It has always been my opinion that the perfect way to begin a very special evening is with a great bottle or two of Champagne and some delicious canapés. I enjoy the stimulation to both the senses and the appetite that a selection of beautifully presented nibbles offers. When accompanied by the world’s most celebrated wine, Champagne — the combination is irresistible!
I often think of the venerable Ritz Hotel in Paris where, years ago, I was often lucky enough to reside. It was my custom to invite friends to rendezvous at my suite for Champagne before heading out to a restaurant — or simply downstairs to the great Espadon Restaurant in the Ritz. My fondest gastronomic memories are of the beautiful silver trays of canapés delivered with the Champagne by the elegantly attired waiter. What a sight! Each individual item is a true work of art: smoked salmon with a delicate lattice work of herb butter piped on the top with amazing precision; delicate pastry barquettes filled with crème frâiche, chopped egg and onion, topped off with a generous dollop of caviar; savory Steak Tartare, and delicate cucumber canapés. I could go on and on!
While the artistry in the presentation of these little edible jewels from the kitchen of the Ritz Hotel is spectacular, reproduction may be difficult in your own kitchen. However, over the years, I have collected some great recipes for hors-d’oeuvre from renowned restaurants and famous chefs (making minor adaptations for simplification), as well as devising a few of my own. All of these dishes are easy to prepare and you can spend as much time as you wish in assembling them and in dreaming up ways to beautifully decorate them.
If you have any personal favorites or think a variation of any of my recipes might be even better, please contact me and I will add these to this list (with proper attribution, of course).
Parmesan Cheese Butter “Cookies”
Enjoy these delicious “refrigerator cookies” made without sugar. Their savory cheese flavor is a perfect foil for Champagne. Keep in mind it is critical that the ingredients be measured on a kitchen scale as pastries are very proportion-sensitive. It is also crucial to use European butter, as it has a lower water content than American butter (and it tastes better). This recipe is also perfect for unexpected guests as the rolls can be frozen and then thawed for about 10-15 minutes before cutting and baking.
All-purpose flour — 95 grams
Reggiano Parmesan Cheese – 240 grams (it is requisite that it be the real thing)
Sweet butter — 92 grams (French or Belgian)
White pepper — a dash or even a dollop
Thyme — chopped fresh or a pinch of dried
Chives — chopped fresh (optional)
1. Cut the 240 grams of cheese into small chunks and place in food processor with metal blade. Process one minute.
2. Add flour and spices. Note that white pepper and thyme may be added to taste, depending on degree of spiciness you want. Add the 92 grams of butter cut into small chunks. Do not add chives yet as food processor will pulverize them and cookies will be an icky green color!
3. Process mixture until it forms a ball.
4. Scrape out of bowl into a mixing bowl. Add finely chopped chives to taste and knead thoroughly.
5. Make three balls out of the dough and, one at a time, form each ball into a long roll, about ½” in diameter. Place roll on long sheet of plastic wrap longer than the roll. Roll dough up in the plastic wrap and continue rolling until the cylinder is round. Wrap tightly. Refrigerate for 2 hours or overnight.
6. Preheat oven to 325 F. Cut roll of dough into slices using a sharp paring knife. Slices should be about 1/4″ thick. (If the roll has been in the freezer, let thaw for 15 minutes before cutting.) Place on ungreased cookie sheet, allowing space as they spread out a bit. Bake until golden brown, about 12-15 minutes. Remove from oven and place on rack to cool.
California Club Canapé
(Peanut Butter and Bacon)
This one is my favorite with Champagne. The smoky/meaty/nutty/salty flavors stimulate thirst and satisfy the palate. Although everyone loves this canapé, it is so deceptively simple in its ingredients that guests can only rarely make a guess as to the components. I prefer organic Peanut Butter.
Bacon – 1/2 lb (I use Oscar Meyer Center Cut bacon)
Creamy peanut butter (I use Mara Natha Brand Natural Peanut Butter)
White or Brioche toast (See “The Secret to Making Perfect Toast Pieces for Canapés” below)
1. Cook bacon until very crisp and dry on paper towels.
2. Place crisp, cooked bacon in food processing bowl and process until fine, scraping down occasionally.
3. Place bacon in a mixing bowl and combine with peanut butter (a little less than the bacon by volume) and mix thoroughly.
4. Add salt to taste and mix.
5. Spread pieces of toast with a thin layer of butter in order to help the mixture stick better to the toast. This is optional.
