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Make-ahead appetizers for stress-free entertaining

It’s that festive time of year when we’re welcoming family and friends into our hearts and homes, and our kitchens are stocked with fabulous food so we can party hearty.

When it comes to entertaining during this hectic time of year, nobody would fault you for relying upon store-bought appetizers. But with just a little more time and effort, consider some of my simple make-ahead munchies that are relatively stress-free.

Take marinated olives. Store-bought “olive bar” varieties are stratospheric price-wise, often as high as $8 and $9 per pound. But it doesn’t take much to transform plain ol’ canned or bottled olives into great olives — just a few of your own seasonings, vinegar and olive oil. You can keep the cost reasonable and really go all out on flavors. They also make terrific gifts to take along to a party.

Another smooth move involves a bottle of late-harvest Gewurztraminer, a wedge of Huntsman cheese and a bowl of roasted, new-crop Oregon hazelnuts. It’s an exquisite meeting of flavors that are great for last-minute gatherings and very special drop-in guests.

For fans of blue cheese and sharp cheddar, this is the ultimate experience, because it’s a layering of English Stilton (a blue cheese) and Double Gloucester, which has the creamy-yet-powerful character of a sharp cheddar. The hazelnuts act as a bridge between the rich-earthy cheese and the complex wine, which has a classic Gewurztraminer nose of spice and floral, along with a flavor combination of apricot, pineapple, brown sugar and honey.

But even with all those sweet notes, a late-harvest Gewurztraminer usually boasts plenty of acidity for balance. So you can see where those hazelnuts come into play.

Then build the flavors to the next level by surrounding the cheese and nuts with thinly sliced rounds of sourdough baguette and some fresh grapes.

Peppery Bacon-Wrapped Water Chestnuts

Makes about 40 appetizers

There are many variations on the popular bacon-water chestnut appetizer. This one, which is a spin on how my friend Debbie makes them, is my all-time favorite. The pepper bacon and sprinkling of pepper is my take on the whole thing.

2 cans water chestnuts, whole

4 tablespoons teriyaki sauce

2 tablespoons brown sugar

1 pound thick-cut pepper bacon

About 1 cup additional brown sugar (more as needed)

Freshly ground black pepper

Drain the chestnuts and place in a zip-close plastic bag. Add the soy sauce and 2 tablespoons of brown sugar and marinate the mixture for at least 2 hours (or up to 6 hours).

When ready to assemble, cut the bacon strips into thirds. Place the 1 cup of brown sugar in a shallow bowl. Roll each marinated water chestnut in the brown sugar then wrap it in a slice of the bacon pieces, roll in the brown sugar again, then fasten with a toothpick. Arrange the bacon-wrapped water chestnuts on a baking sheet (they can be placed close together). Sprinkle them with freshly ground black pepper then bake in a 350-degree oven until the bacon is golden brown and crispy, about 20 to 25 minutes.

Sesame-Soy Chicken in Lettuce Wraps

A delicious ground chicken and vegetable mixture you can make ahead.

2 tablespoons sesame oil, divided

1 pound ground chicken

1 large yellow onion, finely chopped

2 tablespoons finely minced fresh garlic

2 tablespoons soy sauce

¼ cup hoisin sauce

2 teaspoons finely shredded fresh ginger root

2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar

1 tablespoon sriracha sauce

1 (8 ounce) can sliced water chestnuts, drained and finely chopped

½ cup chopped green onions

Salt to taste

Soy sauce, hoisin, spicy mustard sauce for dipping

Roasted peanuts, chopped, for garnish

Lettuce leaves

Heat 1 tablespoon of the sesame oil in a medium-sized skillet over medium heat. Add the ground chicken and use a spatula to break it up as it cooks and browns. Remove from heat.

Add the onion and garlic and continue cooking until the onion is translucent and lightly browned. Stir in the soy sauce, hoisin sauce, ginger, rice wine vinegar and sriracha sauce, stirring to thoroughly coat the ground chicken, continue cooking, if necessary, to reduce the sauce. Fold in the water chestnuts, green onion and remaining 1 tablespoon of sesame oil. Adjust seasonings with salt and pepper, and also additional sriracha sauce if the mixture isn’t quite spicy enough.

This meat mixture may be used immediately or prepared up to 48 hours ahead and refrigerated until ready to use. Serve chilled, at room temperature, or hot (can be microwaved to heat through). Place the mixture in a wide bowl, on a larger platter surrounded by lettuce leaves that are used to wrap around spoonfuls of the meat mixture.

