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Hi Chef: I’m so busy during the holidays with shopping, the family, parties and work. My issue is that I have lots of neighbors, friends and family that stop by during this time of year (sometimes unannounced), and I like to be a good host and put out food to nibble on. Do you have some quick and easy appetizer ideas that I can throw together when this happens? – Popular But Busy

Dear Popular But Busy: I have a few tricks and some easy recipes that always help me out of a jam.

First, one of the things professional cooks learn early on is how to build appetizers. Not only how to put them together, but also how to think about the

Scott Clapp

elements that go into these tasty bits – texture, complimentary flavors, acidity, spice, etc. Second, we construct our appetizers with our guests in mind. By that I mean that we want the food to be easy to eat and big in flavor. Finally, we also learn to get creative with what’s on hand.

Although it takes years to master these techniques, keeping these “tricks of the trade” in mind can help any cook put together an amazing array of appetizers.

Let me give you a few ideas to help you get started. From there you should be able to create your own fun and tasty appetizers based on what you have around and what you like to eat.

First, always have a few different things to use as a “base” for quick appetizers. My personal favorites are crostini and corn tortillas.

Crostini are easy to make. Simply cut thin (about ¼-inch) slices from a baguette. You can either cut them straight for smaller crostini, or slice at an angle to make longer pieces. Brush with olive oil and sprinkle with a pinch of salt and pepper. Bake at 350 degrees until crisp, about 12 minutes or so. After the crostini are cooled they can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for a week or so.

For the corn tortillas you can cut them in wedges (4, 6, or 8 pieces depending on the size of the tortillas) and either bake or fry. I prefer to fry them then sprinkle them with salt, chile powder and a spritz of lime juice. If you want to bake them, spray with oil then add salt and chile powder. Bake at 350 degrees until crisp, maybe 10 minutes. Like the crostini, the tortilla chips should stay fresh about a week or so. Other possible bases include crackers, cucumbers, endive leaves and pita crisps.

Next comes the “spread.” Easy ones to make at home include anything mixed into cream cheese. A few classics include: chopped smoked salmon, jalapeño, canned artichokes, fresh or dried herbs (like chives, dill or mint), garlic, feta or other crumbly cheeses (I like the sharp flavor of goat cheese), chopped Kalamata olives, or toasted and chopped pecans. Mix or match these with other favorites.

To make the flavored cream cheese spreads, just let the cream cheese soften at room temperature for about 30 minutes. Put the cream cheese in a mixer (with the paddle attachment) or use a bowl and sturdy spoon. Add your favorite ingredients and mixed until combined. If it is too thick, add a bit of cream or sour cream. Season to taste and you’re ready to go. These spreads should last for at least a week in the refrigerator.

Avocados make another great spread (especially on the tortilla chips). Scrape the pulp from the skin into a bowl and mash with a spoon or fork. Add a bit of sour cream to the mashed avocado for a smoother spread. Then stir in any of the above (yes, even the smoked salmon works) or anything else you like. When I’m in a hurry I will stir in some of the great fresh salsas available. Don’t forget to season with a bit of salt and a squirt of lime or lemon juice (this helps keep the avocado green, too).

Other spreads can be made from softened butter, sour cream or soft cheeses such as ricotta.

To finish your appetizers put your spread on the crostini or tortilla chip and garnish with one of the elements in the spread. Maybe a slice of jalapeño, diced olive or a sprig of fresh dill or chive. Arrange the pieces on a colorful platter and you’re ready to pour a glass of wine and enjoy time with your guests.

Scott Clapp is an instructor in Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management at Central New Mexico Community College.