. Scrap down sides of processor. Add cheese, mayonnaise, shallot or onion, lemon juice, and cayenne. Pulse another three or four times.

Pour mixture into quart pie plate or ovenproof baking dish. Top with bread crumbs, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with paprika.

Bake 15 to 18 minutes, or until bread crumbs are browned.

Serve with plain crackers such as Carr's Water Biscuits or Bremner Wafers.

Makes about 2-1/2 cups.

MEDJOOL DATES STUFFED WITH CHEESE AND RASPBERRIES

Medjool dates are readily available this time of year. They are a perfect vehicle for your favorite soft cheese. Top with a toasted almond or pecan, and some fresh fruit, and they're good to go.

12 medjool dates, pitted

3-1/2 ounces soft cheese such as goat, cream, Roquefort

24 blanched almonds or pecans

12 fresh raspberries

Stuff dates with equal amount of soft cheese of your choice.

Place nuts in a heavy frying pan. Heat to low-medium, and stir occasionally to toast nuts on both sides. Watch carefully, as they can quickly burn; set aside to cool.

Top each stuffed date with a raspberry and two nuts.

Makes 12 pieces.

BAKED PROSCIUTTO-WRAPPED ASPARAGUS

12 thick asparagus spears, with tough ends trimmed off

6 thin slices of prosciutto, preferably imported Prosciutto de Parma

2 ounces whipped cream cheese at room temperature

1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

2 tablespoons finely chopped chives (optional)

Ground black pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Blanch asparagus in boiling, salted water for 3 to 5 minutes, depending on the thickness of the spears. Plunge into iced water. Drain and blot on paper towels.

In a small bowl, combine cream cheese with garlic powder, chives, and pepper.

Spread a small amount of cheese mixture over each prosciutto half and, starting at the bottom end of asparagus, wrap prosciutto diagonally around each spear.

Lightly spray a baking sheet with vegetable cooking oil.

Arrange asparagus on baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes.

FLAMING CABBAGE HEAD WEENIES WITH PU PU SAUCE

Serves 6 to 8

For the Pu Pu Sauce

1/2 cup sour cream

2 tablespoons mustard

1 teaspoon chili powder

1 tablespoon brown sugar

1teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1 tablespoon wine vinegar

1/4 cup minced onion

2 teaspoons lemon juice

Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan. Bring to boil, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and let stand until cooled. Taste, and adjust seasonings to your liking.

Cabbage Head

1 large red or green cabbage

1 can Sterno

15 to 30 cocktail frankfurters

Trim cabbage base so it stands evenly. Curl a few outer leaves down from top to form decorative petals. Cut a hole in cabbage large enough to hold Sterno flush with top of cabbage. Stick cocktail franks on wooden toothpicks. Light Sterno and invite your dazzled guests to come cook their own.

Serve with warm Pu Pu sauce for dipping, cocktail napkins, and fire extinguisher.

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