Festive Every Day Starters

Most of your cooking will be the ordinary meal you prepare for one or two or the family. Usually, you have not planned it before you arrive home so it needs to be simple and quick. But that does not mean it cannot be flavoursome or healthy. With a few strategic additions – it can be served up at dinner parties. Just a scattering of fresh parsley or basil will immediately make a dish look festive. When planning a meal – starters should complement the main. If you have a heavy main, serve a light starter and if you have a light main meal of fish or chicken, your starter can be more substantial.

I would always serve a two-course dinner for my family – a starter and a main or a main and sweet. Having two courses meant my kids had more chance to get the nutrients they needed and also develop their taste for different flavours. That did not mean it took me longer – often it involved reheating a soup on the stove or throwing something together quickly while preparing the main meal. One of my basic starter ingredients is mayonnaise – home-made or “gourmet” mayonnaise, made with eggs, which is now available in most supermarkets. I still make my own because I can control what goes into it.

See also: Tasty Soups and Spanish Tapas.

Radishes with Wholemeal Bread

Fresh, crispy radishes dipped in fleur de sel – flaky sea salt – served with buttered wholemeal bread triangles is about the easiest starter you can serve. French “eating” radishes are elongated with white tips. In spring, when they are in season, they are deliciously crunchy and not too hot. They are not available in Australian supermarkets but you can grow them yourself in the garden or a tub on the balcony from seeds. Sowing them in batches at different times towards the end of winter ensures you have a steady supply.

Ingredients:
2 bunches of eating radishes
4 slices of wholemeal or wholegrain bread, or toasted, crusty sourdough bread
4 tsp softened butter
8 tsp fleur de sel or flaky sea salt
Utensils: paring knife; butter knife; cutting board
Time: Less than 10 minutes

Preparation:

With a paring knife, cut the bottom roots off the radishes and trim the green tops, leaving a 1cm “handle”. Scrub thoroughly in cold water. Butter bread and cut in triangles or halves. Divide radishes while still wet between four entrée plates, arrange the bread on one side and couple of teaspoons flaky salt on the other and serve.

ASPARAGUS THREE WAYS

Asparagus can be cooked quickly in the microwave and here are three different, easy ways to serve them – cold, served with aioli using mayonnaise; French salad dressing; or warm, wrapped in prosciutto.

Ingredients:
2 bunches of green tip asparagus
Asparagus with aioli:
3/4 cup mayonnaise (see below)
3 cloves garlic
2 ½ tsp lemon juice
Flaky sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Utensils: cutting board; chef’s knife; bowl; fork for stirring.
Time: 30-40 minutes.

Ingredients for mayonnaise:
1 egg
1 egg yolk
1 tsp light mustard (not hot mustard)
450ml mild extra virgin olive oil
2 tblsp freshly squeezed lemon juice or white wine vinegar
¼ tsp salt
freshly ground pepper to taste
Utensils: food processor; measuring jug; measuring spoon; spatula.
Time: 10 minutes

Preparation:

  1. Rinse asparagus and while wet, cook covered with loose fitting lid in microwave for 1½ minutes. Set aside to cool.
  2. Make mayonnaise: Put egg and egg yolk in food processor. Add mustard and one tablespoon of lemon juice and pulse for a few seconds.
  3. Turn food processor back on and gradually add the olive oil until there are about one and a half cup left.
  4. When the mixture has thickened, add the rest of lemon juice with salt. Then add remaining oil in one go and pulse until all is combined and forms peaks.
  5. Season with freshly ground white pepper. This mayonnaise will keep in the fridge in an airtight jar for a month.
  6. Make aioli: Mix mayonnaise, garlic, lemon juice, salt and pepper in a bowl.
  7. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before spooning dollops on each serving of asparagus.
ARTICHOKES THREE WAYS

Ingredients:
4 fresh globe artichokes
1 lemon
1 slice onion
1 bay leaf
1 dz peppercorns
1tsp salt
1 cup French dressing (see below)
1 hardboiled egg, chopped finely
2 tblsp parsley, finely chopped
Utensils: chef’s knife; cutting board; lemon reamer; scissors; large saucepan; small bowl.
Time: 45 minutes

Ingredients for French dressing:
2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
1 tsp French or mild English mustard
Sea Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Utensils: jar with lid; teaspoon.
Time: 5 minutes

Globe artichokes make an interesting starter both hot and cold. They might look daunting and how to cook and eat them is not immediately obvious. But they are quite easy to prepare. To eat, break off each leaf and bite off the soft base. When all leaves have been removed, pull off the hairy “choke” at the base and eat the “heart” with the remaining dressing.

