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An Aegean Appetizer Buffet

by Lou Seibert Pappas

The carefree nature of an Aegean appetizer buffet agilely lends itself to entertaining a crowd with ease.With their zest for good living, the Greeks have a well-developed custom of socializing with wine and mez, meaning "a little something to whet the appetite." Mez in various degrees of complexity are always offered at the convivial tavernas and at family holiday gatherings. As the spontaneous dancing and conversation continue, the appetizers can easily become a feast.

In recent years in Athens, "ouzeries" have opened that feature an endless assortment of mez plus beverages. It is customary to join friends and savor a dozen little platefuls of dishes, lingering over aperitifs, and let the repast become a meal.

This party idea captures the merriment of a mez party. The plan is to handle 20 guests for an appetizer through dessert buffet. The foods are authentically Greek, with a nod or two to the Turks. The dishes all sit well without diminishing in flavor. Middle Eastern specialty markets or delicatessens or upscale supermarkets carry many of the necessities. Go there for filo, feta, olives, and lavosh, the bubbly Armenian cracker bread. You may also purchase halvah, the sesame-seed candy.

To complement the food, serve retsina, for those who wish to indulge, and sauvignon blanc and zinfandel or merlot. Consider such affordables as Rabbit Ridge Sauvignon Blanc Russian River Valley 1996, Boeger Sauvignon Blanc El Dorado 1996, Sanford Sauvignon Blanc Central Coast 1996, Markham Sauvignon Blanc 1996, Murphy-Goode Fum Blanc Sonoma County 1996, or Fritz Merlot 1995.

Shopping List: In addition to the ingredients needed for the special recipes, plan to buy 1 large can dolmathes, mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, 1 pound feta cheese, 1 quart Greek olives, 1 pound pistachio nuts in the shell, 3 pounds seedless red and green grapes, and 1 pound halvah, if you wish. Buy or make the bread.

Cook Ahead: Two weeks in advance, assemble and freeze the pitas, if desired, making one recipe of each. Also bake and freeze the bread and cookies, if you wish. Three days in advance, make two recipes Hummus and prepare the yogurt cheese for the dips. The meatballs are best made one or two days ahead and refrigerated.

Hummus or Garbanzo Sesame Spread
makes about 2 cups

1 can (15 ounces) garbanzo beans
1/4 cup lemon juice
3 garlic cloves, peeled
3 tablespoons chopped Italian flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon chopped green onion tops or chives
1/4 teaspoon each salt and pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
Dash pepper
2 tablespoons tahini (sesame seed paste)
Italian parsley sprigs for garnish
Lavosh, sesame or oat crackers or sliced cucumbers, zucchini, jicama, or carrots

Drain the garbanzo beans and rinse well in a strainer under cold water. In a food processor fitted with a steel blade, place the beans, lemon juice, garlic, parsley, onion tops, salt, cumin, pepper, and tahini. Process until almost smooth. If the mixture is too stiff, add a little reserved bean juice. Spoon the spread into a serving container. Cover and chill. To serve, garnish with parsley sprigs and accompany with lavosh, crackers or relishes.

Parsley Meatballs/Keftethes
makes about 3 dozen

1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium-sized onion, finely chopped
1 cup soft white bread crumbs
1/2 cup water
2 eggs
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon dried oregano
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley
2 pounds lean ground beef or turkey
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Freshly ground pepper
Fresh or dried oregano

In a skillet, heat the oil and saut the onion until soft; turn into a bowl. Add the bread crumbs, water, eggs, garlic, salt, oregano, and parsley, and mix well. Add the meat and mix thoroughly. Shape into balls about 1 inch in diameter. Saut the meatballs in the remaining oil, turning to brown all sides. Transfer to a serving dish. Pour the vinegar into the pan and bring to a boil, scraping up the drippings; pour over the meatballs. Grind fresh pepper over and sprinkle lightly with fresh oregano.

Quantity Tip: Place the shaped meatballs on a baking pan and bake them in a 425 oven for 20 minutes or until cooked through. In a small saucepan boil the vinegar until reduced by half, add the pan drippings, and heat until blended. Pour over the meatballs in a serving dish.

Shrimp Pitas
makes 3 dozen

8 ounces ricotta cheese or natural cream cheese
1 egg
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 green onions, chopped
Dash Tabasco
1/2 teaspoon dried tarragon
1/2 cup finely chopped jicama (optional)
1/2 pound small cooked shrimp
1/4 cup grated Romano or Parmesan cheese
12 sheets filo dough
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Preheat the oven to 350F. Mix together in a bowl the ricotta, egg, vinegar, parsley, onions, Tabasco, and tarragon. Mix in jicama, shrimp, and Romano or Parmesan cheese. Lay out the filo dough and cover with plastic wrap. Using one sheet at a time, brush with butter and cover with a second sheet; brush lightly with butter. Cut into 5 or 6 strips, each about 3 inches wide. Place a rounded teaspoonful of shrimp filling at one end of each. Fold each strip like a flag and place seam side down on a greased baking sheet. Brush tops of filo with butter. Bake in the oven for 15 minutes or until golden brown.

