Savoring the Season with Small Bites

A buffet of small-plate foods is a wonderful alternative to a formal sit-down dinner during the holidays.

Like the song says, "It's the most wonderful time of the year," and that means a variety of steady get-togethers with family and friends during the holiday season. No matter how we choose to celebrate, the focus of much of our attention will be on preparing festive party food. We want it to be plentiful, easy to prepare and beautiful to look at. Tradition plays a large role in what many cooks choose to serve, but why not think outside that box and offer a buffet of small-plate foods instead of a more formal (and work intensive) sit-down dinner? After all, the host should enjoy the party, too, without having to worry about serving everyone. Small-plate foods mean that portion sizes are bite size and only a fork is required.

Think of foods that can be prepared ahead for the most part and just re-heated at the last minute if need be. For instance, quiche or frittata can be baked in a rectangular pan instead of a pie pan and cut into small squares instead of wedges, which are more cumbersome to eat. Marinated small shrimp and bay scallops are good small-plate candidates. Avoid foods that have bones or sticky sauces like chicken wings and short ribs. This creates unsightly trash.

Warming trays are a good way to keep foods warm. Use a slow cooker or crock pot for serving such foods as tiny cocktail meatballs, stews, or casseroles like macaroni and cheese.

Buffet-style serving makes it easy on the cook, and each guest can choose what he or she likes. Have a variety of foods to appeal to both meat eaters and vegetarians. Stack dinner- or salad-size plates on your buffet area. Have small cards near each dish that identify it.

Here are three of my favorite small-plate foods. They can all be prepared ahead, and the Artichoke and Cheese Crostini and Red Pepper Boats can be baked just before guests arrive and kept in warming trays. The shrimp dish can be made a day ahead, refrigerated and

brought to room temperature for serving.

Enjoy all the warmth, magic and wonder of the holiday season. Savor it, and take small bites.

Marinated Shrimp and Cannellini Beans

Serves 12

This refreshing shrimp and cannellini bean antipasto can be made a day or two ahead, and is very festive for a party.

1 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
Juice of 2 large lemons, plus the zest
2 teaspoons fine sea salt
4 tablespoons capers in salt, well rinsed
4 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 teaspoon celery salt
3 pounds cooked and shelled medium-size shrimp (20-40 count per pound)
2 14-ounce cans of cannellini beans, drained and well rinsed
2 cups quartered cherry tomatoes
4 tablespoons minced shallot or spring onions

1. Combine 1/2 cup olive oil, lemon juice, zest, salt, capers, parsley and celery salt in a bowl. Add the shrimp and toss well. Cover and marinate at room temperature for 1 hour, or prepare the day before and refrigerate.

2. In a separate bowl, combine the cannellini beans with the remaining olive oil, tomatoes, and shallots or spring onions. Cover and allow to marinate for 30 minutes.

3. When ready to serve, combine the cannellini bean mixture with the shrimp and transfer to a shallow platter.

Recipe from Ciao Italia Family Classics

Red Pepper Boats

Serves 12

Sweet red bell peppers are never boring; they can take on so many flavors and are perfect for a buffet spread. The play of flavors in the filling is an explosion in your mouth that eggs you on to have more than one or two or …

4 sweet, red bell peppers
2/3 pound Genoa salame with peppercorns, diced
20 imported, black oil-cured olives, pitted and chopped
4 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 cup grated Asiago cheese

1. Preheat oven to 350ºF. Oil a 13-inch-by-9-inch baking dish. Cut away the stem tops of the peppers. Cut the peppers in half length-wise and into quarters, and then remove the seeds and white membranes. Arrange the quarters, cut side up, in the prepared dish.

2. In a food processor, pulse together the salame, olives and thyme to create a paste-like consistency. Transfer the mixture to a bowl. Stir in the olive oil, salt and pepper.

3. Spread the paste evenly on the pepper quarters. Bake for 45 minutes or until the peppers are tender when pierced with a fork. Sprinkle the cheese over the top and continue cooking until the cheese is melted. Serve warm.

Note: You can prepare these a day ahead up to the point of baking. Keep the premade boats refrigerated and covered.

Artichoke and Cheese Crostini

Serves 12

Crostini means "little toasts." Small baguette slices are browned in a little olive oil, grilled or toasted, and topped with artichokes and cheese. This is a delicious addition to a buffet that can be made ahead.

4 garlic cloves, peeled
2 shallots, peeled and cut in half
1/2 pound Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, grated and divided
1 cup reduced-fat mayonnaise
2 6-ounce containers of mascarpone cheese, or one 8-ounce block of low-fat cream cheese, at room temperature
Juice of 2 limes
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes or red pepper paste
2 12-ounces boxes of frozen artichoke hearts, thawed and drained
Olive oil spray
4 day-old baguettes cut into ½-inch-thick slices and browned in olive oil

1. Preheat oven to 400°F. Using a food processor, finely chop the garlic and shallots. Add 1/2 cup of the Parmigiano Reggiano, the mayonnaise, mascarpone or cream cheese, lime juice and red pepper flakes. Process until almost smooth, then add the artichoke hearts and pulse until coarsely chopped.

2. Spoon the mixture into a 6-cup gratin dish, lightly coated with olive oil. Sprinkle the top evenly with the remaining Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Bake for 20 minutes or until bubbly and hot.

3. Serve hot with the toasted baguette slices and let everyone top their own.

Note: Jarred artichoke hearts in water can be used as a substitute for frozen. Be sure to drain them well.

Recipe from Ciao Italia Family Classics