6. Spread the bacon mixture generously on the buttered toast pieces. I use ¾” to 7/8” squares.
The Secret to Making Perfect Toast Pieces for Canapés
An old friend of mine taught me this trick for making perfectly shaped and dry toast pieces. The problem is that bread toasted in a conventional toaster burns before it dries, while bread toasted in the oven seems to either burn or it is so dry that it crumbles when you try to cut it up. The secret is revealed below.
1. Pre-heat oven to 300 degrees.
2. Cut the slices of bread into the final shapes before toasting, be it square, rectangular, round or whatever. Allow for shrinkage in drying process.
3. Arrange the cut pieces on a criss-cross wire cake cooling rack. This will evenly dry the pieces, top and bottom.
4. Place the rack with the bread pieces in the hot oven and turn the oven OFF.
5. Let the bread dry for about 15 minutes. There is no way the toast can burn with this method!
Goat Cheese/Red Pepper/Basil Canapé
This recipe is adapted from one that appeared years ago in Gourmet Magazine. I think this is perhaps the most visually appealing of all these canapés with its white cheese covered with deep green basil leaves, topped with the bright orange-red sweet pepper purée — it reminds me of the Italian flag! Fabulous to look at and equally delicious!
Chavrie brand goat cheese — one tub (or one stick white Montrachet goat cheese)
Sweet red bell peppers — two
Basil — one bunch fresh
Extra virgin olive oil
White or Brioche toast – 3/4″ x 1 1/4″
1. Turn burners on a gas stove very high and roast the peppers by setting them right on the grate. Turn frequently and cook until burned black on all sides. (In the absence of a gas stove, this can be done over a very hot charcoal fire on a barbeque.) Let cool then peel, wash and seed. Dry off in paper towels.
2. Place dried-off peppers in food processor and purée with metal blade. Scrape into a small, heavy saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally until most of the water has evaporated from the mixture and it is quite stiff.
3. Scrape pepper purée out of the saucepan into a small bowl and add a little olive oil, salt and pepper to taste.
4. Let the Chavrie cheese come up to room temperature. (If you are using Montrachet goat cheese, you will want to whisk a little cream into it to make it spreadable.)
5. Spread cheese in a thick layer on the toast (Brioche is best).
6. Place a large basil leaf on top of the goat cheese the long way of the toast and, using your index finger, press the side of your finger into the basil leaf to form a “V” shaped groove in the cheese and basil leaf.
7. Carefully spoon a big line of the pepper purée into the groove, which holds the purée in place.
Salmon or Tuna Tartare
This recipe is a variation on the tuna tartare made for me by the famous Los Angeles chef Joaquim Splichal of Patina Restaurant Group. The tartare is especially beautiful and tasty when served on the multicolored Terra Brand vegetable chips or, even better, salt and vinegar potato chips. A perfect foil for this richly-flavored canapé is a Rosé Champagne. My favorite with this dish is the deeply-colored Pol Roger Rosé.
Salmon — very fresh (part of one side so there are no bones or a slice of tuna, about ½ lb, for a dinner party of eight)
Extra virgin olive oil
Chives — chopped fresh
White truffle oil (optional)
Salt and vinegar potato chips or Terra vegetable chips
1. Note that this recipe must be prepared at the very last second before serving as it oxidizes rapidly and the fish turns an ugly white after it sits for a few minutes. Cut up the fish by hand, first cutting the slice lengthwise into several slices, then into lengthwise strips, and finally into crosswise chunks — about 3/16″ cubes.
2. Place fish chunks into mixing bowl. Immediately squeeze in lemon juice, about a lemon half to start, then to taste. Add two tablespoons of oil. Add a tsp or so of white truffle oil to taste. This oil is expensive but it adds an amazing touch to this dish and should not be omitted. Add salt, the zest of a lemon, ground pepper and chives to taste.
3. Form mounds on salt and vinegar chips (which I think are best for this purpose). Also good are Terra vegetable chips. These chips are commercially made from thin slices of red sweet potato, taro, parsnip and beet.
Mayon Ichinose’s Crab Puffs
I learned this recipe from Mayon when I first dined with them at their original house in San Bruno in 1965. Mayon’s husband, Dr. Benjamin Ichinose, is one of the country’s most famous wine connoisseurs.