Preparation:

  1. Cut tips off the leaves with scissors and, using a chef’s knife, cut about 2cm off the top of artichoke. Trim off the small leaves at the bottom and cut the stalk, leaving about 2-3cm. Rub with half a lemon. Bring a big pot of water to boil with salt, bay leaf, onion and peppercorns.
  2. Squeeze freshy squeezed lemon juice into the pot, add the artichokes and boil uncovered for 25 to 45 minutes, until the outer leaves are easily detached. Refresh under running cold water. Drain well. Turn the artichokes upside down, squeeze out the water and leave aside until cold.
  3. Prepare French dressing: In a glass jar or salad bottle, mix vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper and shake. Add the oil and seasoning and shake some more.
  4. When needed, shake the jar/bottle, pour some in the bottom of the salad bowl and add the herbs before adding the salad leaves and toss just before serving.
  5. Mix chopped egg and parsley with the French dressing in a small bowl.
  6. Serve artichokes on four entrée plates and sauce in two serving bowls for guests to help themselves.
  7. You can also serve artichokes with home made mayonnaise (see above). Place two tablespoons of mayonnaise on each plate, for guests to dip the leaves in the mayonnaise before biting off the base.
  8. Alternatively, serve artichokes hot by melting 40g unsalted butter with a bunch of finely snipped chives and freshly ground pepper. Pour some of the hot butter on the artichokes and serve the rest in four separate small ramekins placed on each plate.
Buffalo Wings

I first came across Buffalo wings in Chicago as a snack during happy hour at the Palmer House Hilton. They are spicy chicken drumettes served with blue vein cheese dipping sauce and celery sticks. Said to have originated in 1964 at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, upstate New York, they did not catch on until 1995, when they appeared on Domino’s Pizza menus across the US. They can be served warm as a starter or for lunch with slices of bread and salad. But they are also great cold for picnics.

Ingredients:
1kg chicken wings, tips removed and cut in two pieces
1 cup plain flour
¼-1 tsp cayenne pepper, depending on taste
1-2 tsp sea salt
½ cup extra virgin olive or or olive oil spray
1 bunch celery
Blue vein cheese dressing (see below)
Utensils: cutting board; carving knife; plastic bag; baking tray; alufoil; pastry brush.
Time: Preparation – 10 minutes; cooking time – 15-20 minutes

Preparation:

  1. Heat oven to 200°C. Put chicken wing pieces in plastic bag with flour, cayenne and salt and shake until all pieces are coated.
  2. Prepare a baking sheet with foil and spray or brush with olive oil. Place chicken on foil and spray or brush the tops with olive oil. Cook in oven for about 15 minutes, until golden brown.
  3. While chicken is roasting, cut celery into sticks and place upright in a glass. Prepare blue vein cheese sauce (see below) and spoon into a bowl.
  4. Serve the Buffalo wings on a big platter with celery sticks and the bowl of blue vein cheese dip on the side and let guests help themselves.
BLUE VEIN CHEESE dressing

Blue vein cheese dressing is a popular US dressing and dipping sauce. I first had it served on a quarter iceberg lettuce as a starter at an industry function in Los Angeles. I was pleasantly surprised how tasty it was. You will never see it on a gourmet Australian menu but it is quick, simple and quite flavoursome.

