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Holiday apps: Welcome guests with small bites of big flavor

| Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012, 8:52 p.m.
Appetizers made by chef Olga Watkins on Sunday November 18, 2012. Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Grilled polenta squares with mushroom & chorizo topping are appetizers made by chef Olga Watkins on Sunday November 18, 2012. Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Mac & Cheese Pancakes with bacon & scallions are appetizers made by chef Olga watkins on Sunday November 18, 2012. Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Coconut Red Curry Shrimp Chalupas are appetizers made by chef Olga watkins on Sunday November 18, 2012. Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Fried Moroccan Spiced meatballs with yogurt sauce (ground lamb & turkey) are appetizers made by chef Olga watkins on Sunday November 18, 2012. Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Pulled Honey Sriracha Chicken Tacos with jalapeno-lime salsa verde are appetizers made by chef Olga watkins on Sunday November 18, 2012. Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Adobo braised short rib sliders are appetizers made by chef Olga watkins on Sunday November 18, 2012. Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review

The holiday season presents many opportunities for creativity in the kitchen.

House parties are a great time to try new recipes and update some old favorites. According to industry insiders, some of the hottest appetizer trends of 2012 include “street food” items like tacos and kebabs, sliders made from everything but burgers, unconventionally seasoned meatballs, interesting salsas and hot dips, and ethnic fusion flavors.

The thought of putting some of these ideas into play in your kitchen may seem a bit daunting, but the truth is that the recipes below are relatively simple to execute. If you're interested in trying your own concoctions and flavor combinations, here are some basic suggestions and guidelines:

• Any of your favorite sandwiches can be turned into sliders by simply downsizing the main-ingredient portions and using “mini” buns and breads.

• Shredded, grilled and roasted meats, fish and veggies work on either corn or flour tortillas. Flour tortillas, especially, are a neutral palate that will adapt to a wide range of flavors. Your favorite meal combinations can also be used in a taco form. For example, grilled chicken, home fries with onions and peppers and cheddar cheese with a little hot salsa could make a delicious corn or flour-tortilla taco or quesadilla.

• Take some of your favorite food items, as in the mac-and-cheese pancake recipe below, and consider ways to reinvent them into bite-size, appetizer-appropriate packages.

• Visit ethnic grocery stores in the area for inspiration and supplies that are less-traditional in the American pantry; spices, sauces and products such as curry paste, frozen dim dum, fresh ginger and persimmons can add real zing to your buffet table.

• Bold and exciting flavor combinations are always “in.” Trust your creative instincts and personal taste. And don't be afraid to experiment.

Pulled Honey Sriracha Chicken Tacos With Jalapeno-Lime Salsa Verde

The individual components of this recipe can be made two or three days in advance. Reheat the finished chicken (covered) in the microwave before serving. Also, reheat chicken skin crumbles for 10 to 20 seconds in microwave before serving.

For the chicken:

1 pack chicken thighs (6-8 pieces)

2 tablespoons dry jerk seasoning blend

1 cup Sriracha hot sauce

1 cup honey

For the salsa verde:

2 quarts water

1 tablespoon, plus 2 teaspoons salt

4 medium-size tomatillos, rinsed, outer skin and stem removed

3 medium-size jalapeno peppers, stems removed

1 medium-size bunch green onions, rinsed

1 small bunch fresh cilantro

Ice, for cooling

2 medium-size cloves fresh garlic, peeled

1 teaspoon cumin

¼ cup lime juice

1 fresh lime, rinsed, stem-end removed, quartered

For assembly and garnish:

24 (6-inch) white corn tortilla taco shells

1 medium-size tomato, diced

4-5 medium-size green onions, sliced thinly on a bias

To prepare the chicken: Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Place the chicken thighs, skin side up, in a deep baking dish and sprinkle the dry rub evenly over the thighs. Roast for 45 minutes. Remove the chicken from the oven, carefully drain the liquid in the pan into a stock pot and set it aside. Allow the chicken to cool.

When the chicken is cool enough to handle, separate the skin from the meat and set the skin aside. Pull all of the meat off of the bones in small pieces and transfer it to the stock pot with the chicken stock. Add the hot sauce and honey to the pot of chicken. Place the pot on low heat and stir occasionally until the chicken and sauce are thoroughly combined and the chicken appears to be finely shredded. Using a griddle or dry saute pan, cook the chicken skins until they are crispy. Crumble the chicken skins into small pieces and set aside until you are ready to serve the tacos.