Dungeness Crab — ¼ lb
Mayonnaise (Best Foods or Hellman’s)
Lemon — one
Toast rounds (preferably Brioche)
1. Place crab on paper towels and blot. Place drained crab in mixing bowl.
2. Add enough Mayo to bind thoroughly.
3. Add chopped chives, lemon juice and white pepper to taste.
4. Mound crab mixture on toast rounds (preferably Brioche). Place on cookie sheet, brown under broiler and serve.
Quail Eggs and Swiss Chard à la René Verdon
René Verdon was the White House chef during President John F. Kennedy’s term. Note that quail eggs have a membrane inside the shell, so you can’t tap them on something to break them as you would a hen egg. The shell will just give and crack, but you won’t be able to open it with your fingers. The quail egg must be placed on a kitchen towel and, holding the ends of the egg between two fingers of one hand, give the egg a firm tap cross ways with a very sharp knife. Then insert the tip of the knife into the cracked area. This will literally cut the egg open through the membrane. Be careful not to cut all the way through the egg or the yolk will be broken. The contents of the egg can then be poured out of the shell into the frying pan.
Fresh quail eggs
Swiss chard (green swiss chard is better than the red for this dish)
1. Cook swiss chard (deveined) in butter with salt and pepper.
2. Cut open quail eggs with a knife and fry sunny side up in butter. Yolk must still be runny. Pepper to taste.
3. Place chard in a small mound on toast with egg on top. (As the swiss chard is taken out of the pan, give it a little squeeze to get rid of excess moisture before putting it on the toast.)
Hard-boiled Quail Eggs
This dish is traditionally done in England with gulls eggs. They are gathered from nest on the sides of steep cliffs by little boys who are lowered down the cliff faces on ropes. They are, of course, available only for a short time, just a few weeks in the Spring. If you are ever in London at that time of year, inquire at Harrod’s Food Halls or a similar high-class establishment and perhaps they can get some for you. They are divine! The shells are a fabulous pale blue, somewhat smaller than the average hen egg, and soft and leathery. The yolks are very dark orange, with an ethereal gamy taste that is unforgettable — especially when coupled with Krug Champagne, with its big, rich character!
However, since the eggs of this species of gull are simply not available in America, you will have to substitute the eggs of more prosaic birds. Even these eggs may be hard to find in some cities. The Chinatown areas of San Francisco and Los Angeles have live poultry stores that carry a variety of fresh eggs. I suspect the Chinese areas in other cities may have live poultry stores as well. Also, in Los Angeles and other cities, stores that sell sushi often have packages of fresh quail eggs in the same case. Otherwise, a gourmet market or your favorite sushi bar can order them for you.
Fresh quail eggs
Boil eggs about 5 minutes. The eggs have such beautiful shells that they look beautiful arranged in small bowls. Provide another small bowl for the peeled shells. The celery salt can be poured onto the center of a small plate and the peeled eggs are dipped into the salt. Very tasty with Champagne, this dish is an English favorite.
Gougère à la Benoit
Benoit is one of my favorite restaurants in Paris. It is famous not only for these little cheese puffs, which are offered as an ameuse guelle to all guests, but also for a delicious, layered tongue paté which I highly recommend.
Cream puff batter — one batch (see recipe following)
Parmesan cheese — ¼ lb grated
Swiss cheese — ¼ lb grated (Gruyère or Emmenthaler)
1. Mix cheese into cream puff batter and drop by the spoonful onto cookie sheet.
2. Cook until puffed and golden brown.
3. Cool on a rack. Prick each puff with a knife on the side to let the steam escape.
Cream Puffs with Curried Lobster
Cream puffs can be filled with most anything once made (try herbed cream cheese) but this rich lobster curry is one of the best fillings. This cries out for a Blanc de Blancs Champagne such as Taittinger’s fabulous Comte de Champagne.
Cream puff batter — one batch
Maine lobster — one cooked
Mayonnaise (Best Foods or Hellman’s)
1. Cut up cooked lobster into a dice.
2. Mix lobster in a bowl with mayonnaise, lemon juice, curry powder. Add chopped chives.
3. Open cooked cream puffs by cutting off top 3/4 of the way up the side. Remove any uncooked dough in centers.
4. Fill with lobster mixture and replace tops.
Paté à Choux
Sweet butter — ¼ lb (European butter is preferred)
Hot water — 1 cup
Flour — 1 cup
Salt — ½ tsp
Eggs — 4
1. Preheat oven to 425 F.
2. Combine butter and water in a heavy pot and heat until butter is melted. Mix flour and salt together. When butter/water mixture comes to a boil, add flour all at once and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon until dough forms a firm ball and pulls sway from the sides of the pan.
3. Place the dough in a food processor with a steel blade and blend for 10-15 seconds. With the motor running, add eggs, one at a time, through the tube. Process until dough is smooth and shiny.
