Beauty and the Feast

By Judyth Hill

Companiable eating to take the edge off: time for hors d’oeuvres.
by Judyth Hill
Mom was the high priestess of hors d'oeurves. Cocktail hour was sacred.

It started with lipstick. Icy melon, or coral kiss. A schmear, then blot.

It started with what was interestingly referred to in the '50s as a fresh face.

I loved all parts of this process. I thought it de rigueur before creating  tempting morsels on Ritzes, to sit at your vanity and do your hair. Then, mouth slightly open, apply a light brush of dark navy color to upper lashes. She always used those cake mascaras, Lancôme, I think, and something about wetting the brush and leaning into the dressing table mirror looked so exciting to me.

I could hardly wait to grow up and stare interestedly at my own reflection, while carefully applying parfum to all my pulse points. I'm not sure people even know where their pulse points are anymore. But I do.

I know, I know, you're thinking: get to the point.

And I'm wondering why I can't get to appetizers without a quick visit to the dressing table and getting pretty. Then I understand. There's a certain kind of eating that is really about beauty.

It's not that noonhour roar in the stomach, which demands the immediate consumption of thick, steamy chowder or a huge juicy sandwich. Not the early morning yen for crisp and butter, accompanied by the darkest cup of coffee you can brew.

This is about edges. Assuaging just the edge of hunger, so that the day's end can be savored. So that you and your beloved, or whomsoever with you have chosen to share this delicate time between, quietly, sweetly, mark the edge and onset of evening.

To invite and celebrate coming together, settling into the refolding of yourselves back into each other's day. To acknowledge midpoint, a shift in tempo.

A beginning of another sort.

So, firstly, make time. Then select a lovely plate.

Mine is the one my mother always used. It's odd, the only one of its kind from a kitchen where everything came in sets of 12. It's a black plate with the raised images of a man and a woman talking. And a chicken between them.

Like I said, it's odd. And I haunt antique shops for those heavy Depression Glass condiment plates, and old single pieces of silver service. You get the idea.

At first, the building of your larder toward an instantly doable cocktail hour takes preparation. But once the habit is set, on any given evening, you can say, "Darling, let's have d'oeurves and talk," and in no time, you're curled up on the couch, with a small table at your knees, or on pillows, or your porch, or at the kitchen table, cleared, of course, of the day's detritus, and ready. Glass of wine, or cocktail, in hand, or a savory juice, seasoned and flaunting a stirstick of celery for fun, ice cubes companionably clinking.

Low prep and high returns on your appetizer menu suggest:

Olives. Good ones, picante green, or Kalamata, or stuffed with almonds or bleu cheese. Or black ones, large, with pits, so you eat them slowly, tasting thoughtfully their velvety meat. Sardines, if you like, or smoked oysters. A chunk of Jarlsburg cheese, thinly sliced and fanned out delicately.

And never underestimate the enlivening crisp and color of cool, fresh carrot spears, tiny dewy florets of broccoli and cauliflower, rings of bright green and red peppers. A bowl of balsamic, or ranch dressed to the nines with morsels of creamy Gorgonzola or feta.

A hardboiled egg, sliced and attended by a pungent dab of Dijon mustard can be just the right thing.

Your foods may be simple or complex. It's the gesture towards grace that counts.

Letting the world spin on, while you and your love commit togetherness over something delicious…

I always have tortilla chips on hand. Sharp cheddar cheese. And green onions. Sour cream.

I bet you do, too.

If you keep a can of some refried or black beans tucked back behind the cereals and pastas, you can make nachos as grand as you please. Or if you are happen to have leftover morsels of cooked chicken, sausage, ground beef or bison, or care to sauté some up with a smidgen of onion-have at it. Quelle largesse!

I do confess to microwave here. Layer for a good mix: Heap the chips in a deep dish, spoon some beans on top; sprinkle with onions (and maybe tiny bites of fresh jalapeño or serrano chiles), any meats or seafood you are adding, some small chunks of cream cheese, grate on your cheese and repeat on the second layer.

Microwave or bake just till melted. Sour cream, chopped fresh cilantro to taste, salsa on the side…

The aroma will make your mouth water, and those conversational juices flow.

