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Make it snappy

Preparing for holiday guests is easy with these nibbles

Shrimp 'cocktail.' Shrimp "cocktail." (Food styling/Sheryl Jullian and Karoline Boehm Goodnick; Photo by Wendy Maeda)
By Sheryl Julian
Globe Staff / December 17, 2008

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We've all been there: An old friend calls, you extend an invitation to stop by for a drink, and then you get off the phone and ponder your foolhardy behavior. You happen to have a nice bottle of wine, already chilling for just such a last-minute occasion, but the house is a mess and there's nothing to serve. It's late, the stores are crowded, you discard a few unsightly stacks of mail and catalogs and start rummaging through the fridge, freezer, and pantry.

Let's see. Eggs. A few rounds of pita. Dinner rolls left from who-knows-when. A couple of roasting potatoes sprouting slightly. Olives. A cuke. A can of chick peas. Goat cheese from a dinner party last week.

In fact, you've got the fixings of a feast. You're only looking for a nibble here, a little something to offset the drinks. Cut the pita into squares, drizzle them with oil, season, bake, and you've got salt and pepper crackers. You're halfway there. Pit and chop a few olives, stir them into the goat cheese, and it's a spread. Present both in small dishes on a larger plate and they look elegant - even planned.

Every cook needs an arsenal of 20-minute hors d'oeuvres for these last-minute events. The food can certainly involve little puff pastry cases or the tartlet pans you brought back from France. But who has time? Think small, simple, unadorned, no-fuss, instant. Don't pass by that carton of eggs. Take half a dozen, cook them in barely simmering water until the yolks are bright yellow, peel, and garnish. Red caviar (no need for the real stuff here) is a smashing adornment, but so is a sprinkle of parsley and salt. The world's most perfect food turns into party fare. Or turn the eggs and a little mayo into salad, slice the cucumber, and assemble mini clubs.

Those forlorn potatoes need a good scrub. Slice them lengthwise into thick planks, and roast them in a hot oven into long, crisp chips. You'll hardly believe you made them yourself.

If you have a chance to get to the supermarket, grab a few lamb rib chops, "French" the bones to remove all the meat, and pan-fry the nuggets until they're pink and juicy. Or buy fresh ricotta and scoop it onto toasted rounds, then drizzle with honey and sea salt. To make fetching shrimp "cocktails," set a cooked shrimp at the edge of a shot glass filled with a gulp of spicy tomato juice. Canned chick peas, tahini, and lemon juice make up hummus, a spread that's so much better (and cheaper) when homemade, you'll wonder why you ever bought it.

None of these appetizers takes much time. Part of what you're doing is making a handsome presentation. You're not out to reinvent the hors d'oeuvres table or show off your cooking skills. You're extending your hospitality, getting together with friends, toasting the holidays, and hoping no one will notice your housekeeping. Just dim the lights.

Eggs with caviar Think small, simple unadorned: Dab caviar on golden yolks. (Food styling/Sheryl Jullian and Karoline Boehm Goodnick; Photo by Wendy Maeda)
Eggs with caviar
Think small, simple unadorned: Dab caviar on golden yolks.