Place little dishes filled with the soy sauce, hoisin sauce, spicy mustard and finely chopped roasted peanuts for guests to add to their wraps.

Hot Artichoke Dip

Back in the '90s, you’d encounter hot artichoke dip at most every party you went to. But even then, my variation was unique because I used marinated artichoke hearts instead of canned (in water) artichokes. So it had an innate zippiness to it. All these years later, it’s still a delicious offering. Plus, very simple to assemble ahead. And the leftovers make a great open-faced sandwich.

1 pint sour cream

½ cup mayonnaise

2 (6 ounce) jars marinated artichoke hearts, drained and chopped

½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

½ cup finely chopped green onions (white and pale green portion)

Assorted raw vegetables (such as broccoli florets, cauliflower florets, carrot sticks, sweet red and green bell pepper strips)

Chunks or slices of a fresh baguette

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Combine the sour cream, mayonnaise, artichoke hearts, Parmesan cheese and green onion. Spoon the mixture into an 8-by-8-inch baking dish (or container of similar volume). Bake until very hot and bubbly, about 20 minutes. Remove and garnish the top with a sprinkling of the reserved green onion and serve, surrounded by the vegetables and slices or chunks of bread.

Country Terrine of Turkey and Pork

This is really good stuff. It’s delicious as an entree, but my favorite use for this concoction is as an appetizer. Or picnic fare. Or cross-country-skiing fare. Or tailgate fare. Your food processor makes preparation a snap — and it can be done days in advance. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

1 large yellow onion, coarsely chopped

3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

2 eggs

2 tablespoons milk

2 tablespoons sherry or brandy (or milk)

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1 clove garlic, coarsely chopped

2 teaspoons salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 cups fresh bread crumbs

1 pound ground turkey breast

1 pound ground pork

Place the onion, parsley, eggs, milk, brandy or sherry (or more milk), Worcestershire sauce, garlic, salt and pepper in a food processor and blend for about 10 seconds, stopping once to scrape down the sides of the container. Add the bread crumbs and continue to puree until the mixture is very smooth. Transfer this mixture to a bowl and combine with the ground turkey breast and ground pork.

Pat the mixture into a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan. Cover the pan with foil, then place the pan on a baking sheet (to catch any drips during baking. Bake in a 350-degree oven for about 1½ hours, or until the juices run clear.

Remove the pan from the oven and let stand for at least 15 minutes before slicing. For outdoor fare, the terrine should be chilled first because this improves the flavor and firms up the texture for slicing into thin cuts.

For picnic sandwiches: This terrine is particularly wonderful with a bold-and-spicy, whole-grained mustard, the crunch of a good garlic dill pickle, and some sliced tomatoes, all either tucked into a whole-wheat pocket bread or nestled between 2 slices of a really good sourdough or whole-grained bread, slathered with mayonnaise and layered with a few crunchy sheets of lettuce.

Spicy Cocktail Meatballs

These spicy meatballs disappear fast at parties. Serve them with toothpicks for spearing. Double the recipe for a large crowd.


1 (8 ounce) can tomato sauce

¼ cup ketchup

3 tablespoons cider vinegar

1 tablespoon water

2 tablespoons packed brown sugar

1 garlic clove, minced

1 tablespoon minced yellow onion

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 to 3 drops (or more!) Tabasco sauce


1 pound ground beef

½ cup fine dry bread crumbs

1 tablespoon flour

½ teaspoon salt

Freshly ground pepper

2 tablespoons minced yellow onion

2 teaspoons prepared horseradish

1 large egg, lightly beaten

To make the sauce: In a large saucepan over medium heat, combine the tomato sauce, ketchup, vinegar, water, brown sugar, garlic, onion, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, cayenne and Tabasco. Bring to a simmer and continue simmering, uncovered, until flavors are blended, about 10 minutes.

To make the meatballs: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. In a medium bowl, combine all ingredients and mix well with your hands. Form into ½-inch balls and place on a baking sheet. Bake until browned, 10 to 12 minutes. Add meatballs to sauce and simmer 10 minutes. Transfer to a chafing dish to serve.

May be prepared up to 2 days ahead and refrigerated, or frozen for 6 weeks.

Makes about 3 dozen meatballs.

Recipe slightly adapted from “The Big Book of Potluck,” by Maryana Vollstedt

— Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist, and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.