Wednesday, November 24, 2010

appetize me

I have a weakness for appetizers.

This is partly the legacy of the hotel kitchen: you have to enjoy turning out mini roast beef roulades and finger sandwiches and tuna-stuffed cherry tomatoes if you want to keep your mind when preparing canapes for a cocktail party of two thousand. This is partly the legacy of one too many law school social events: if you're bad at social chatter and unnerved by large crowds, you'll find that the safest place is by the refreshments, because you can't talk with your mouth full.

But this is mostly the legacy of cooking for gatherings of hungry guests: appetizers buy you time. Even the simplest of appetizers - cheese and crackers, chips and dip - can take the edge off, and keep people from venturing into the kitchen to ask when the meal will be served. Done right, appetizers can cover everything from a roast that needs an extra fifteen minutes in the oven to a full-out kitchen disaster. 

I made the following chicken-and-onion phyllo turnovers as part of a menu for a wedding dinner this past August. I didn't originally plan to use them as appetizers, but I had a need-to-do-everything, could-really-use-four-hands time crunch. The triangles had been made ahead to be baked from frozen, and dinner was a buffet spread, so I had the leeway to rearrange the menu a little. I had unwary volunteers, and so I put one in charge of baking turnovers and sent another out to meet the horde of hungry guests with a heaped platter and a stack of cocktail napkins. The move bought me a much-needed half-hour of breathing room. 

These turnovers are loosely inspired by spanikopita, the classic Greek phyllo pastries stuffed with spinach and feta cheese. Generously buttered and filled with a mixture of sauteed chicken and caramelized onions, they're an excellent way to greet hungry guests. Make up a few bags for the freezer, and they'll buy all the time you need when cooking for holiday gatherings. 

They're worth having on hand even if time's not an issue. You see, there's one more reason why I have a weakness for appetizers: as long as the oven's on, a few of these on a baking tray will tide over the hungry cook. 

(Not my photograph. I definitely didn't have time to be fighting with my camera that day.)

Chicken and Onion Phyllo Turnovers

If you're in or near Vermont, I highly recommend Misty Knoll chicken.

(Makes about sixteen appetizer-sized turnovers. Suitable for freezing.)

For the filling, take one pound of boneless chicken thighs and cut them into small chunks. (Use kitchen shears if you have them - it's easier than cutting them with a knife.) Set aside in a bowl.

Cut one small yellow onion into half-moons. Finely chop a handful of fresh thyme - enough to come to about two teaspoons.

Heat a little olive oil in a medium heavy-bottomed saute pan over low heat. Add the onions to the pan, then add the chopped thyme, a quarter-teaspoon of salt, and a quarter-teaspoon of ground cinnamon. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft and caramelized.

Turn the heat up a little and add the chicken. Stir occasionally until the chicken is browned and cooked all the way through. Add one tablespoon of brown sugar and a teaspoon of balsamic vinegar. If there is a lot of liquid in the pan, turn up the heat a little further and let it reduce until thick and a little sticky. Season with a sprinkling of black pepper.

Transfer the chicken to a shallow pan to cool, then refrigerate until you're ready to assemble the turnovers.

To assemble the turnovers, start by thawing an eight-ounce package of frozen phyllo dough. Melt half a stick of butter in a small bowl. Set out a large cutting board or other flat, clean work surface. Set out a baking tray. Pull the chicken mixture from the fridge.

Carefully unroll the package of phyllo. Pull out one sheet and lay it on the work surface with the long side horizontal. Brush the phyllo with melted butter. Lay a second sheet of phyllo atop the first, and brush with more melted butter.

Use a knife to cut the phyllo into thirds horizontally, so that you have three strips.

Place a heaped tablespoon of the mixture at the end of one strip. Fold up the corner to make a triangle. Fold the triangle over on itself until you reach the end of the pastry strip. Trim any excess with a knife. Set the finished triangle on the baking tray. Repeat with the remaining mixture until you run out of either phyllo or chicken.

Finished triangles can either be baked immediately, at 375F for twenty to twenty-five minutes or until golden, or they may be placed in the freezer on the baking tray, and transferred to freezer bags once fully frozen.

Frozen triangles will keep for up to a month in the freezer; they should be baked at 375F for thirty to thirty-five minutes, or until golden.