Three easy appetizers for summer gatherings

Three easy appetizers for summer gatherings

Summer means casual get-togethers, and with most of my friends and family being double-boosted this year, I hope to have several in-person visits. Having gone two summers without much socializing, I want to spend more time visiting and less time cooking. These three simple appetizers are low fuss but high in taste.

Spinach Dip served in a sourdough boule.

Spinach Dip served in a sourdough boule.

(Anita L. Arambula / Confessions of a Foodie)

Spinach dip for the spinach haters

I didn’t grow up eating spinach; my father found it bitter, so my mom never bought it. That is, until my late teens, upon my doctor’s recommendation, to help boost my iron deficiency anemia (this myth of spinach as a good source of iron has since been debunked). Dad prepared it for me sauteed in chicken broth, like he did when working in professional kitchens. I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it, either.

Years later, out on my own, I finally became a spinach lover once I realized that it tasted best cooked until just wilted and wonderful eaten raw in salads or sandwiches. I became addicted and looked for more ways to use it. Once I discovered this dip, I figured it was worth a try to introduce spinach in this form to my family.

The first time I took the dip to a family gathering, I had to convince all the spinach haters to just give it a whirl before walking away.

It’s now my family’s most requested party food. I have to make enough to ensure leftovers for Mom and Dad, who have come to adore this dish. It’s simple, decadent and satisfying.

Plus, leftover dip is terrific as a sandwich spread and in veggie omelets in place of shredded cheese.

Sausage Stuffed Mushrooms get their flavor from Jimmy Dean Sage Sausage.

Sausage Stuffed Mushrooms get their flavor from Jimmy Dean Sage Sausage.

(Anita L. Arambula / Confessions of a Foodie)

Sausage Stuffed Mushrooms

My version of stuffed mushrooms is so delicious and ridiculously simple that I’m embarrassed to call it a recipe. I learned about this preparation from a friend 30 years ago. I’ve been making my version for family and friends ever since.

The “secret”? Jimmy Dean Sage Sausage. The sage in the sausage imparts so much flavor to the mushrooms. When I can’t find sage sausage, I substitute plain pork sausage, adding ¾ teaspoon of ground sage.

Mushrooms are porous. Any liquid they come into contact with is soaked up. For this reason, I never wash my mushrooms. Instead, I rub them with an ever-so-slightly damp paper towel to remove excess debris. This minimal contact with water primes them to absorb the tasty, sage-flavored sausage juices. If you must wash, give them a rapid rinse under running water and immediately pat them dry. Washed mushrooms will spoil more quickly, so wash only what you need.

Watermelon, fresh mozzarella, basil and basalmic reduction appetizers.

Watermelon, fresh mozzarella, basil and basalmic reduction appetizers.

(ANITA L. ARAMBULA / Confessions of a Foodie)

Watermelon bites

I love traditional caprese salad. It’s a great way to enjoy the summer’s crop of vine-ripened tomatoes. Stacks of luscious tomato slices, creamy fresh mozzarella and fresh-from-the-garden basil drizzled with balsamic vinegar and good quality olive oil is my idea of a perfect bite.

But just because something is traditional or considered perfect doesn’t mean there isn’t room for an occasional flourish.

During an evening walk with Starbuck, my cocker spaniel, a few summers ago, my auntie mentioned that she needed to come up with a couple of appetizers to take to an afternoon work party. I helped her brainstorm a few ideas, but a few days before the event, she told me she’d seen something on TV she wanted to try: a twist on caprese that replaced the tomatoes with watermelon.

“What a great idea!” I thought. So I gave her a few suggestions on how I would go about building the watermelon caprese. That night, when I got home from work, she said the appetizer had been a huge hit.

The creamy mozzarella mellows the sweetness from the watermelon, while the basil brings a bright freshness. Then, the hint of slightly sweet acidity from a balsamic glaze hits the taste buds, cutting through the mozzarella to balance the bite.

It’s Wednesday. The weekend is almost here. Invite some friends over and fire up the grill. While waiting for it to heat up, give any of these appetizers a whirl. Maybe one — or all of them — will become a part of your summer party repertoire as they have for my family.

Spinach Dip

Makes about 10 to 12 servings

½ cup water
1 packet beef onion soup mix (I like Lipton)
8 ounces frozen spinach, thawed
1 (12-ounce) container of whipped cream cheese
1 cup sour cream
1 (8-ounce) can of sliced water chestnuts, chopped
1 medium to large sourdough boule
1 sourdough baguette

Add water and soup mix to a microwave-safe cup — microwave for 1 minute. Carefully remove and stir well; set aside to cool.