4. Drop the dough from a teaspoon onto a greased tin or form into little eclairs. Bake for 15-18 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 300 F. and bake for 5 minutes longer, until the puffs are golden.
5. Prick each puff on the side to permit the steam to escape. Cool on a rack.
Steak Tartare Canapé
à la Casino at Monte Carlo
I obtained this recipe from one of my dearest friends in London, who had learned it from André, the legendary Maitre d’ at the restaurant in the Casino at Monte Carlo.
My friend’s grandmother lived most of the year at the Hotel de Paris across the street from the Casino — not that she was estranged from her husband in London, she simply liked to gamble! My friend was posted off as a boy to spend time with his grandmother in the summers. Children were absolutely forbidden from entering the floor of the Casino, so the young man was entrusted to André at the restaurant. It was by watching André prepare his world-famous Steak Tartare that my friend slowly learned the recipe.
The trick to the real Casino Steak Tartare is that the meat is scraped, not chopped. This is done with an incredibly sharp knife that is dragged across the slab of meat in a vertical position, 90 degrees from the meat. Each time the blade is dragged across, a tiny amount of meat would be scraped off and would adhere to the knife. The knife could only be scraped in this fashion about ten times before it had to be carefully cleaned and sharpened for further use. As this is obviously a very time consuming task that we don’t have the manpower (or willpower) to do now, a food processor is used for this recipe. In any case, the meat must be kept very cold in the refrigerator, wrapped in plastic and chopped at the very last second before use to prevent it from oxidizing and browning.
Steak Tartare pairs beautifully with full-flavored Rosé Champagnes, such as Bollinger and Philopponnat. Note that this is also a great main dish with red wines — just up the quantities and serve the Steak Tartare in a mound in the middle of the plate with toast on the side. The plate can be garnished with parmesan shavings and slivers of sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil.
New York Steak — ½ lb
Horseradish (prepared, not creamed)
Anchovy paste (optional)
Extra virgin olive oil
Egg yolk (2 for ½ lb meat)
Parmesan cheese — grated (optional)
Sun-dried tomatoes in oil (optional)
Toast (thin white bread 1″ x 2″ or small rounds)
1. Cut sun-dried tomatoes in oil into thin strips 1/8″ x 2″.
2. Grate Parmesan very roughly in food processor.
3. Drain, wash and dry capers.
4. Make the Tartare at the last second as it turns brown with air.
5. Place the meat into food processing bowl in small chunks, cutting off any membranes. Process until fine but not liquefied.
6. Place in stainless bowl. Add horseradish, Dijon mustard, anchovy paste, olive oil, capers, salt, pepper and egg yolk to taste.
7. Spread Tartare on toast, sprinkle lightly with Parmesan and arrange sun-dried tomato strips in the shape of an “X” on top.
Brie with Toasted Pine Nuts
I first had this dish when it was prepared by the great San Francisco Bay Area chef, Narsai David. Narsai now is a radio personality on KCBS in San Francisco, discussing food and wine. The crunchy, toasted pine nuts add intriguing, nutty flavors to the ripe Brie. Delicious!
Brie cheese (very ripe & runny)
Toast rectangles (1″ x 1½” thin white bread)
1. Toast pine nuts for 10-12 minutes at 300 degrees on a baking pan, shake several times and check frequently, especially near the end. They should be golden without being brown, but you should try them at several stages of toasting and see how dark you like them.
2. Spread Brie on toast rectangles (center part of Brie only, not the white cornstarch crust). Pour toasted pine nuts over toast pieces, totally covering them and press the nuts into the sticky cheese, or you can take more care and place the nuts one by one on the Brie-covered toasts in various patterns.
This is perhaps the best canapé with Champagne! I adapted it from a recipe in the Nashville Junior League Cookbook. It is critical to use European butter because of its lower water content. Note that American butter is up to 15% water and makes the topping for this dish soupy. European butter is less than 5% water.
Roquefort cheese (say 1/3 lb for 8-10 guests)
Sweet French or Belgian butter
Melba toast rounds (plain)
Walnuts or pecans — chopped and toasted
Chives — chopped
1. Mix Roquefort with about 20% of its volume of butter. Work it with a fork in a stainless bowl. (Roquefort and butter must be room temperature.)
2. Toast the chopped walnuts or pecans in the oven at 300 F for about 5 minutes until slightly brown. Let the nuts cool before going on to step #3.