Cocktail hour noshing needn't be fancy. Make sure that you keep crackers in your life. Salted nuts. Pickles, dill or sweet, whatever you love.  Any leftover bit of meat or seafood can be cut into slender, tasty bites and served solo to allow for creative eating, with various dipping sauces, or arranged on toastpoints, with a scribble of mayo, a dab of chutney, or a tad of Sriracha.

But oh, it can indeed be fancy. A piping hot crabmeat dip, my favorite childhood treat from my mother's always resplendent larder, is actually only a few very storable ingredients away. And seems so luxe.

A block of Philly cream cheese, softened. A clove of garlic, crushed. Or garlic powder, in a pinch. Juice of fresh lemon to taste, a dash or so of Worcestershire sauce. A generous grind of fresh pepper, a few drops of Tabasco sauce. Gently fork in a can of drained crabmeat, adding the juices a bit at a time 'til just barely thinned enough for dip.

Should you decide to splurge, this can be made spectacularly with fresh crab.

You know Mom did.

Now that I think of it, this may also be prepared as a vegetarian dip, if you substitute finely diced peppers, juicy red onions, whatever else pleases your fancy.

Again, to bake or microwave till bubbly hot is the final step.

Now, want to really show off your ability to throw off the day and waltz into evening like Fred and Ginger, like Kelly and Caron?

Here are two of my favorite and scrumptiously aboveandbeyondthecallofbeauty  hors d'oeurves.

The mushrooms will fill your kitchen with the most savory scents you can imagine, and the presence of Oysters Rockefeller on your table will catapult you into the appetizer hall of fame.

 And they are all so easy. But let's never let on. These are for those moments when you want more than a pause. You want a showstopper…


Broiled Stuffed Mushrooms

12 servings

12 large mushrooms

3 T. butter, approximately

1 smaIl onion, chopped fine

1 c. fine soft bread crumbs

1 c. chopped, cooked chicken, ham, bacon or shrimp, OR 1/4 c. chopped unsalted nuts

2 T. cream, good red wine, or sherry (approximately)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Sweet marjoram, rosemary or oregano to taste

Preheat broiler. Remove and chop the mushroom stems.

In a skillet, heat 1 T. of the butter, add the onion and chopped mushroom stems and saute about 2 minutes.

Add the crumbs, the meat, shrimp or nuts, enough cream, sherry or wine to moisten the mixture and the seasonings.

Place the mushroom caps on a baking sheet and brush with the remaining butter, melted.

Broil, cup side down, in a pre-heated broiler about 2 minutes.

Invert and fill with the stuffing.

Brush with melted butter and broil about 3 minutes longer.

Oysters Rockefeller

6 servings

1/2 lb. spinach, washed well and drained

6 or 8 scallions

1/2 head lettuce

1/2  stalk celery

1/2 bunch of parsley

1 clove garlic

1 cup butter

1 1/2 c. fine bread crumbs

1 T. Worcestershire sauce

1 t. anchovy paste

1/2 t. salt

Few dashes of Tabasco sauce

2 T. absinthe or Pernod

36 oysters

Mince finely or grind together the spinach, scallions, lettuce, celery, parsley and garlic.

Heat the butter and mix in the greens, bread crumbs, Worcestershire sauce, anchovy paste, saIt, Tabasco and Pernod.

Refrigerate until ready to use.

Spoon the mixture onto 36 oysters on the half shell.

Set the oyster halves on a bed of rock salt and bake in a hot oven (450ºF.) until piping hot.

Serve immediately.

Imagine 700 words on hors d'oeurves and I've never even whispered about chewy baguettes of French bread or ciabatta, and a fully ripe brie.

Never said crisp apple, and a perfect Anjou pear…. Or a small jar of delectable, pungent pesto. A juicy Roma tomato.

These are obvious. I know you know. I just want you to remember.

As the sun makes its way west: sigh. Breathe and stretch and think, it's time to stop….

Now visit the fridge and shelves and set your ingredients together.

But first, oh first: Honor beauty. Yours, mine and the world's, and celebrate that wonderful dusky wind down into evening.

Look in the mirror.

Judyth Hill is a poet and former bakery owner. She has published six books of poetry and is the author of the internationally acclaimed poem, "Wage Peace."

This article was originally published on January 1, 2008.