It’s been a couple of months since I wrote this article. It was supposed to be timed to coincide with Picnic Season but it’s been a busy summer and the newsletter got pushed to one of our several back burners. Here in the middle of September there’s still a little time for picnicking, but mostly we’re staring this year’s big entertainment season square in the face. These ideas, portable and easy as they are for the picnic basket, are also perfect fare for cocktail parties and family get-togethers - all of which call for plentiful, easy-to-prepare goodies. Here are a few favorites from my files.

ajvarcheesespreadAjvar Cheese Dip

This one (the one in the photo) is a little spicy and uses Ajvar, the wonderful eastern European pepper/eggplant spread that I put on nearly everything. It was only a matter of time before I combined it with a little cheese as a dip for warm pita bread or pita chips. We have several brands and they’re all good. My favorite happens to be Zergut Hot Ajvar. Using the 5-star Thai restaurant scale, the heat in this variety is in the neighborhood of 2 stars. The cheese cools it down a lot.

Combine one 8-ounce package of softened cream cheese with 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 6 ounces (by weight) of Ajvar in the bowl of your food processor. Pulse until thoroughly combined and the cheese is a bit fluffy. You can mitigate the radiant pinkness of this by garnishing with chopped fresh herbs, olives or lemon. I have made this with feta cheese (Bulgarian works best) and have had very good results. Leave off the added salt, obviously, if you use feta.

Crema de Queiso Azul

While we’re thinking about cheese, here is a little tapas spread that is practically miraculous both in its simplicity and in its effect. I admit it’s a little ugly. Hard to deny that about a spread that’s gun-metal grey. But it’s so delicious that hardly matters. We use Valdeon, which is the intense blue cheese from Picos de Europa in Spain.

For each pound of room temperature Valdeon add a couple of tablespoons of cognac. In a small bowl, cream them together completely. Cover the bowl and leave the mixture to mature on your counter for a day or two, stirring from time to time. When you’re ready to serve it, stir once more and transfer it into the prettiest bowl you have. Serve with the best baguette you can find (warm, if possible) and big glasses of a really fat, ripe red Rioja wine. Some Muscat grapes. Maybe a plate of brightly dressed bitter greens. Nobody’ll notice how ugly the cheese spread is.

Salt Cod and Potato Spread

More tapas. This is more complicated and the recipe doesn’t use much cod (only a quarter of a pound). Since we sell salt cod by the pound or more, you’ll have some leftover fish. Don’t worry about it. Turn the rest into croquettes or serve it in any of the many other ways it’s served in the Mediterranean. My instructions here assume you understand how to soak the cod to remove most of the salt. If you have questions about that, just ask us and we’ll help.

1/4 pound skinless/boneless salt cod, soaked to remove excess salt
1/2 pound potato (a waxy one like Yukon gold), cut in half
1/4 cup of olive oil
3 cloves garlic, mashed
2 tablespoons fresh, chopped flat-leaf parsley
Salt and pepper

Place the cod with the potato in a pan with enough water to cover them both. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until the potato is cooked. Transfer the cod to your food processor bowl. Peel the potato, once it’s cooled a bit. And reserve a some of the liquid.

Mash or rice the potato (ricing is better) into a bowl. Warm the olive oil just a bit and then slowly stir it into the potato. Add the mashed garlic and parsley. Combine thoroughly.

Process the cod until it forms a paste. Add just a couple of tablespoons of the reserved liquid into the food processor bowl with the motor running. Stir this into the potato mixture. Serve on crusty baquette slices.

Beurre d’Anchois

Back to simplicity: Anchovy Butter is a classic of French cuisine and works beautifully on baguette plain or on canapés as base for other ingredients, such as shrimp and sweet pepper. This is one of many, many compound butters that are useful in the pantry. I feel certain we’ll cover more of those in a future newsletter.

Take 3 ounces of good anchovies and soak them for a few hours in cold water, changing the water every half hour or so, to desalt them a bit. Otherwise I use marinated white anchovies to good effect. Either way, dry the anchovies well. The next step is to combine them, with mortar and pestle (classically) or in a food processor (at my house), with about 7 ounces of unsalted butter - sweetest possible. Press the resulting mixture through a sieve or fine strainer. Serve on slices of warm baguette or on canapés as desired.

Hot Artichoke Dip

This is just self-indulgence. We make this around our place anytime we want to time-travel to 1975. Which is more often than you’d think. The directions are pretty simple. I include this recipe here just in case you’ve forgotten it.

1 cup mayonnaise
1 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano (cheese), grated
1/2 cup onion, finely chopped
13 3/4 ounces canned artichoke hearts, drained
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper (to taste - as much as 1/2 teaspoon)
3 tablespoons bread crumbs
1 teaspoon olive oil

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Stir mayonnaise, cheese, onion in medium bowl. Pulse artichoke hearts in food processor until finely chopped, then add to cheese mixture with juice and pepper. Combine well. Scrape into a small baking dish. Combine and sprinkle the crumbs and olive oil over the dip. Bake until the top is browned - about 20 minutes

A few others to think about:

Here’s a link to our recipe for traditional Hummous bi Tahini.

Here’s a link to our recipe for Hummous bi Tahini made with black chick peas. (!)

And finally here’s a link to our recipe for a traditional Tapenade.

Obviously, I’ve barely scratched the surface of this topic. I’m sure there will be more to come. Enjoy the rest of your summer.