Ingredients:
250g Roquefort or blue vein cheese
½ cup light sour cream
Utensils: food processor or small bowl and fork; spoon.
Time: five minutes

Preparation:

  1. Put blue vein cheese and light sour cream in the food processor and pulse until smooth.
  2. You can also use a fork to smooth out the blue vein cheese in a bowl until it becomes creamy before stirring in the sour cream.
  3. Serve in a bowl as dipping sauce.
BRUSCHETTA OR CROSTINI

Bruschetta or crostini are great ways to use leftover breadsticks. They make a perfect base for toppings to start off a meal or can substitute crackers for paté, terrine or cheese. Opinions are divided on what is bruschetta and what is crostini. Some say bruschetta is made from bigger bread slices; others say they are made from sourdough, while crostini are smaller made from breadsticks. In my book, bruschetta are thick breadstick slices, while crostini are thin. In any case – they all can be served with the same variety of toppings, but the crostini should be served immediately so they don’t go soggy from the filling.

Ingredients:
1 breadstick, batard or ciabatta
Extra virgin olive oil spray
1 clove of garlic
Pinch of sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Utensils: Utensils: cutting board; bread knife; baking sheet; tongs.
Time: 15-20 minutes

Preparation:

  1. Heat oven to 200°C. While oven is warming up, slice bread in 10mm thick slices. Brush or spray bread with extra virgin olive oil. Place on baking sheet and roast in oven for about 8-10 minutes or until golden, taking care they do not burn.
  2. Remove bread from oven and while bruschetta is still hot, rub each slice with garlic.
  3. For crostini, slice the bread in thin, 3mm slices. Prepare as above and roast in the oven until golden.
  4. While still hot, rub each slice with garlic. Cool and keep in airtight container until needed. The thin crispy crostini are great for appetisers. They can also be broken up and used in salads or as Melba toast with smoked salmon or steak tartare.

Serve bruschetta and crostini with various toppings. These toppings can also be served as sandwich or wrap fillings.

Ingredients for tomato and basil topping:
1 large Ox heart or Roma tomato
1 brown shallot
1 clove garlic, finely grated
½ cup basil leaves, finely chopped
Extra virgin olive oil
Red wine or balsamic vinegar
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Utensils: cutting board; chef’s knife; bowl; fine grater; fork; frypan.
Time: 15-20 minutes

Preparation:

  1. Peel tomatoes by plunging them in boiling water for one minute. Cut out core, squeeze out seeds and remove skin (using skinned tomatoes keeps the topping from sliding off the bruschetta).
  2. Chop tomato flesh, onion and basil finely and mix with grated garlic in a bowl and just enough olive oil and vinegar to bind without being too liquid.
  3. Spoon a heaped tablespoon on each bruschetta. If using crostini, serve in individual bowls with a small serving spoon for guests to help themselves.

Ingredients for tapenade and goat’s cheese topping:
100g fresh goats cheese
4 tsp good quality black olive tapenade
½ cup basil, finely chopped
Extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Utensils: cutting board; chef’s knife; bowl; spoon.
Time: 10 minutes

Preparation:

  1. Spread goat’s cheese on bruschetta or crostini and top with a little tapenade.
  2. Sprinkle with shredded basil and drizzle with a few drops of extra virgin olive oil. Season and serve.

Ingredients for mushroom topping:
1 tblsp extra virgin olive oil
25g butter
2 cups of mushrooms, roughly chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 tblsp flatleaf parsley, chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Utensils: cutting board; chef’s knife; bowl; frypan; wooden spoon for stirring.
Time: 10 minutes

Preparation:

  1. Heat oil in a frypan on medium, drop in butter. When butter is foaming, add mushrooms, garlic and parsley.
  2. Cook for about five minutes. Season and spoon on bruschetta while still warm and serve immediately.

Ingredients for seafood cocktail topping:
100g ready-peeled school prawns, or regular prawns, each cut in four; or blue swimmer cab meat, or a combination of the two
1 Roma or ox heart tomato
1 sticks of celery
½ cup seafood sauce (see below)
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
For seafood sauce
1 cup mayonnaise (see above)
3 tsp tomato ketchup
2 tsp Worcester sauce
1 tblsp snipped chives
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Utensils: cutting board; chef’s knife; 2 bowls; spoon.
Time: Less than five minutes

Preparation:

  1. Put peeled prawns in a bowl. Skin tomatoes (see above) and chop finely and add to prawns.
  2. Chop celery finely and mix with prawns and tomato.
  3. Stir together mayonnaise, tomato ketchup and Worcester sauce with chives and seasoning. Add to seafood and mix together well. Serve on bruschetta or as sandwich or wrap filling.