3. Mix the nuts into the cheese mixture with a medium dusting of white pepper. Add chopped chives and mix thoroughly.
4. Mound the mixture liberally on melba toast rounds.
5. Toast under broiler until brown, about 1-2 minutes.
6. You can sprinkle paprika on top before browning if you wish.
This dish, with its rich, garlicky flavor, while it is great with Champagne, can also be served either with a fabulous White Burgundy, such as Batard-Montrachet, or with a delicious herbal Sancerre.
Mussels — about 40 small Canadian or other small varieties 1½- 2″ long
Yellow onion — one small one
Garlic — 3 cloves minced
Shallots — 6 to 8 finely minced
Parsley — 1 bunch finely chopped (Italian parsley is preferable)
Sweet butter — 200 grams (French or Belgian)
1. Steam mussels in white wine, one small yellow onion and water. Discard any that don’t open. They only need to cook for 3-4 minutes.
2. Remove the mussels from the shells and place in a bowl.
3. Select the best large shells and separate into 2 halves. Clean out the cartilage stuck to the inside of the shells so they are clean. (You need only half as many half-shells as you had whole mussels so select the best and largest ones!)
4. Mince garlic fine and start cooking in butter in frying pan. Add finely minced shallots and cook until golden but not brown.
5. Add the finely chopped parsley and cook for 1 minute.
6. Immediately remove from heat and add just enough bread crumbs to soak up all the butter.
7. Place each mussel in a half shell and cover with bread crumb mixture, dividing evenly.
8. Place mussels under broiler for 1 to 2 minutes until browned.
Duck Liver Mousse with Fresh Black Truffles
This may be my favorite way to use black truffles! The trick to getting the maximum flavor out of fresh black truffles is not to cook them but just to eat them as is! Even if black truffles are to be added to a sauce for meat, add them at the last second so they are just warmed and the flavor is not cooked out. My maxim is a soggy cooked truffle is a dead truffle — truffles must be crunchy when served.
Duck liver paté (approx. 1/4 lb)
Fresh black French truffles — 2-3 oz approximately
Toast — thin white or Brioche, 3/4″ x 1½”
1. Spread a generous but not more than 1/4″ piece of the paté on the toast.
2. Cut the truffle into thick (3/16″) slices and julienne.
3. Arrange the julienned truffles on top of the paté.
Note: A very fine variation of this dish can be prepared as follows:
Duck liver mousse — one tub (preferably d’Artagnan)
Fresh black French Truffles — 2-3 oz. approximately
Cognac (high quality)
1. Turn the duck liver mousse out of the tub into a mixing bowl. Work in with a fork until it is loosened up. Add one or two tablespoons of the best Cognac you own to taste. Add salt and pepper to taste.
2. Cut the truffles into thick slices (about 3/16″ thick)
3. Generously mound the duck liver mousse on the truffle slices. (Note that the truffle slices are essentially being used as crackers!) Serve on a platter.
When I tried this variation out on Rusty Staub, the famous baseball star, it was easy to tell I had hit a home run by the way these canapés disappeared from the plate!
Smoked Salmon/Cream Cheese Mille Feuille
These canapés look positively architectural when they are completed, with the rough dark brown of the German bread, topped with alternating layers of white cheese and pink salmon. I think the German country bread adds a balance to the rich flavors of the smoked salmon and cream cheese.
German dark bread — thinly sliced (not pumpernickel but a lighter bread)
Smoked salmon — 1/8 – 1/4 lb, sliced (preferably Scottish)
Cream Cheese — ½ lb
Chives — chopped
1. Add lemon juice and white pepper to warm cream cheese. Work with a fork in a bowl. Mix in chives.
2. Spread a large piece of bread with cream cheese, then a slice of salmon. Cover salmon with cream cheese and add another slice of salmon until all salmon slices are used.
3. Wrap in saran wrap and freeze, at least ½ hour.
4. While still frozen, cut into 3/4″ squares with a very sharp knife, which must be rinsed in hot water and wiped between each cut. The pieces will be beautifully layered with alternating bread, salmon and cream cheese. They should stand up nicely on a plate. Cut them far enough in advance that they fully thaw out!
Goat Cheese with Mushroom Canapé
I love wild mushrooms but they can be a bit rich when served on toast or in a pastry barquette. The sharp, tangy acidity of the Montrachet cheese balances the earthy mushroom flavors beautifully. See what you think!
Montrachet goat cheese — plain white
Wild mushrooms (cèpes or chanterelles) — finely chopped
Extra virgin olive oil
Parsley — chopped
Chives — chopped
Toast – thin white 3/4″ x 1½”
Salt and pepper
1. Cook mushrooms (finely chopped) in butter with a dash of olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add parsley and chives.
