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New Year's Nibbles

Whether New Year's Eve entails a cocktail party or a more casual gathering, guests need a few nibbles to tide them over to 2013.

That's no reason, though, for hosts and hostesses to spend the last few hours of 2012 behind the stove. And if guests are more focused on the drinks, even the most appealing appetizers can sit untouched as the clock ticks down.

Consider these 20 easy-to-make, little dishes — not recipes really, but ideas to adapt and make your own. Some, such as charcuterie and cheese platters, are obvious for their effortlessness. Many can be prepared hours — even a day or two — ahead of the event.

Start with roasted and candied nuts that can be stored, sealed, at room temperature for a few days. Pureed and refrigerated in advance, these dips still taste fresher than store-bought.

A couple of concepts — the jumbo shrimp and quick-pickled carrots — require a day or so of marinating. Pears also can be poached a day or so in advance, then cored, sliced and chilled in their poaching liquid.

At least one dish, the baked brie, needs a little oven love before guests arrive. But this crowd-pleasing cheese and two types of bake-ahead breadsticks save time with store-bought dough and pastry.

That means hosts can worry about more important things, like outfitting the bar and chilling Champagne.

Roasted almonds: Saute raw almonds in a hot skillet with a tiny bit of olive oil until fragrant. Remove from the heat and season with coarse salt and a dash of smoked paprika or minced fresh herbs.

Spiced, candied walnuts: Simmer whole walnuts in simple syrup (equal parts sugar and water) until tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain nuts and toss in sugar spiced with a pinch or two of cayenne pepper. Shake off excess sugar, then spread them out on a sheet pan and place in a 250-degree oven until dried and toasted, 20 to 30 minutes.

Smoked-salmon mousse: Puree smoked salmon in a food processor with just enough softened goat cheese to make a smooth consistency (lighten it by folding in a little whipped heavy cream). Serve on toasts garnished with fresh dill sprigs.

Tapenade with crostini: In a food processor, puree pitted Greek-style black olives with an anchovy or two, chopped fresh garlic and a few tablespoons of capers. Season with a pinch of cayenne and thin as desired with olive oil. Serve with baguette slices brushed with olive oil, lightly seasoned with coarse salt and toasted.

Roasted-pepper hummus with pita triangles: In a food processor, puree drained, canned chickpeas with peeled, roasted red peppers, chopped, fresh garlic, a squeeze of lemon juice and a pinch of cumin. Thin with olive oil and adjust seasonings and flavorings as desired. Serve in a bowl alongside toasted pita chips.

Harissa with flatbread: Rehydrate a few ounces of dried, red chilies in hot water until softened. Drain, seed and stem chilies and grind them in a food processor with a few cloves of garlic, a generous teaspoon of salt and ground caraway, cumin and/or coriander to taste. Thin the paste as desired with olive oil and serve with flatbread.

Marinated jumbo shrimp: Marinate cooked shrimp between layers of thinly sliced onion, garlic, lemon and fresh herbs (tarragon, parsley and/or dill) with olive oil drizzled over just to cover. Refrigerate one day before draining and serving.

Quick-pickled carrots: Simmer equal parts vinegar and water with crushed garlic, toasted fennel seeds, sliced lemon and a little salt. Pour the liquid over peeled, sliced and blanched carrots. Set aside to cool completely, then cover and refrigerate overnight before serving.

Poached pear slices on toast: Peel and poach pears in spiced red wine until tender; cool, then core and thinly slice. Top toasted baguette slices with pear over a layer of goat cheese, top with micro or coarsely chopped, bitter greens and sprinkle on crumbled bacon bits.

Roasted-squash bruschetta: Top grilled or toasted baguette slices with seasoned, roasted squash puree topped with slivered Parmesan and sliced prosciutto.

Charcuterie plate: Slice a dried sausage fairly thick and a fatter dried sausage as thinly as possible. Arrange them on a platter with sliced prosciutto or Serrano ham.

Prosciutto and Fuyu persimmons: Quarter persimmons and remove cores if woody. Cut in thin wedges and wrap with prosciutto or Serrano ham. Spear with a toothpick to hold in place and make serving easier.

Bacon-wrapped dates: Slice dates open lengthwise and remove pits. Stuff with a chunk of good blue cheese. Wrap with a quarter strip of bacon, skewer with a toothpick and bake at 350 F until bacon is crisp and cheese is melted.

Stuffed, dried stone fruits: Fill pitted, dried apricots or prunes with marzipan or almond paste.

Fingerlings with anchovies: Steam fingerling potatoes. When cool, halve them lengthwise and top with salted anchovy fillets that have been rinsed and patted dry. Drizzle lightly with olive oil and fresh-cracked black pepper.

Seasoned breadsticks: Roll prepared pizza dough through a fettuccine cutter on a pasta machine, or cut it by hand as thinly as possible. Brush lightly with beaten egg white and season with salt, pepper and a sprinkling of chili pepper or chopped, fresh herbs. Arrange on a baking sheet and bake at 350 F until golden-brown.

Herbed puff-pastry sticks: Thaw frozen puff pastry, butter one side and top with chopped, fresh herbs. Use a pizza cutter to slice into thin strips, twist them and bake at 375 F until puffed and golden.

Frico: Grease a parchment-lined baking sheet with a little olive oil. Spread finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano into small, flat rounds and bake at 350 F until cheese is golden-brown. Loosen frico and cool on a wire rack.

Cheese platter: Gather a few assorted cheeses (semisoft, firm, aged; goat, sheep and cow's milk) and serve alongside fresh or dried fruits, honey or toasted nuts.

Baked brie: Saute thinly sliced apple in butter with a little cinnamon and sugar. Cool the slices, then fan them over a small wheel of brie. Cover cheese with a sheet of puff pastry (cut a hole in center and decorate with puff-pastry trimmings). Brush with beaten egg, then bake at 400 F until pastry is puffed and golden-brown. Serve warm.

Bacon-wrapped dates with roasted-squash bruschetta, roasted-pepper hummus with pita triangles, baked brie, marinated shrimp, poached pear slices on toast, quick-pickled carrots, herbed puff-pastry sticks and roasted almonds add up to a tasty New Year's Eve celebration. - MCT