They're on the way — quick, what will we serve?

Lynn Novo
Cream cheese molded in a soup bowl and topped with a variety of favorite tapenades or pesto makes a quick and tasty appetizer.

Lynn Novo Cream cheese molded in a soup bowl and topped with a variety of favorite tapenades or pesto makes a quick and tasty appetizer.

Isn't it great that friends are in town? Of course, they love to drop in at a moment's notice for a glass of wine or a cocktail. Quick: What nibble can you put out for them to eat?

Maybe you've been invited to dinner and the answer to your question, "What can I bring?" was an appetizer. Unfortunately, you remember this just before you're ready to head out the door.

Times like these call for quick and easy appetizers you can pull together with ingredients from your fridge or pantry.

Forget about looking at a recipe — when you're in a hurry, you just need some go-to ideas.

The following appetizers use base ingredients you most likely have on hand: cream cheese, potatoes, olives, flour tortillas. With the addition of onion, bottled sauces and condiments, pesto, fresh herbs and sun-dried tomatoes, you can whip up plenty of tasty morsels.

Don't worry if you don't have all the ingredients listed; just substitute a similar ingredient. Some of the best creations are the result of culinary improvisation.

Let's start with the old standby, cream cheese. Instead of a brick of cream cheese topped with pepper jelly, mold softened cream cheese into a bowl lined with plastic wrap. Top it with pesto, chopped sun-dried tomatoes, olive tapenade, salsa, or my brother-in-law Al's favorite: Jamaican Pickapeppa Sauce (look for it near the steak sauce at the grocery store). Surround your cream cheese mold with crackers or crostini and voilà — instant appetizer!

These onion-and-cheese tarts are as quick as filling added to readymade phyllo shells.

These onion-and-cheese tarts are as quick as filling added to readymade phyllo shells.

Potatoes make a great base for toppings. To make unstuffed potatoes, preheat the oven to 400 degrees with a sheet pan inside. Cut small potatoes in half or slice baking potatoes about 1/4 inch thick. Remove the pan from the oven and drizzle with olive oil. Place the potatoes cut side down on the hot pan, then return to the oven and roast for 10-15 minutes or until the potatoes are tender and the bottoms are golden. Place the potatoes on a serving platter with the golden sides facing up, and cool slightly. Top with a dollop of sour cream and some bacon crumbles, caviar or smoked salmon. Garnish with snipped chives and serve immediately.

Anyone can open a jar of olives and dump them in a bowl, but take a few more minutes to elevate this pantry staple to company status as baked olives, with luxurious texture and mellow flavor.

To make them, cover a pound of Kalamata olives with water in a small saucepan. Boil for one minute, then drain and pour olives into a glass or ceramic dish. Add ¼ cup garlic-infused oil, ½ cup red wine, and a pinch of red pepper flakes. Bake in preheated 350-degree oven for 30 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

If you don't want to turn on the oven, sautéed olives are a quick alternative. Heat olive oil in a frying pan and saute any or all of these aromatics: chopped onion, garlic cloves, red bell pepper, and celery chunks. Add dried oregano or fresh rosemary sprigs and crushed red pepper flakes. Sun-dried tomatoes are a nice addition, too. Add any pitted olives you have (I like pimento- and garlic-stuffed green varieties) and a splash of balsamic vinegar. Cook over low heat for about 10 minutes to infuse flavors. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Quesadillas are easy appetizers that can be made fancier depending on your time and ingredients. For the simplest, sprinkle flour tortillas with cheese and maybe some chopped scallion, then top with another tortilla and fry in a nonstick pan until the cheese melts. Cut into wedges and serve with guacamole, sour cream and salsa.

To make bite-size quesadillas that are a bit more elegant, use a 2-inch-round cookie cutter to cut a flour tortilla into circles (about 10 per 8-inch tortilla). Spread with a filling of Monterey Jack cheese to which you have added cooked shredded chicken, crabmeat or lobster and mashed avocado. Spread the filling on half of the rounds and top with another tortilla round. Heat a little oil in a nonstick pan and cook the quesadillas over medium-high heat until the cheese melts.

Top with a small amount of salsa or sour cream sprinkled with cilantro before serving.

Another way tortillas make great appetizers is rolled up and sliced into pinwheels. Spread them with mayonnaise or mustard and layer thinly sliced deli meats. Add a little chopped lettuce and tomato, roll them up tightly and slice.

You may need to secure them with a frilly toothpick. Or make chutney pinwheels by combining eight ounces of softened cream cheese, four ounces of cheddar cheese, and about ¾ cup mango chutney. Spread on tortillas and roll up. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. When ready to serve, cut crosswise into half-inch slices.

Perhaps the easiest appetizer is the prettiest: Simply fill mini phyllo (fillo) shells (found in the freezer section of supermarkets) with Boursin or herbed goat cheese or cream cheese mixed with a little milk or cream to make it smooth. Garnish with an herb leaf, bit of tomato, radish, or scallion, and serve.

Toasting the season with friends was never easier!

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