Holidays perfect time to indulge your inner top chef

Quality, style and a scoop of TLC are the main ingredients for holiday snacks and appetizers.

For at least a few local foodies, party-food ideas for the coming holiday season center around freshness and quality, a casual sophistication and the revival of the MIY ethic: make it yourself.

Kerri Conan makes her home and garden in Bonner Springs. A former cookbook editor at Simon & Schuster, Conan now writes for author Mark Bittman (“How to Cook Everything,” “Food Matters”), and blogs on food and gardening for the New York Times. Naturally, when it comes to party food, Conan’s thoughts turn to produce.

“There are never enough vegetables at parties,” Conan notes, adding a firm caveat: “meaning not just a bunch of raw vegetables and onion dip.” For Conan, good crudites mean more than picking up a tray at the market.

“I like to see that the host took a bit of time and care,” Conan says. “Real carrot sticks cut from real carrots, not those packaged carrot-like nubbins you see everywhere; par-cooked cauliflower & broccoli florets; jicama sticks; boiled new potatoes; fresh, crisp celery hearts — with the leaves on; cubes of toasted bread; big lima beans and bagna cauda (a Northern Italian “bath” of olive oil, butter, garlic and anchovies, served warm).

Edamame — fresh soybean pods lightly steamed and salted — have spread from the restaurant to the home, along with endless variations of salsa, happily, just as pineapple, citrus and avocados are coming into season.

The spiky elegance of artichokes, also harvested in autumn, can readily stand in for flowers in a holiday spread — steamed, cooled and fanned open, and arranged on a platter with lemon wedges and bowls of warm garlic butter and tarragon mayonnaise.

Ken Baker, chef/owner of Pachamama’s, 800 N.H., shares Conan’s appreciation for well-handled vegetables, but he prefers hummus or an assertive curry dip on the side. For snacks at his art openings and catered affairs, Baker considers both taste and texture: “I always like to have crunchy food to snack on when I’m cocktailing.”

For Baker, the requisite crunch comes in many forms: grissini (long, thin breadsticks) wrapped with cured ham (Serrano, proscuitto); pickles, especially okra; homemade potato or tortilla chips topped with “creme fraiche and caviar, ahi tuna poke, smoked fish, marinated black eyed peas, good queso, or your favorite puree of beans,” and freshly made popcorn with porcini mushroom butter and sea salt.

“You grind the dried porcini in a spice grinder, then steep the powder in melted butter for an aroma and flavor that makes guests swoon,” Baker says.

On the beverage side, punch — that relic of the high school hop — is back in style, this time with healthful, modern twists like ginger infusions, green tea and fresh herbs.

Along with the organized get-togethers, the holidays also bring flurries of drop-ins for coffee and a bite to eat. Joe Farthing at J&S; Coffee Company, 4821 W. Sixth St., likens coffee to wine when it comes to food pairing.

“The more carefully you consider the flavor profiles of coffee, the better you can pair them with foods,” Farthing says.

What does Farthing serve his guests with coffee? Tiramisu — an ethereal “cake” of ladyfingers dipped in coffee, mascarpone (Italian cream cheese), eggs whipped with cream, drizzles of sweet Marsala wine and a liberal dusting of cocoa powder.

“Cold-press coffee (steeped without heat) makes the best tiramisu,” says Farthing. Tiramisu takes less than an hour to make, uses readily available ingredients and makes an impressive sight in a tall, glass bowl.

Farthing also notes that coffee has a strong affinity for nearly all forms of chocolate, and that Latin American coffees pair nicely with citrus desserts.

If necessity is the mother of invention, now is a good time to be creative. By making your holiday snacks yourself, and using fresh, readily available ingredients, you not only cut costs and assure the quality of the food you serve to your guests, you add the most potent seasoning of all: your care.


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