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Kick off a great holiday entertaining season with some savory starters

November 13, 2007|By D. BARRETT BROWN

The Appeal of First Courses



Where did summer go?

Well, fall is upon us and it's time to start planning for your Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's meals. Regardless of what you choose to serve as your main course on each of the holidays, you will at some point have to portion (slice) your turkey, prime rib, ham, etc.

Some prefer to do this at the table, la Norman Rockwell, with dad or grandpa doing the honors. Others prefer to prepare in the kitchen and transfer to a serving platter, which will be set on the table for guests to help themselves. Side dishes are usually placed directly on the table and passed hand to hand.

Both methods, however, limit your ability to show off your culinary creativity. A nice compromise is to serve a soup and/or appetizer course before starting the big show. Your guests will appreciate a touch of formality before the principal course begins. Further, first courses provide an opportunity for you to incorporate dishes into your menu that people seldom see at family gatherings.

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Generally speaking, it is said that Thanksgiving is the only time in the United States that almost every American sits down to the same meal (turkey). Our varying cultural and ethnic heritages are proudly displayed - not in the main course - but in the side dishes that have become family traditions.




Start a Tradition of Your Own



Here in Maryland, we are blessed with the bounty of the Chesapeake Bay. Early colonists almost always incorporated shellfish into their holiday gatherings. Accordingly, I have included two recipes that are simple to make and serve.

When cooking for a large group, the constraints of time are always an issue, so when deciding on your starter courses try to rely on recipes that can be made in advance, such as soups, which will just need heating, or items that can be cooked in 15 minutes or less. The following recipes can be made hours before you need them and stored covered in the refrigerator.

Remember that you might not be present at the table during these first courses. This is fine as you can use this time to portion your main course and organize your side dishes into serving vessels to ensure a smooth transition to the table.




Clams Casino



5 Cherrystone clams per personWhite wine
Garlic salt
Bacon, cut into 1 to 1 1/2-inch squares
Lemon wedges (optional)
Fresh parsley (optional)

This straightforward and delicious recipe requires that you shuck the clams. You will need a clam knife (available at most any grocery store.) See tips (pg.54) for instructions.

1. Place loosened clam on one half of the shell.

2. Pour a teaspoon of white wine over clam.

3. Put a couple of shakes of garlic salt on clam.

4. Cover clam with a 1 to 1 1/2-inch square of bacon.

5. Place clams on a sheet pan (you will need about 5 cherrystone clams per person).

6. Place sheet pan in oven on middle or upper middle rack (not top rack) under the broiler (preheated).

7. Cook until the bacon begins to brown (not crispy).

8. Clams are done and ready to serve.

Serving tip: Cover center of each plate with rock salt or coarse sea salt (available at all grocery stores) and arrange clams. The salt will keep the clams upright. Garnish with lemon wedges and fresh parsley.




Oysters Rockefeller



Serves 6-10

30 oysters (3-5 per person depending on size)

1 cup breadcrumbs
2 Tablespoons oil divided
1 1/2 cups shredded Monterey Jack cheese, divided
1 package frozen spinach
Cayenne pepper to taste (optional)

1. Shuck and loosen oysters, retaining the shell halves that wobble the least.

2. Mix together the breadcrumbs and one tbs. of the oil.

3. Cook the spinach according to the package instructions, then press out the excess liquid through a colander.

4. Put the spinach into a bowl together with the remaining tbs. of oil and one cup of shredded cheese and mix together.

5. Place one oyster on each half-shell and place on a sheet pan.

6. Top each oyster with a spoonful of the spinach mix and sprinkle with cayenne if desired.

7. Sprinkle the remaining cheese over the spinach mix, then top with one tsp. of the bread mixture.

8. Place the oysters in the oven under a pre-heated broiler (not top rack) and cook until the breadcrumbs turn a golden brown.

9. Arrange on plate on a bed of rock salt (see clams casino) and serve.




Shellfish Tips



Shucking Clams

1. Holding the clam in one hand, fit the edge of the clam knife between the edges of the front part of the shell and slide the knife straight back towards the hinge. This will cut through the muscle that holds the top halves of the shell together.

2. Twist off the top half of the shell and discard.

3. Slide tip of the clam knife beneath the clam to free it from the shell.

4. Check the shell for grit and shell particles, then return clam to its shell.

Shucking Oysters

For these you will need a heavy glove. Leather is best, but any heavy glove will do. You will also need an oyster knife, but a short, wide-bladed screwdriver will do in a pinch.

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