Spinach Pitas
makes 4 dozen

3 green onions, chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 pound spinach, chopped
1/4 pound ricotta cheese or cream cheese
1/4 pound feta cheese
1 egg
3 tablespoons fine dry bread crumbs
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Dash pepper
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 pound fila dough
1/4 cup butter, melted

Preheat the oven to 350F. In a large frying pan, saut the onions in oil until limp. Add the spinach and cook until limp; drain off any liquid. Let cool. Beat together the ricotta, feta, egg, crumbs, Parmesan, pepper, parsley, and nutmeg. Mix in the vegetables. Using one sheet at a time, brush with butter and cover with a second sheet; brush lightly with butter. Cut into 5 or 6 strips, each about 3 inches wide. Place a rounded teaspoonful of filling at one end of each. Fold each strip like a flag and place seam side down on a greased baking sheet. Brush the tops of filo with butter. Bake in the oven for 15 minutes or until golden brown.

Cucumber and Yogurt Dip

2 cups plain yogurt
2 large cucumbers or 1 English cucumber
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon white vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Crackers or pita bread

Put the yogurt in a cheesecloth-lined sieve over a bowl. Drain several hours or overnight in the refrigerator. Peel, halve, and seed the cucumber and grate in a food processor; set aside to drain. Add the garlic, vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper and combine with the drained yogurt. Serve with crackers or pita bread.

Eggplant and Yogurt Dip

1 cup plain yogurt
1 eggplant
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 green onions, chopped
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin, or more to taste
2 tablespoons minced fresh dill or 1/2 dried dill
3 to 4 tablespoons mixed minced parsley, chives, and oregano
Salt and pepper to taste
Black olives for garnish

Preheat the oven to 375F. Prick the eggplant, place it on a sheet of foil in a baking pan, and bake for 40 to 50 minutes or until soft. Split lengthwise and cool. Scrape out the pulp. Strain the yogurt in a bowl lined with cheesecloth for 2 hours, or until as thick as sour cream. Mix the eggplant pulp with yogurt and remaining ingredients. Garnish with olives. Serve as a dip with bread or crackers.

Wreath Bread
makes 2 rings

1-1/2 packages active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water (105F)
1 3/4 cups milk, warmed
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons olive oil
5 cups unsifted unbleached flour
Egg Glaze: 1 egg yolk beaten with 1 tablespoon water
2 tablespoons sesame seed

In the large bowl of an electric mixer, add the yeast to warm water, and stir to blend. Let stand about 5 minutes, then stir in the milk, salt, sugar, and oil. Add 3 cups flour and beat at medium speed for 5 minutes. Add the remaining flour, 1/2 cup at a time, and beat until smooth. Turn out the dough and knead lightly. Let rise, covered, until doubled, about 1-1/2 hours. Turn out and divide in half, knead lightly and shape into a round, poke a hole in the center and pull into a ring. Let rise, covered on a greased baking sheet. Brush with egg glaze and sprinkle with seeds. Bake at 350F for 30 minutes or until golden. Let cool on racks.

Sugar-Coated Butter Cookies
makes about 5 dozen

1 cup unsalted butter
3 tablespoons confectioner's sugar
1 egg yolk
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 cup very finely chopped almonds, lightly toasted
2 cups unsifted all-purpose flour
About 2 cups confectioner's sugar

Preheat the oven to 325F. Beat the butter until creamy, and beat in the 3 tablespoons confectioner's sugar, egg yolk, almond extract, and almonds. Mix in flour. Pinch off pieces of dough the size of a walnut and shape into rounds or crescents by rolling between the palms of your hands. Place on a lightly greased baking sheet. Bake in the oven for 30 to 40 minutes, or until lightly browned. Remove from the oven and let cool on the pan for 5 minutes. Sift a 1/8 inch thick layer of confectioner's sugar over waxed paper and transfer the cookies to it. Sift more sugar over the top to cover completely. Let stand until cool, then store in an airtight can.

Lou Seibert Pappas is a former food editor of the Palo Alto Times Tribune and a home economist with Sunset Magazine. She currently writes food, home, and travel-related articles for national magazines and newspapers and is the author of more than 30 books.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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