Tired of serving the same old appetizers or finger foods at holiday gatherings?
Take it up a notch.
This month Dishing with the Chef asked Kristian Niemi of Rosso in Forest Acres and Gervais and Vine in the Vista to prepare a few perfect additions for your party.
For a first course, he chose mussels prepared in a fennel, tomato and wine sauce. "To me an appetizer is something you enjoy sitting down before a meal," he said.
For "finger foods," he prepared wild mushroom crostini with fresh thyme and gorgonzola along with red wine and fennel roasted olives.
"Something I work with my staff when they present a menu, I tell them to think of yourself at this party," he said. "You have a drink in one hand, you're talking to someone. Are you going to be able to eat this without looking like an idiot and slobbering down the front of your shirt?"
Let's start with the wild mushroom crostini. The first step: make your own crostini.
"There's no reason people can't make their own," he said.
Just don't cut the bread into thick slices - each slice of a baguette should be about three-eighths of an inch. "It's just the delivery for the toppings," he said.
While some people brush each side with olive oil, Niemi thinks that's a waste of time and it puts too much olive oil on the bread. He recommends placing the bread on a cookie sheet, coating it with olive oil cooking spray, kosher or sea salt (don't use iodized salt; it's too fine) and Italian herbs. Then turn the pieces over and repeat. Bake in the oven until it's golden and crispy.
For the mushroom topping, he uses an assortment of sliced mushrooms such as shitaake, portobello or plain button mushrooms. But he also soaks a few dried wild chanterelle mushrooms in water and adds that to the mixture. Just a small amount of those flavorful (but pricey) mushrooms can add to the other less-expensive mushrooms.
Once the mushrooms have been cooked, it's time to top the crostini. "You don't want it too loaded up with stuff. These are finger foods you're going to set out," he said.
It's topped off with a few crumbles of gorgonzola cheese. "You can buy gorgonzola (already crumbled), but I recommend you get the higher quality and crumble it yourself. The moisture level is better and the quality is better."
On to the olives.
"Anybody can put out a bowl of olives," he said. "But you add four or five ingredients, a little time in the oven, and you have something completely different than what most people have experienced."
He starts with a mixture of olives such as kalamata, Nicoise, Arbequina, Cerignola, picholine and oil-cured black olives. He adds citrus zest, cut large enough so people don't eat it.
The crowning ingredient is fennel - one of Niemi's favorites.
"For some reason people are terrified of fennel. I've had people stop me in the grocery store and ask, 'What are you going to do with that?'"
A few thin slices of a fennel bulb adds so much flavor, he said, giving it something of a licorice, anise basil taste.
For the appetizer, he chose mussels, which can be scaled to the size of your gathering. They are easy to serve in individual bowls with the sauce poured over each.
"This is something people assume you can only get in a restaurant," he said.
Just be sure the mussels are scrubbed and debearded before you cook them (meaning the fibers coming out of the mussel shells are removed). And they need to be tightly closed before cooking. If they don't open after they are cooked, don't eat them.
The key to cooking mussels is to not overcook them, causing them to look like "little pencil erasers," he said.
The broth is the key to this dish.
"The mussel itself is not going to be incredibly exciting," Niemi said. "The flavor is transported through the sauce."
Serve the mussels with crusty bread and a glass of white wine - you may not even need a main course.
ABOUT ROSSO TRATTORIA ITALIA
Where: 4840 Forest Drive, in the back corner of Trenholm Plaza
Menu: Changes frequently, features wood-fired pizza, pastas, risotto, seafood, beef.
Prices: Pizzas, $9-$11; pastas, $12-$18: entrees $15-$24
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 5-11 p.m.
Contact: (803) 787-3949; rossocolumbia.com
Also: Kitchen features a wood-fired grill and wood-burning oven.
ABOUT GERVAIS AND VINE
Where: 620-A Gervais St. in the Vista
Menu: Mediterranean-style tapas bar with hot and cold tapas items, spreads, pizzas
Prices: Most tapas items $4-$10.
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 4:30 p.m.-until
Contact: (803) 799-8463; gervine.com
Also: Spanish-style tapas bar with culinary influences from all across the Mediterranean. More than 40 wines by the glass.