By Nani Steele

How to Create Celebrations of the Season with Ease

EVERY YEAR AROUND THE HOLIDAYS, I imagine myself throwing a fabulous party with little savories served on silver platters. Except, like most people, I end up finding myself wrapped in a frenzy of gift buying and end-of-year festivities that leave little time for planning (and executing) in the kitchen. I’m usually worn thin before Christmas and New Years arrive-a week that regardless of your belief system or family plans, seem to demand a kind of slowing down-your full dedication to reverie and revelry. At this time, going beyond the typical plate is pinnacle.

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Routines disintegrate into thin air as the kids are out of school, end-of-year finances need to be pulled together, parties planned and attended, not to mention a whole storeroom of ideas to map out for the coming year. Yet regardless, friends will call and invite us over, or we will be having our own fancy gathering, and we will want to put something together that is elegant but doesn’t take all day.

Sure, there’s always that fabulous cheese plate that can be pulled together in a heartbeat; but I’m the kind of person who always wants to do a little something more. Growing up at a restaurant, as I did, there were no shortage of ideas, nor a lack of food items to draw from. Even being mere miles from a grocery store, there were always tins of pineapple and mandarins to brighten winter, as well as an array of baking goods at my reach. Cupboards were stocked with grains, flour, tins of sardines and imported tuna, saltine crackers, and more. We maintained a literal stockade of staples, from near and far, to use on any whim. It was easy to whip up a cake for dessert, or make cheesy gougers or a fish mousse at the last minute or even after friends arrived, often unannounced. And arrive, they did. (There might be an adage out there somewhere about the traffic a home belonging to restaurant owners sees during the holiday season. Another story, entirely…)

Over the years, I’ve perfected the art of small bites, putting together little platters of goodness that look like they’ve taken days to master, and yet it is rarely so. Here’s a few ideas that can be pulled together at the last minute. I draw often from some of my favorite places, of which the islands top the list, as well as memory. Likewise, all this can be made without much effort, with results that are gorgeous and sexy.

Consider the oyster for a last minute gathering: It is easy to prepare and especially sexy when served with champagne. Simply shuck fresh oysters and dress with a tropical mignonette, a play on the classic French pairing. Combine rice wine and white vinegar, shallots and pink peppercorn. Add chopped cilantro (Chinese parsley), and confetti of mango, pineapple or even crisp apple. For a warmer version, bake or grill the oysters (after opening) and spoon the same sauce over prior to service.

Take a hint from the Italians and make small, savory rice balls- known as arancini-for an elegant starter. Classically built from a risotto base, instead, scoop small balls of leftover white sticky rice, stuff with blue cheese (or combine with herbs and Parmesan cheese) then roll in egg and panko or lightly seasoned bread crumbs. Freeze until firm, then lightly fry. These can be prepared ahead, and cooked earlier in the day. Heat in the oven just before guests arrive. Serve warm, sprinkled with lemon zest, and parsley.

Poisson Cru is both the Tahitian’s answer to Hawaiian poke and a perfect conversation piece. It can be easily dressed up for a classy small bite that’s sure to become everyone’s favorite. Slice fresh ahi into small dice, toss with a small amount of fresh (or frozen) coconut milk, lime juice and zest, season with a hint of salt and top with cilantro. Serve in small spoons for an elegant affair, or atop fried taro root chips for a land-meets-sea bight.

Fried taro or other root vegetable chips make a great base for any kind of dip or mousse. For a quick fish dip, combine cooked or preserved fish, like tuna, with cream cheese or mayonnaise and fine herbs. Pipe onto crackers or chips for an elegant presentation, garnish with chives.

Soup sip cups are all the rage these days, with petite grilled cheese sandwiches or beef “sliders” considered the perfect accompaniment- but I’m partial to the soup sip alone. And in winter, it’s hard to go wrong with a pureed squash soup. Roast your favorite winter squash, scoop out the flesh and combine with onion, a pear or apple, and chicken stock in a pot over medium heat until the flavors meld. Puree and season to taste. Serve warm in demitasse cups, drizzled with truffle oil and a garnish of chives or fried shallots. Top with a dollop of crème fraiche for that final touch.