Place spinach in a microwave-safe bowl and microwave for 30 to 45 seconds or until thawed. Transfer spinach to cheesecloth and once cool enough to handle, gently squeeze out all the liquid; return the spinach to the bowl. Stir in the cream cheese, sour cream and chestnuts.

Using a fork, pull out all the rehydrated onions from the cooled soup and add them to the cheese mixture. Add half the liquid, stirring to combine well. Taste the dip to see if you have enough salty beefy flavor, adding more soup if needed (I use all the liquid because I enjoy the stronger taste). Stir well and set aside.

To make a bowl out of the bread, begin by slicing off the top of the sourdough boule. Run the knife around the inside perimeter, leaving at least an inch of bread as a “wall.” Scoop out the center piece of bread in one large chunk, leaving about an inch of bread on the bottom of the bowl. Add the dip to the bread bowl. Place any leftover dip in the fridge to replenish as needed.

Cut the removed bread into 1-inch cubes. When ready to serve, place your bread bowl on a serving platter with the bread cubes. Cut the baguette into 1-inch-thick slices, then make 1-inch cubes. Use this bread to replenish the bread cubes as needed.

Sausage Mushrooms

Use this recipe as a template, if you like, by switching out the Jimmy Dean for your favorite uncooked flavored sausage. I’ve also made these with Italian sausage with great success.

Makes 20 to 24 stuffed mushrooms, depending on mushroom size

2 pounds medium-size white button or crimini mushrooms, wiped clean
1-pound package of Jimmy Dean Premium Pork Sage Sausage
¼ cup plain breadcrumbs or panko
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Carefully remove the stems from the mushrooms (discard or save for stock-making). Gently pack ½ teaspoon of sausage into the cavity. Mound ½ teaspoon over the opening (the sausage will shrink while cooking). Set aside and repeat with the remaining mushrooms.

Place mushrooms in a baking dish large enough to hold all of them snugly in a single layer (they should be touching to maximize their absorption of the meat juices and to help keep them from drying out). Combine the bread and cheese in a small bowl. Sprinkle the mixture evenly over the mushrooms. Add more or less to taste. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the meat is cooked and the mushrooms are tender. Remove from oven and allow to rest for 5 minutes before serving.

Watermelon Mozzarella Basil Bites With Balsamic Glaze

I use Ciliegine fresh mozzarella from Trader Joe’s, but most major grocers should carry it. Ciliegine (chee-lay-genie) translates to “small cherry” and is the perfect size for one-bite appetizers. You can use regular balsamic vinegar, but the glaze is even better. Find it at well-stocked markets or make your own. See the note at the end of the recipe on how to do it. For more assertive herbaceousness, try mint leaves in place of basil.

Makes about 6 servings

18 one-inch cubes of watermelon
1 (8-ounce) container of Ciliegine fresh mozzarella balls
18 small basil leaves
18 cocktail skewers
¼ cup balsamic glaze (see note)
extra-virgin olive oil, optional for finishing
sea salt, optional, for finishing

Stack the watermelon, basil and cheese so that the watermelon is on the bottom. Carefully pierce the cheese with the cocktail skewer and continue guiding it through the basil leaf to the watermelon. Place on a serving tray. Repeat with remaining cheese, basil and watermelon. Drizzle the balsamic glaze over the skewered watermelon cheese bites, allowing excess to land on the serving tray (to make it easier to drizzle, microwave the glaze for 5 to 8 seconds). Carefully cover with plastic wrap and chill until ready to serve. When your guests arrive, remove them from the refrigerator and allow them to sit for 10 minutes before serving. Optionally, drizzle the stacks with a good quality extra-virgin olive oil and a light sprinkling of sea salt.

Note: To make balsamic glaze, bring 1 cup of balsamic vinegar to a rolling boil over high heat. Lower heat and simmer for 5 to 8 minutes, stirring every 30 to 45 seconds. Reduce by half for a slightly runnier glaze or up to two-thirds for a thick, rich glaze. Once you reach your desired consistency, remove from heat and cool completely. Transfer to an airtight container and store in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

Recipes are copyrighted by Anita L. Arambula and are reprinted with permission from “Confessions of a Foodie.”

Arambula is the food section art director and designer. She blogs at confessionsofafoodie.me, where the original versions of this article were published. Follow her on Instagram: @afotogirl. She can be reached at anita.arambula@sduniontribune.com.