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Creative appetizers hit or miss

March 7, 2012

Hors d’oeuvres. Appetizers. Finger foods. Little nuggets of deliciousness that can be eaten with no silver in sight. I’m into this kind of food, especially having lived 10 years in a country where utensils were optional, and fingers were the norm for the entire meal. Yes, we washed our hands before and after. And yes, we did on occasion double dip and lived to tell the tale.  But that’s another story.
At the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium last fall, we were provided with utensils whenever such instruments were appropriate. But there were several occasions when only fingers were needed and those bites were just as memorable. Our first fork-less opportunity was the book signing. On Friday afternoon, after watching the pimiento cheese movie and drinking a shot of southern olive oil, we gathered to check out dozens of food-related books for sale, most of which were penned by authors in attendance. Given that our dinner was well over an hour away and that book reviewing ostensibly burns lots of calories, there was plenty of nourishment — bite-sized and finger friendly.
Vivian Howard, from Chef and the Farmer Restaurant in Kinston, N.C., was in charge of the appetizers at the book signing, and she came up with some truly imaginative dishes.  Imaginative, I realize, can sometimes be a polite way of saying “It was creative, but please don’t create it again.” Not the case here. Her imagination came up with some keepers. 
The first table I came to was serving dolmades, and I’ll just go ahead and tell you: I didn’t know what dolmades were. Turns out it’s just a fancy Greek name for stuffed grape leaves.  And I’ve had those before — some have been good, and some have been …imaginative. Chef Howard replaced the grape leaves with collard greens, stuffed them with a filling of ground sausage, pecans and dried muscadines, and laid them on a little swipe of sweet potato yogurt. I much preferred the sausage-based filling to the traditional rice — the sweet touch of the muscadines and the crunch of the pecans added even more personality. The sweet potato yogurt cooled the tongue in contrast with the spice of the sausage. I confess that I probably hung around this table longer than was appropriate. I was a dolmades stalker. 
Along another wall were Bacon-Wrapped Watermelon Pickles with Fried Rutabaga Spoonbread. I’m not sure I had ever had a rutabaga in any form before that night, and she even had some rutabaga pickles as a bonus garnish. Sweet, salty, crunchy and soft were all there in one bite — two bites if you wanted to make it last, but I made it last by asking for another.  Across the room the final table offered simpler fare, but still pretty doggone good: Anson Mills Benne Straws, Granny Smith Preserves and Chapel Hill Calvander cheese. 
After the book signing we gathered next door to watch a Joe York documentary on Hardy Farms Peanuts in Hawkinsville, Ga. They won an award, and we got to enjoy some of their award-winning boiled peanuts as we watched the film. Did that make it a 3-D documentary? 
Post-peanuts, we all got on school buses and made the short trip from Oxford to Taylor for the main meal of the evening. But before we tackled the catfish plates inside, we had the chance to sample a couple of appetizers on the porch. Chef Tyler Brown of the Capitol Grille in Nashville introduced the evening’s fish theme, treating us to Smoked Sunburst Farm Trout-topped Hoecakes with Grilled Onion Relish. I found it fascinating to learn that the trout had been brined in sweet tea. This was definitely a southern delicacy.
On the other side of the porch, Valerie Erwin of Geechee Girl Rice Café in Philadelphia, Pa. offered Sweet Potato Tostones with a dab of sour cream and a little dollop of green tomato relish. I ate it without question, but again I found myself eating something with a long, international name that I could not define, much less properly pronounce. Thank goodness for the world-wide interweb. Traditionally, tostones are twice-fried pieces of plantain. The plantain is cut into thick slices and fried, then flattened and fried again. (Wonder how that would work with a Twinkie? Not too well, I’d guess. But I digress.) Chef Erwin applied that technique to sweet potatoes, and I think the good people of Vardaman have one more way to enjoy the fruit of their land. 
The next morning, breakfast was served outside the meeting hall around tall stand-up tables. I know breakfast is not exactly an appetizer, but we did eat with our hands so I’m qualifying it.  The country ham in the biscuits came from Nancy Newsom Mahaffey, of Colonel Bill Newsom’s Aged Kentucky Country Ham in Princeton, Ky. April McGreger of Farmer’s Daughter Brand Pickles and Preserves in Hillsborough, N.C., made the biscuits and provided the preserves. Pear preserves rank highest on my biscuit-topping-favorites list, but hers were made different by a generous amount of black pepper, which complimented the saltiness of the ham and cut through the sweetness of the pears. I’m not sure I ever would have come up with the pear and pepper pairing, but I’m glad she did.  
So let’s review. Bite-sized food on small plates. Good. Eating with your hands. Good. For those who may consider themselves too sophisticated for this kind of behavior, let me put it in technological terms that may make it the idea more palatable. We are in the digital age. All I’m asking is that you input your apps with your digits.

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