2. With cèpes you may want to add a little garlic as well.
3. Let mushroom mixture cool a bit.
4. Spread toast generously with goat cheese.
5. Cover with mushroom mixture. (Press it into the cheese slightly so it will stick as it’s not as messy and easier to handle that way.)
Caviar à la Maxim’s
I first had this dish at Maxim’s in Paris in 1978. I thought the tiny poached quail eggs were a wonderful foil for the caviar and immediately stole the recipe. It is also a fabulous dish as a first course with the best mature Le Montrachet.
Pastry shells for tarts — 2½”
Chives — chopped
1. Brown 2½” pastry shells for tarts.
2. Whip crème frâiche with white pepper and a small amount of cream. Add chopped chives.
3. Fill the pastry shells about half full with the mixture.
4. Poach 3 quail eggs. Place in pastry shell. Top with generous dollop of caviar.
Lobster Canapé or Salad
This dish can either be a canapé or a cocktail salad, depending on how it’s served. I must let you in on the secret of this recipe. I tried to recreate the original from Claridge’s Hotel, making the dish with homemade mayonnaise and homemade tomato paste. It didn’t taste the same. In fact, I could not recreate the original taste until I used Best Foods mayonnaise and Heinz ketchup! I’m sorry to tell you this, but if you’re embarrassed to have your guests see that you use commercial products, this dish can easily be made in advance and kept in the refrigerator with plastic wrap pressed down so the surface of the lobster mixture is totally covered by the plastic.
Version #1 (lobster cocktail salad):
Maine lobsters — two (about 1½ lbs for 6-8 persons — a fish course in the context of a larger meal)
Mayonnaise (Best Foods or Hellman’s)
Chives — chopped
1. Steam lobsters but don’t overcook. Cool under cold water. Cut lengthwise with sharp knife. Place coral in a mixing bowl. Remove meat from body and claws and dice. Add to bowl.
2. Add mayonnaise to bind. Add ketchup to taste. (I like quite a distinct tomato flavor which also gives it a nice pink color.) Add fresh or dried tarragon to taste (about 1 teaspoon of dried is nice, or more fresh as it is not as intense). Add chives and pepper to taste.
3. Serve on a bed of baby salad greens or on Boston Bibb lettuce. It is also nice on a bed of greens in a tall ice cream glass.
Version #2 (canapé):
1. Make lobster mixture as above but with one lobster for 6-8 persons.
2. Mound on thin Brioche toast rounds or squares. Decorate with fresh tarragon leaves or tiny bits of chives. Serve on a platter. Delicious with a medium-bodied Champagne, such as Dom Pérignon or Roederer Cristal!
There are two side lines to this dish, one concerning Pernod and the other about oysters. First, Pernod is the modern version of the famous liqueur, Absinthe. The most famous brand of Absinthe made in Switzerland and France 100 years ago was Pernod et Fils, so when Absinthe was banned because of its flavoring agent wormwood, Pernod started making a liqueur under their own name that tasted like Absinthe but with no wormwood. The problem with wormwood is that the leaves contain a substance that is chemically very similar to THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. But the real problem with Absinthe was that it was very high proof, 60-70% alcohol. Many people in France and other parts of Europe were “Absinthe Alcoholics,” that is to say not “Absinthe addicts” in the modern sense, but rather alcoholics who preferred to drink Absinthe.
There were concerns for the health of these regular Absinthe drinkers, so the Swiss banned the production of Absinthe in 1907, followed by the French in 1914. In fact, Absinthe never constituted more than 3% of the alcohol drunk in France and was dangerous only in proportion to the amount an alcoholic drank. Absinthe simply became a focus for anti-alcohol protestors because it was so visible in cafés all over Europe.
The point of bringing all this up is that Oysters Rockefeller were originally flavored with Absinthe! Now it just happens that I have on several occasions had spinach flavored with this heavenly liqueur (one of my friends had a bottle of genuine pre-1907 Swiss Pernod & Fils Absinthe). It is unlike modern Pernod with a very strong alcoholic content and ethereal herb flavors with a certain “Je ne sais quoi” that I prefer to ascribe to wormwood! Now, however, there are modern Absinthes that are available that are nearly the same as the original Absinthes I tasted. At a recent Absinthe tasting, the favorite was St. George Spirits Absinthe Verte, made in Alameda.
