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Easy holiday party food

The smallest bites, as professional cooks know, often constitute the biggest headaches.

Knowing which recipes to prepare days — or weeks — in advance is the best remedy for holiday stress, says Kristen Lyon. And assembling appetizer platters with ease doesn’t limit home cooks to chips and dips or cheese and crackers, she says.

“This one happens to be a really popular topic,” says Lyon, who presented a Nov. 10 class titled “Easy Holiday Party Food” at Ashland Food Co-op.

It was the fifth time, says Lyon, that she’s aimed to help home cooks alleviate some of their annual anxiety around entertaining. This year, she’s incorporating several holiday specialties — stuffed and bacon-wrapped dates, puff-pastry Brie bites and apple chutney — into her Farm Kitchen meal-delivery service (www.chefkristen.com).

“Stuffed mushrooms work great,” says Lyon of her favorite filling with feta cheese, walnuts and pears.

Mushrooms are among the foods that freeze well and can be taken straight from the freezer to the oven as the clock ticks down until guests’ arrival. Roast mushroom caps first, she says, then stuff and arrange them on parchment-lined baking sheets. Freeze, then transfer stuffed mushrooms to a resealable, plastic, freezer bag.

Miniature meatballs can receive a similar treatment, says Lyon. Just arrange them, raw or precooked, from the freezer in a pretty, oven-safe dish that can double as a serving vessel. Toss in sauce, or serve it on the side.

A cocktail-party staple of decades past, meatballs — both traditional and recipes that incorporate elements of global cuisine — are trendy, according to Technomic, a Chicago-based food research and consulting firm. While Technomic pinpoints meatballs as part of the nationwide “elevation of peasant fare” to new heights, meatballs, in Lyon’s lexicon, fill the niche in any appetizer buffet for a hot dish with savory flavor profile.

“A little bit of everything is nice,” says Lyon, who has cooked professionally in the Rogue Valley for a decade. “It’s nice to have a salty and then something that’s kind of neutral.”

An array of five different appetizers seems to evoke the progression of a multicourse meal, says Lyon. For that reason, she says, offer at least one that hits a sweet note, even if it’s not a dessert. Consider dates stuffed with mild, soft cheese or chocolate-dipped strawberries.

Less sugar, however, and fewer refined carbohydrates are among many clients’ top requests, says Lyon. In lieu of crostini or crackers, she says, plenty of other foods can pass as serving vehicles for spreads while imparting much-needed crunch.

“You can have apple slices, slices of cucumber.”

Cheese-lovers, says Lyon, don’t miss the classic pastry shell around baked Brie when it’s topped with dried fruits or nuts and warmed until soft and slightly oozing. Pastry, however, is a common catering component that freezes well and “likes being baked from frozen,” says Lyon. Just follow a pastry recipe up to the point it would be baked, including giving it an egg or milk wash, before popping it into the freezer.

Frozen appetizers are easily purchased at most grocery stores, acknowledges Lyon. But they’re relatively expensive per serving and usually contain additives, preservatives and other chemicals. Making them from scratch, she says, ensures a “clean” product that her clients want.

“People really like simple food,” she says. “It’s easy to make really simple food special with little touches.”

Fresh herbs and citrus zest elevate candied nuts beyond ordinary. An addictive snack, they can be prepared a few days in advance and stored at room temperature.

Pitted dates can be stuffed with cheese or nuts the day before a gathering and refrigerated. Once previously frozen items are in the oven, party hosts should tackle last-minute tasks, such as slicing fruit, cheese and bread. To simplify the spread, Lyon presents only one or two appetizers as individual bites, allowing guests to serve up the others themselves.

“You have one or two special dishes that you feature.”

Chili-Pepper Jelly-Glazed Lamb Meatballs

1 pound ground lamb

2 tablespoons minced onion

1 tablespoon chopped, fresh, flat-leaf parsley

1½ teaspoons finely chopped, fresh mint leaves

¾ cup fresh breadcrumbs

1 garlic clove, peeled and minced

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1 tablespoon ketchup

1 teaspoon smoked paprika

½ teaspoon kosher salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 lightly beaten egg

Chili-Pepper Jelly Glaze (recipe follows)

Mix all the ingredients lightly, except egg. When combined, add the egg and mix again. Shape into 1-inch balls. Place on a baking sheet, lined with parchment paper or foil. Cover with plastic wrap and chill for about 30 minutes. Alternatively, freeze on baking sheet and transfer, when frozen, to a resealable, plastic freezer bag until ready to use.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake meatballs for 20 to 25 minutes or until internal temperature is 165 F. Immediately add cooked meatballs to a saucepan with half of the Chili-Pepper Jelly Glaze recipe (add more glaze, if needed); simmer uncovered over low heat for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring gently as needed until meatballs are nicely glazed.

CHILI-PEPPER JELLY GLAZE: In a medium saucepan over low heat, combine ¼ cup water with 1/3 cup ketchup, 3 tablespoons pepper jelly, 2 teaspoons each: olive oil and Worcestershire sauce and 1 teaspoon each: chili powder freshly squeezed lemon juice. Bring to a simmer and cook uncovered, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes or until flavors have blended. Use right away or refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 5 days.

— Recipe from “The Ultimate Appetizer Ideabook” by Kiera and Cole Stipovich (Chronicle Books; 2016; $19.95).

— Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.

Chili-pepper jelly-glazed lamb meatballs. Lake Fong / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette