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Appetizers add sparkle to holiday entertaining

| Sunday, Dec. 7, 2003

I read recently that the film industry makes a point of releasing its best films during the 12-week period between October and the end of the year. And within that time frame, December appears to be the premier month for prestige films.

Home cooks follow a similar pattern.

As Christmas and New Year's approach, many of us will pull out our most delectable and enticing recipes and make a special effort to give our best culinary performances. It's definitely the season where we feel like entertaining with a bit of panache.

My husband and I love hosting holiday parties, and I am constantly looking for new appetizers to serve. Although I have written a book on starters, I always am searching for novel ideas, and this year I have two new entries to add to my hors d'oeuvre repertoire. Neither is complicated, and both are colorful and characterized by robust, tempting flavors.

One is made with toasted pita triangles, which are topped with avocado slices that have been marinated in lime juice and olive oil, along with seasonings of cumin, garlic and cilantro. Bright, coral-hued sauteed shrimp are placed atop the avocados as a garnish.

The other appetizer is made by halving dried apricots and stuffing them with a simple mixture of bleu cheese and cream cheese. The apricots are then dusted with chopped walnuts and parsley.

Serve either or both of these openers to precede a holiday buffet, or pass them on trays at a cocktail reception. Offer glasses of sparkling wine, and you'll have a social gathering worthy of an award.


Shrimp and Avocado Triangles

Tabasco brand makes a jalapeno pepper sauce available at most supermarkets. Do not substitute hot sauce made from cayenne peppers.

  • 2 (6- to 7-inch) pita breads
  • 6 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra for brushing on pita triangles and sauteing shrimp
  • 2 tablespoons lime juice
  • 2 medium cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus extra for seasoning shrimp
  • 1 teaspoon jalapeno pepper sauce
  • 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
  • 2 ripe medium-size avocados
  • 24 large shrimp in the shell (12 to 14 ounces), shelled and deveined

Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

Slice each pita bread horizontally into 2 rounds and brush both sides of each with olive oil. Stack the rounds and cut into 6 wedges so you have a total of 24 wedges. Place the triangles on a foil-lined baking sheet and bake on the middle rack of the oven until crisp and light golden, turning once, for about 10 minutes. Remove and let cool. (The pita triangles can be stored in an airtight container for as long as 2 days.)

Whisk together the lime juice, garlic, cumin, 1 teaspoon salt, the jalapeno sauce, cilantro and 6 tablespoons olive oil in a medium nonreactive (nonaluminum) bowl. Halve the avocados lengthwise and remove the seeds. Peel and slice each half crosswise. Toss the avocado slices in the lime juice mixture and marinate them while you cook the shrimp.

Coat the bottom of a large, heavy skillet with olive oil and set it over medium-high heat. When hot, add the shrimp and saute, turning several times, until the shrimp are curled and pink, for 3 to 4 minutes. Remove and season to taste with salt.

Place 2 to 3 avocado slices on each triangle and top with a shrimp. Arrange triangles on a serving plate. Drizzle any remaining lime and olive oil dressing over the shrimp.

Makes 24 triangles, 8 to 10 servings.


Apricots Stuffed with Bleu Cheese

A strong bleu cheese such as Fourme d'Ambert or Roquefort works best for the filling. To toast walnuts, spread on a rimmed baking sheet and bake in 350-degree oven until lightly browned and fragrant, for 6 to 8 minutes. Remove and let cool.

  • 4 ounces bleu cheese
  • 2 ounces cream cheese, preferably at room temperature
  • 1/3 cup walnuts, toasted and chopped
  • 2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf (Italian) parsley
  • 24 dried apricots

Mix the bleu cheese and cream cheese in a medium bowl until well blended. Combine the walnuts and parsley and spread on a salad plate.

Lay the apricots on a work surface. Using a sharp knife, slice them crosswise, but do not cut quite all the way through. (You want to butterfly the apricots, leaving them connected with a small "hinge.")

Open the apricots and mound 1 side of each with a generous teaspoon of the bleu cheese mixture. Press the apricots closed, then dip the exposed cheese filling in the walnuts and parsley. (The apricots can be prepared 4 hours ahead; cover and refrigerate. Bring to room temperature 15 to 30 minutes before serving.)

Arrange rows of stuffed apricots on a serving plate, or skewer them with wooden skewers and stand them in attractive glasses or in mint julep cups.

Makes about 24 apricots, 8 to 10 servings.

Betty Rosbottom is a cooking school director from Massachusetts. Her next cookbook is "Big Book of Backyard Cooking" (Chronicle Books, 2004).

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