Perfect party appetizers from the Cowgirl Chef

PARIS -- No matter what sort of gathering you plan to host during the Christmas or New Year's holidays, the hardest question always seems to be what to serve first.

Everyone seems perplexed by appetizers -- what to make, how much and what to drink along with them.

My answer: Simplify.

Remember, you are not trying to feed your guests with the hors d'oeuvres course; you're just giving them something to nibble on -- just a little amuse-bouche, as we say in French -- with whatever they are drinking.

You know what I'm most often served in Paris? Potato chips. Or radishes. See what I mean? I'm talking small and limited.

So pour one thing -- champagne or sparkling wine -- along with sparkling water, and lay out a spread of three nibbles, if you're doing an appetizer-only party. If you're throwing a dinner party, offer just one -- a veggie appetizer (like the roasted red bell pepper puree), something fish-based (such as the spinach blinis with smoked salmon or the tuna brochettes) and/or some sort of bread (like the pear and bacon flatbread). You could also offer thinly sliced San Daniele or serrano ham or saucisson, or a bowl of mixed salty nuts. As for cheese, I wouldn't serve it -- it's too heavy and filling.

Remember, less is more, plus it's easier.

So is doing the math for figuring out how much you need to serve. Instead of ounces, imagine your guests eating a certain number of bites -- two to three for the champagne course; five or six if you're having an appetizer-only party.


The key to not stressing out over entertaining is to plan. Map out the party in advance, make a list of what you'd like to serve, and shop three or four days before it. That way, you'll have plenty of time to prep, cook and clean up long before the first guest arrives...and pour yourself a well-deserved coupe de champagne.

Cheers, everyone -- Joyeux Noel and bonne annee!

Ellise Pierce is the Cowgirl Chef and author of "Cowgirl Chef: Texas Cooking with a French Accent" (Running Press).; @cowgirlchef.

Sesame tuna brochettes with ginger-soy dipping sauce

1/2 cup white sesame seeds

1/2 cup black sesame seeds

1 pound fresh tuna, cut into 1-inch pieces

About 3 tablespoons vegetable oil

Ginger-soy dipping sauce, recipe follows

1. Mix the sesame seeds together in a shallow bowl.

2. Rub the cubed tuna pieces all over with 2 tablespoons of the vegetable oil, and thread three pieces on each wooden skewer. Press the skewers one by one into the bowl of sesame seeds, making sure to evenly cover each side.

3. With a paper towel, lightly grease a large skillet with the remaining 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil, turning the heat to medium-high. When hot, add the tuna skewers, putting as many as you can in the skillet. Let them cook about 1 minute on the first side and just about 30 seconds on each side thereafter to sear them so that the tuna is still pink in the middle. Serve right away with ginger-soy dipping sauce.

Cowgirl tip: Bring tuna to room temperature before you sear it. Room-temperature food always cooks more evenly.

Nutritional analysis per serving: 103 calories, 7 grams fat, 2 grams carbohydrates, 8 grams protein, 11 milligrams cholesterol, 13 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 63 percent of calories from fat.

Ginger-soy dipping sauce

1/2 cup soy sauce

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 tablespoons sesame oil

1 tablespoon mirin (Japanese rice wine)

3 green onions, finely chopped

1 tablespoon chopped fresh ginger

Half a serrano chile, finely chopped

2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped

Whisk all of the ingredients together in a small bowl, and let rest for half an hour before serving. Taste for seasonings.

Nutritional analysis per 1-tablespoon serving: 26 calories, 2 grams fat, 1 gram carbohydrates, 1 gram protein, no cholesterol, 515 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 67 percent of calories from fat.

Roasted red pepper puree

3 large red bell peppers, roasted (jarred are OK)

3 1/2 ounces walnuts, toasted

1 medium-size fresh jalapeño, chopped

2 cups breadcrumbs

1 clove garlic, minced

Juice of half a lemon

1 teaspoon sea salt

2 teaspoons sherry vinegar

2 tablespoons olive oil

Put everything into a food processor and pulse until combined. Refrigerate or let rest for an hour before serving so the flavors can combine. Serve with toasted pita chips and a swirl of olive oil on top, or spread on crusty baguette slices.

Cowgirl tip: Spread this on a roasted veggie sandwich and top with arugula.

Nutritional analysis per 1-tablespoon serving: 76 calories, 4 grams fat, 8 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams protein, no cholesterol, 156 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 48 percent of calories from fat.

Spinach blinis with smoked salmon

2 tablespoons canola or sunflower oil

About 7 ounces baby spinach

A pinch nutmeg

Sea salt and pepper

1 1/2 cups flour

1 teaspoon sea salt

3 eggs

1 1/4 cups milk

5 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled

8 ounces creme fraiche or sour cream

3 ounces smoked salmon, torn into 2-inch pieces

About 6 leaves of fresh basil, chopped

1. Put 1 tablespoon of canola or sunflower oil in a large skillet and heat to medium-high. Add spinach, nutmeg and salt and pepper and cook just until spinach begins to wilt. Place spinach in a colander to drain. When it is cool, roughly chop spinach.

2. To make blini batter: Whisk flour and salt together in a medium bowl. In another bowl, lightly beat eggs with milk and add melted, cooled butter. Pour wet ingredients into dry ones, dissolving most (but not all) of the lumps, add cooked and chopped spinach, and you're ready to make blinis.

3. To cook blinis: Lightly grease a 10-inch nonstick skillet with 1 tablespoon of canola or sunflower oil on a paper towel, and turn heat to medium-high. When the pan is hot, pour about

1/4 cup of batter (for each blini) into the skillet, let cook till the first side browns, and flip over to cook the other side. These won't take long.

4. Serve the blinis at room temperature, topped with 1 teaspoon of creme fraiche or sour cream, one 2-inch piece of smoked salmon, and some chopped fresh basil.

Cowgirl tip: Swap out dill or chives for fresh basil. Spinach and salmon love these herbs, too.

Nutritional analysis per blini: 103 calories, 7 grams fat, 7 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams protein, 43 milligrams cholesterol, 157 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 62 percent of calories from fat.