Secondly, on the subject of oysters, it cannot be stated too strongly that oysters must be fresh and must be kept on ice or in the refrigerator before use, which should be used the same day they are purchased. Even for the short trip from the store to home, oysters should be packed in ice. The oyster is a very delicate creature that goes bad very easily and is one of the most common causes of food poisoning. For this dish I prefer a small oyster. The best small species of oyster is the Virginicus, which includes Wellfleets and Blue Points. But my personal favorite is the Olympia from Washington state, which is tiny. Some shells are as small as a quarter and they go up to nearly the size of a half dollar. They are a lot of work to shuck, as you need to serve several per person. I usually serve one larger oyster and 2 or 3 Olympias per person. The Olympias are so small that it is necessary to use just a tiny dab of the spinach so as not to overwhelm the delicate Olympia flavor. Enjoy!
They are terrific with both Champagne and white Burgundy but, for a real treat, try them with a mature white Bordeaux!
Fresh spinach — 1 bunch
Yellow or sweet onion — one small (Walla Walla, Maui or Vidalia)
Cream or English double cream
Fresh oysters in the shell (small are best)
Reggiano Parmesan cheese
1. Remove the leaves from the stems and any leaves with very thick central ribs should have the rib torn out. Wash the spinach twice, each time in a bowl of fresh cold water to remove any sand. Dry in a salad spinner. It doesn’t have to be really dry as a little water helps along the cooking process.
2. Heat a large pan and add 2 tablespoons of butter. Add the clean spinach and press it down into the pan until it is all wilted. It doesn’t have to be cooked for more than a minute or two. Remove from pan and place in a strainer to drain.
3. Wipe out the pan with a paper towel to remove any liquid left from cooking the spinach. Heat the pan and add 3 tablespoons butter. Peel onion and chop fine or process fine in a food processor. Add onion to the hot butter. Sauté over low heat until light golden.
4. Place the cooked onion in the food processor or blender. Add the drained spinach. Add 2 pinches of salt and grind in pepper to taste. Add 2 heaping tablespoons of English double cream or 1/4 cup of whipping cream. Blend until smooth. The consistency will obviously be smoother if a blender is used but it’s not critical.
5. If double cream has been used, the mixture can now be placed in the refrigerator for later use. If American whipping cream has been used, the mixture must be placed in a pan and boiled down for a few minutes until it thickens. Then it can be set aside as above.
6. When it is time to serve the oysters, shuck them and separate the oyster from the shell. Discard the top shells. Drain the oysters. Normally, if oysters are served on the half shell, the liquid in the shell is part of the pleasure of eating it, but when cooking oysters the liquid just makes the sauce watery. Arrange on a baking pan with sides to retain any liquid that spills out of the shells.
7. Remove the spinach mixture from the refrigerator and warm gently on the stove. Don’t heat too much or it may separate. When just lukewarm and loose, add Pernod to taste (about ½ oz) and whisk into the mixture. Spread the spinach mixture on the oysters. This can be quite thin or rather thick if you like a more assertive flavor, as I do. Grate Parmesan cheese over the oysters to taste.
8. Place under the broiler and brown slightly but do not over cook! Serve immediately with cocktail forks.
This is a very light and refreshing appetizer that I learned in England.
Radishes (large, with very red skins)
Thin white bread toast — 3/4″ x 1½”
Salted butter (French or Belgian)
1. Cut washed and dried radishes into paper-thin slices with a very sharp knife.
2. Butter toast rectangles generously.
3. Spread out thin radish slices in overlapping layers on the buttered bread.
4. Sprinkle with white pepper.
Curried Chicken with Apples
This appetizer is excellent for a cocktail party where more substantial starters are needed.
Chicken — baked (all white meat or a mix of dark and white, depending on your taste)
Mayonnaise (Best Foods or Hellmans)
Chives — chopped
Sun Maid Zante Currants – ¼ cup
Small toast rounds or squares
1. There is no question in my mind that the best kind of chicken to use is Tandoori chicken from an Indian restaurant. The restaurants normally sell half a chicken as one order, which is ample for this purpose. I just call the Indian restaurant ahead and order the Tandoori chicken to go. (Otherwise, roast chicken will do.)
2. Remove the chicken from the bones. Dice and place in mixing bowl. Add diced apple to taste. I add nearly equal parts of chicken and apple by volume.
3. Heat the Zante Currants briefly in Port or Madeira to soften. Strain the Zante Currants and add to mixture. (If you like chutney, get some bits of mango out of a jar of Major Grey’s Chutney and dice them and add to the mixture instead of the currants.)
