Appetizers make tasty summer menu options

Margaret
Margaret Prouse
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Dinner at the wedding I attended last weekend was a showstopper — four delicious courses, presented beautifully and served with wine over a period of about three hours.

Amid conversation, speeches, toasts and the clink of cutlery tapping water glasses, guests savoured their meals, leaving behind the rush of everyday routines. It was a wonderful way to celebrate a once-in-a-lifetime event.

Other special events, such as birthdays, reunions with old friends and family gatherings call for extraordinary meals, too, and I think that, for summer meals that are both celebratory and casual, choosing appetizers and dessert is a good menu option. Guests can pick up small servings of a selection of appetizers to eat at a table, under a tree or wherever they are comfortable, and when they’re finished, come back for samples of a few tempting desserts.

Meze is simply the Greek word for appetizers and refers to a selection of dishes served to accompany drinks or as starters for a large meal in several parts of the Middle East. They include hummus (chickpea dip or spread), babaghanoush (mashed, seasoned eggplant), felafel (deep fried balls or patties made with ground chickpeas), stuffed vine leaves, olives, feta cheese, yogurt, cylindrical meatballs called kofte and grilled souvlaki.

You can find preserved vine leaves to use in the following recipe at a grocery store that specializes in Mediterranean or Lebanese food and pine nuts either in the same shop, at a bulk food store or some grocery stores.

Most often, vine leaves are stuffed with a mixture that includes meat, but here is a vegetarian option. Having just spent a week travelling with two vegetarians, I am more aware of how often non-meat-eaters are overlooked when menus are planned.

Vegetarian Dolmades

Adapted from Murdoch Books: The Essential Appetizers Cookbook, Whitecap Books Ltd, Vancouver, 2001.

125 mL (1/2 cup) olive oil

6 spring onions, chopped

175 mL (3/4 cup) long grain rice

50 mL (1/4 cup) chopped fresh mint

25 mL (2 tbsp) chopped fresh dill

150 mL (2/3 cup) lemon juice

50 mL (1/4 cup) currants

50 mL (1/4 cup) pine nuts

240 g (7 1/2 oz) packaged vine leaves (about 50)

25 mL (2 tbsp) olive oil, extra

Heat the oil in a medium pan. Add the spring onion and cook over medium heat for 1 minute. Stir in the rice, mint, dill, and half the lemon juice, and season to taste. Add 250 mL (1 cup) water and bring to the boil, then reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove the lid, fork through the currants and pine nuts, cover with a paper towel, then the lid, and leave to cool.

Rinse the vine leaves and gently separate. Drain, then dry on paper towels. Trim any thick stems with scissors. Line the base of a 20 cm (8 inch) pan with any torn or misshapen leaves. Choose the larger leaves for filling and use the smaller leaves to patch up any gaps.

Place a leaf shiny-side-down. Spoon a tablespoon of filling into the centre, bring in the sides, and roll up tightly from the stem end. Place seam-side-down, with the stem end closest to you, in the base of the pan, arranging them close together in a single layer.

Pour in the rest of the lemon juice, the extra oil, and about 175 mL (¾ cup) water to just cover the dolmades.

Cover with an inverted plate and place a tin on the plate to firmly compress the dolmades and keep them in place while they are cooking. Cover with the lid.

Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 45 minutes. Cool in the pan. Serve at room temperature.

Makes about 50.

Note: Store dolmades covered with the cooking liquid in the refrigerator.

Tapas is the Spanish version of appetizers. The word derives from tapa, meaning “to cover”, because it is said tapas were originally slices of bread or ham placed atop glasses of sherry to keep the flies off. (It seems ironic to me that it was more important that the drinks be kept free of flies than to keep the food clean. However, that’s the story.)

Tapas includes any number of foods, from simple dishes — olives, ham, mushrooms sautéed in olive oil with garlic — to ones that require more preparation such as Spanish omelet (contains chunks of fried potato), fried battered calamari (squid), or chorizo sausage simmered in wine or cider.

Meals of small bite-sized food are featured in many cuisines, such as Cantonese dim sum, Scandinavian smorgasbord, Mexican botanas, and Italian antipasto. Inspired by this casual way of dining which seems well-suited to summer get togethers, I’m going to serve a selection of hot and cold foods — olives, cheese, devilled eggs, pickles, meatballs and stuffed vine leaves — at our next family birthday gathering.

Margaret Prouse, a home economist, can be reached by writing her at RR#2, North Wiltshire, P.E.I., C0A 1Y0, or by email at margaret@islandgusto.com.

Organizations: Whitecap Books

Geographic location: Middle East, Vancouver, North Wiltshire

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