To prepare the salsa verde: Bring 2 quarts of water to a boil and add 1 tablespoon salt. Very carefully add the tomatillos, jalapenos, green onions and cilantro to the boiling water to blanch. Remove after 1 minute and transfer to an ice water bath. After the items are cooled, add them to a food processor or blender and pulse (in batches) together with the garlic, cumin, 2 teaspoons salt, lime juice and lime quarters. When all of the ingredients have been blended or processed, combine them in a bowl and stir to make sure all of the ingredients and flavors are evenly distributed. Store the leftovers in your refrigerator.

To assemble and garnish: Using a griddle or a large saute pan, heat the tortilla shells on a medium-high heat setting on both sides until the are golden brown and slightly firm. Lay the taco shells on a clean surface, 6 at a time. Add to the center of each taco shell 2 tablespoons of hot, pulled honey Sriracha chicken, ½ tablespoon salsa verde and 1 teaspoon of chicken-skin crumbles. Fold the tacos in half and line them up on a serving plate. Lay a large knife or spatula on top of the folded tacos for about a minute to hold the shells in place. As the shells begin to cool, they will maintain their folded shape. Garnish the tacos with diced tomatoes and green onions. Serve immediately.

Makes 24 appetizers.

Mac & Cheese Pancakes With Bacon & Scallions

½ pound of bacon, cooked to crispy in the oven, crumbled, rendered fat reserved (see note )

2 cups flour

1¾ cup milk

2 large eggs

½ teaspooon baking powder

1 / 2 teaspoon baking soda

1 / 2 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning

2 cups leftover mac and cheese

¼ cup corn or vegetable oil

½ cup sour cream

1 bunch green onions, cleaned and sliced on a bias

First, cook the bacon, then, make the pancake batter by combining the flour, milk, eggs, baking powder, baking soda, salt, Old Bay and reserved bacon fat. Whisk until there are no visible lumps. Heat the leftover mac and cheese slightly in the microwave so it separates easily. Drop the mac and cheese, a little at a time, into the batter, stirring the entire time.

Heat a griddle or large saute pan to medium-high and brush with the oil. Drop ¼ to 13 cup of pancake mix onto the hot griddle or pan surface. After the edges and some of the center of the pancakes have started to bubble and become firm, use a very thin spatula to flip the pancakes. Cook the flip side for 1 to 2 minutes. Hold the cooked pancakes in a warming oven until all of the pancakes are done.

Just before serving, top each pancake with a tiny dollop of sour cream, a sprinkle of bacon bits and a few slices of green onions, then serve. Reheat the pancakes, wrapped in plastic, in the microwave for 10 to 20 seconds.

Bacon note: Lay a half-pound of bacon slices flat on a baking sheet with edges. Make sure the bacon slices are not overlapping. Cook in a 375-degree oven for 12 to 18 minutes, or until crispy. The total time will depend on the thickness of the bacon you're using. Remove the crispy bacon from the oven, and transfer it to a paper towel to drain. Save the fat from the baking sheet to add to the batter. Keep the pan in a warm place so the fat remains liquid. Chop or crumble the bacon into bits.

Makes 24-30 small pancakes.

Grilled Polenta Squares With Mushroom & Chorizo Topping

For the polenta:

1 cup stone ground cornmeal

1 cup water, plus 2 cups boiling water

1 teaspoon salt

For the mushroom & chorizo topping:

1 pound raw, bulk chorizo sausage

2 medium-size cloves garlic, minced

2 cups chopped, raw mushrooms

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

For serving:

Butter for greasing the griddle or saute pan

Shredded parmesan cheese, for garnish

Fresh basil, for garnish

Sliced green onions, for garnish

To prepare the polenta: In a saucepan, whisk the cornmeal into 1 cup of water with the salt on medium heat. Add 2 cups boiling water, turn the heat up to medium-high, and whisk constantly for 8 to 10 minutes until polenta is very thick. Transfer the hot polenta into a greased loaf pan and place in the oven to cool for at least 1 hour.

To prepare the topping: Cook the chorizo in a saute pan until it is completely browned and crumbly. Remove the chorizo from the pan, reserving the fat. Add the garlic and mushrooms into the fat and cook on low heat until the mushrooms are soft. Season with salt and pepper. Drain any excess liquid and add the chorizo back into the pan. Turn to medium-high and toss and saute until all of the ingredients are thoroughly combined.

To serve: When the polenta is completely cooled, shortly before serving, turn it out onto a cutting board and cut into 2-inch squares. Grill the squares to golden brown on a lightly greased griddle on in a lightly greased saute pan. Top with the mushroom and chorizo mixture and garnish with shredded parmesan cheese and fresh basil or sliced green onions. Top each hot polenta square with approximately 2 teaspoons of the mushroom and sausage mixture, then garnish with shredded parmesan and fresh basil or sliced green onions. Serve warm.