Ingredients Russian salad:
100g smoked ham off the bone
1 small dill pickled gherkin
½ cup tartar sauce
Ingredients for tartar sauce:
1 dill pickled gherkin
1 tblsp capers
handful parsley
½ bunch chives, or 2 green shallots
½ cup caper pickling liquid (see below)
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Utensils: cutting board; chef’s knife; two bowls; spoon.
Time: 10 minutes

Preparation:

  1. Prepare Russian salad with tartar sauce (remoulade): Tartar sauce is a mayonnaise-based sauce, which goes well with fried fish as well as rare roast beef and ham. Chop gherkin in food processor with capers, parsley, chives or shallots and pickling liquid until smooth. Season to taste.
  2. Stir two teaspoons of the mixture together with two tablespoons of mayonnaise. Mix with the ham and gherkin and serve on bruschetta or as sandwich or wrap fillings.
  3. Leftover tartar sauce keeps for about a month in the fridge and the tartar mixture with added pickling liquid lasts for more than three months and can be used for salsa verde when mixed with crushed garlic and a squeeze of lemon juice – delicious served on top of seared tuna and swordfish.

Ingredients for beetroot topping:
1 fresh beetroot
1 laurel leaf
1 sprig thyme
pinch of coarse sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Extra virgin olive oil
1 carrot
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Utensils: cutting board; chef’s knife; baking sheet; bowl; spoon.
Time: 15-20 minutes

  1. Prepare beetroot topping: Wash beetroot and cut off root before wrapping it whole, with skin on, in alufoil with laurel leaf, thyme, seasoning and a little olive oil.
  2. Bake in oven for 20 minutes or until tender and set aside until cold enough to handle. Trim off top and rub off skin under running cold water.
  3. Steam carrot until tender. When ready, refresh carrot and set aside to cool.
  4. Dice beetroot and carrot in small cubes and mix with mayonnaise (see above). Season and serve on bruschetta or as sandwich or wrap filling.
scollops in saffron sauce

Once my late husband and I were stranded for three days at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris by an Air France strike. Making the most out of a bad situation, we had our meals at the airport Maxime Restaurant. One of the most memorable dishes I had there was scallops in saffron sauce. This is my take on it and it is much easier than you may think:

Ingredients:
16 scallops without roe
4tsp brown sugar
1 pinch of saffron
1 tsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp unsalted butter
1 cloves of garlic, finely grated
½ cup finely sliced fennel (optional)
1 pinch of cayenne pepper (optional)
½ glass of white wine or Pernot (optional)
2 tblsp Philadelphia cooking cream
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Snipped chives or fennel leaves to garnish
Utensils: frypan; fine grater; tongs; stirring spoon.
Time: 20 minutes

Preparation:

  1. Rinse scallops and pat dry. Leave them out to reach room temperature. Sprinkle sugar on each side and pour a teaspoon of boiling water on the saffron threads in an small bowl or egg cup.
  2. Heat frypan to medium and when hot add oil, followed immediately by butter. When butter starts foaming, add garlic and cayenne to flavour the oil-butter mixture. Turn heat up high and add scallops to pan a few at the time, taking care not to let them “stew”.
  3. Caramelise quickly for one minute on in each side and sprinkle with a little salt and a squeeze of lemon juice. Remove and set aside.
  4. Add wine to frypan or Pernot with fennel if desired and set alight or let it reduce by one-third. Add cream, followed by saffron with its water. Stir for another minute while sauce thickens, add salt to taste.
  5. Turn off heat and add the scallops to the sauce. Scatter freshly snipped chives or a fennel spray on top and serve.
  6. For a main meal add eight more scallops and serve with rice or new potatoes and a green salad.
MORE RECIPES from the road:

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