4. Add enough mayonnaise to bind together. Add curry powder to taste. I like lots. Add chopped chives to taste. Blend and check spices.
5. Mound mixture on toast. Place on cookie sheet and brown under broiler. Serve at once.
Angels on Horseback
You can find fresh water chestnuts in the Chinatown area of a big city.
Water Chestnuts — fresh
Bacon (good quality)
1. Peel chestnuts, removing any eyes. Plunge into cold water.
2. Before serving, drain and blot. Roll in ½ piece of bacon. Secure with toothpick. Place on cookie sheet and put under broiler.
Devils on Horseback
This is an English favorite and, of course, is called Devils on Horseback because the prunes are black.
Prunes — pitted
1. Cut bacon strips in half and roll pitted prunes in strips. Fix with toothpick.
2. Broil one side, then other.
Excellent when served with Burgundy or Barolo.
A Chinese favorite adapted by the English. This dish is often served with Claret or Port.
1. Cut bacon strips in half and roll a chicken in the bacon and fix with a toothpick.
2. Broil one side, then the other.
Figs and Gorgonzola
I consider this more a dish to serve with a great old Red Burgundy. Try it with a bottle of ’59 La Tâche and I think you’ll find it the best combination ever. The blue cheese tang with the sweet touch of figs is magic. This dish can also be a canapé. I have two versions.
Black Mission figs — very ripe
Prosciutto ham — very thinly sliced
Italian Gorgonzola — very ripe
1. Cut both ends off the figs. Slice each fig into 2 halves lengthwise. Cut cheese into pieces about 1/4″ thick in the shape of fig halves. Note that ripe Gorgonzola is hard to cut and you should refrigerate it first to solidify. Use a very thin and sharp knife and wipe and rinse in hot water after each cut or use a wire cheese cutter.
2. The pieces of Prosciutto are usually cut about 4″ wide and 7″ long. Cut each piece lengthwise. Place a fig half and a piece of cheese on one end of a half slice of Prosciutto and roll it up. Secure with a toothpick and place on serving platter. Cracked pepper may be added to taste and lemon or lime slices can be placed on platter for guests to squeeze over figs if desired.
This is the version I like to serve with an old Red Burgundy as a cheese course. Use a single larger slice of toast when served this way or small rounds or squares if served as a canapé.
Black Mission figs — very ripe
Italian Gorgonzola — very ripe
Chives — chopped
Hearty bread — cut thin and made into toast
1. Cut both ends off figs. If they are super ripe and squishy, the figs do not need to be peeled as the skin is so thin as to be practically nonexistent. Spread the toast with the figs. I cut the figs in half and smash the halves down on the toast so the fig layer is quite thick.
2. Cut cheese into thin slices and place on top of the fig mixture on the toast. (see how to cut cheese on Version #1. Place toast on cookie sheet. Sprinkle with chopped chives. Broil for about a minute until the cheese bubbles and starts to brown. Serve immediately.
Stilton Cheese and Pistachio Nuts
Christine Graham insisted I include this recipe here although it is a presentation to be served with Port at the end of a meal. For the idea of warm pistachios with Port, I credit the great Napa Valley chef and food authority, the late Belle Rhodes.
Stilton Cheese — very fresh
Celery sticks — very crisp
1. Pull apart and wash small, young bunches of celery. Cut best center sections of the stalks into pieces about 5″ long. Cut enough to place about 5 stalks for each guest into a tall highball glass filled with 1″ of cold water. There will be one glass for each guest. (This can be done well in advance and the glasses of celery placed in the refrigerator.)
2. The pistachios should be the best quality fresh and lightly salted nuts you can find. Warm them at the last moment for about 5 minutes at 300 degrees.
3. Obtain the highest quality aged Stilton you can find. In San Francisco, the Whole Foods Store at California and Franklin has fabulous aged Farmhouse Stilton from the famous London cheese wholesaler, Neal’s Yard. (Try the Neal’s Yard Farmhouse Cheddar from Montgomery’s or Keen’s Dairies as well.)
4. Serve each guest a small bowl of warm pistachios, a glass of celery sticks and a generous piece of Stilton.
I prepared this presentation in the kitchen of Joe’s Stone Crab Restaurant in Miami for a party of 30 guests given by Bob Dickinson, President of Carnival Cruise Lines. I brought a whole aged 15 lb. Neal’s Yard Stilton with me from San Francisco. The wine served was 1962 Quinta do Noval Nacional — a heavenly combination with the Stilton and pistachios!