Makes 2 dozen polenta squares.

Fried Moroccan Spiced Meatballs with Yogurt Sauce

1 pound ground lamb

1 pound ground turkey

3 large eggs

1 23 cup plain bread crumbs

1 teaspoon grated ginger

1 teaspoon paprika

1 teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon turmeric

½ teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon coriander

2 teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon ground black pepper

2 teaspoon fresh parsley, chopped

½ red onion, minced

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 quart corn oil

1 cup flour

For the dipping sauce:

1½ cups plain Greek yogurt

Zest and juice of a medium-size fresh lemon

¼ cup chopped, blanched mint leaves

1 medium-size clove garlic, minced

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

To prepare the meataballs: Combine the meat, eggs, bread crumbs and all of the spices, parsley, onion and garlic. and mix well. Measure out the mix 1 tablespoon at a time to roll into meatballs. Chill the meatballs in the refrigerator for an hour before frying.

Heat the corn oil in a heavy-gauge soup pot on medium-high heat until the oil is between 300 and 335 degrees. Roll each meatball in flour, shake off any excess flour and carefully place in the hot oil. Cook in batches of 6 to 8 so as not to overcrowd the pan. Fry each batch for 6 to 8 minutes. Drain on paper towels and hold in a warming oven until all of the meatballs are ready to serve.

To prepare the dipping sauce: Whisk all of the ingredients in a mixing bowl. Allow the sauce to sit in the refrigerator for at least an hour before serving so the flavors have time to develop.

Makes approximately 3 dozen meatballs.

Adobo Braised Short Rib Sliders

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

4 pounds beef short ribs

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 cup flour

6 medium-size cloves garlic, peeled

3 bay leaves

1¼ cups apple cider vinegar

1¼ cups soy sauce

12 slider buns

On the stove top, heat the olive oil on medium heat in a heavy-gauge, deep casserole or enameled cast-iron pot. Season the short ribs with salt and pepper, dredge them in flour and brown them in the oil in batches so as not to overcrowd the pan. Brown each short rib on all sides, and set aside on a plate until all of the short ribs have been seared.

Heat the oven to 300 degrees.

After all of the short ribs are browned, turn the heat off under the pot and return all of the short ribs back into the pot. Add the garlic, bay leaves, vinegar and soy sauce into the rib pot. Transfer the pot to the oven, uncovered, and cook at 300 degrees for 2 hours, then turn the heat down to 225 degrees and cook for 1 hour more. At this point, the meat should fall off the bones.

Remove the pot from the oven. Remove the bones, garlic and bay leave from the pot. Use two pairs of tongs to gently pull the meat apart and mix it into the sauce. Serve hot on your favorite slider buns.

Makes approximately 12 sliders.

Coconut Red Curry Shrimp Chalupas

Literally translated, the Spanish word chalupa refers to a small canoe or lifeboat. The first step in this recipe is to make little “boats” out of flour tortilla shells.

Cut 48 3½-inch to 4-inch circles out of large flour tortilla shells, using a juice glass or cookie cutter, and gently press them into ungreased mini-muffin cup tins. Bake at 350 for 8 minutes, cool, fill and serve. These are a great little tool to have in your appetizer-recipe arsenal. Flour tortillas are very neutral in flavor and adapt well to sweet, savory or spicy pairings. You can fill the baked shells with anything from chocolate mousse to barbecue pork.

14 cup sesame oil

½ medium-size sweet red bell pepper, diced

½ medium-size red onion, diced

1 cup frozen peas

2 teaspoons minced ginger

2 medium-size cloves garlic, thinly sliced

1 can coconut milk

1½ cups chicken broth

2 tablespoons Panang curry paste

2 cups medium shrimp, raw, peeled, deveined

2 cups fresh pineapple, large dice

Juice of a medium-size lime

Fresh basil, for garnish

In a large saute pan, heat the sesame oil on medium high heat. Add the pepper, onion, peas, ginger and garlic, and saute until slightly al dente. Add the coconut milk and chicken broth and saute until the liquid starts to boil and reduce. Add the curry paste and stir to incorporate it into the sauce. Add the shrimp, pineapple and lime juice and turn the heat down to simmer. Allow the mixture to simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, then scoop it into chalupa shells right before serving. Garnish with fresh basil.

Makes 48 appetizers.

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