CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Holiday party guests everywhere face the same dilemma. How to fork up the tantalizing morsels on a plate held in one hand, hold a drink in the other hand, and wittily chat with another guest throughout the process. If they manage to clutch both plate and cup in one hand, the pressure of the fork spearing a meatball dripping in sauce upends the plate. So awkward.
Embassy Suites Charleston Executive Chef Mark Schnurrpusch offers a solution: serve messy dips and soups in shooter glasses and top the cute little cups with breadsticks or wedges for dipping. Have you ever chased that perennial favorite spinach artichoke dip around a plate with cracker in a futile effort to attach the dip to the cracker? The dip can't go far within the confines of a little cup.
Guests appreciate easy-to-eat appetizers, Schnurrpusch said.
"It's especially important when guests are going to be dressed formally. Barbecued meatballs won't do," he said.
What will do, apparently, is brisket or pulled pork, but only when served on bite-sized cornbread rounds. The round approach works well with risotto and other grainy sides.
In its traditional preparation, creamy risotto must be served quickly and can't be eaten without a fork. Schnurrpusch makes an extra cheesy version, spreads it in a pan, chills the mixture and then cuts it into rounds with a biscuit cutter. Lightly breaded and quickly seared, the risotto cakes finish cooking in the oven.
"They're crispy on the outside and warm and creamy on the inside," Schnurrpusch said. "You don't want to serve anything greasy or fried, which is why we bake them off in the oven."
He uses the same approach with crab cakes and quinoa croquettes.
Tomato-basil soup as an appetizer? Sure, when it's poured in a shooter glass and topped with a wedge of grilled cheese sandwich for dipping. The popular Low Country entrée shrimp and grits makes an appetizer appearance as a shooter with grits in the cup and shrimp as a topper. Adventurous guests enjoy ceviche shooters made of shrimp, salmon, scallops, pineapple and papaya, all "cooked" in acidic lime and served with plantain chips.
Guests at large functions Schnurrpusch caters often visit shooter stations at which they watch shooters prepared and served piping hot. The stations concept also is popular for preparation of entrees and sides, based on the made-to-order omelet and pasta stations.
"People like to watch. The Food Network has really opened everyone's eyes as to what's going on in the kitchen. It's entertaining," Schnurrpusch said.
Inexpensive plastic shooter glasses are usually available in most grocery stores, but can always be found in party supply stores, as can miniature bamboo shoots that make an attractive presentation of miniature skewers, another one-handed appetizer aid.
The slices of tomato, fresh mozzarella and basil leaves that make up the classic Caprese salad convert to a tidy appetizer when cherry tomatoes, Ciliengine (tiny mozzarella balls) and basil leaves are skewered. Chicken satay drizzled in peanut sauce provide an Asian taste when skewered, while chunks of chicken and andouille combine for a Cajun kick on a stick.
Shooters and skewers are certainly not new in the food world, but Schnurrpusch said they weren't commonly served when he first came to Charleston. A Navy brat, he dined and later prepared food all over the country and has seen trends come and go. He acknowledged that the trends come to Charleston a little later than more urban areas, but the treats he brings home from West Virginia often impress his friends in Washington, D.C.
"I bring ideas from there to West Virginia and vice versa. Most of the country has never heard of ramps and home-canned foods like chowchow," he said. "I take things from here for my friends to sample all the time."
The recipes Schnurrpusch prepared and shared for this feature include popular appetizers that are usually served in larger and harder-to-eat formats.
"My main idea was to provide a menu that incorporated many of the same ingredients, presented in different ways, that use holiday colors, and are easy to eat while standing," he said. "For the most part, the cooking techniques are pretty basic and don't require any special equipment."
He wrote the recipes for home cooks, a painstaking process not only because he cooks in large quantities, but also because he and his staff typically do so without recipes. He chose recipes made of foods readily available in most grocery stores.
"I think this menu, along with a nice platter of cheese and crackers or antipasto display, could easily feed a party of 20 to 25. Throw in a yule log and you have an awfully nice get-together," he said.
Reach Julie Robinson at jul...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1230.
NOTE: Chef Mark Schnurrpusch and his team will be preparing easy-to-eat appetizers with a Cajun touch for Carnaval New Orleans with its Vodoo on the Bayou theme. The annual gala to raise funds for the education programs at the Clay Center and Charleston Ballet is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Jan. 19 at the Clay Center. Tickets are $175 if purchased before Jan. 4, and $200 afterward. To buy tickets, visit http://www.theclaycenter.org or call 304-561-3521.
Cajun Marinated Beef Skewers
Makes about 20 skewers
1 1/2 pounds beef ribeye or tenderloin, cut into 3/4 inch cubes
1 cup olive oil
1/2 cup Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon Cajun seasoning
1 small onion, cut into 3/4-inch cubes
1/2 red bell pepper, cut into 3/4-inch cubes
1/2 green bell pepper, cut into 3/4-inch cubes
20 grape tomatoes
COMBINE all ingredients except grape tomatoes in a medium bowl or gallon-size plastic bag. Toss every half hour and marinate for two to three hours.
REMOVE ingredients from excess liquid and place on bamboo skewer in order: beef, red pepper, onion, green pepper, tomato, beef.
SEAR on grill or in lightly oiled saute pan for two minutes on each side.
BAKE seared skewers in 325-degree oven for 8 minutes or refrigerate to finish later. If refrigerating before baking, add 5 minutes to baking time.
Makes about 20 skewers
2 cups balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons honey
Pinch black pepper
Pinch garlic powder
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pint grape tomatoes, cut in half
1 14-ounce container fresh mozzarella, Ciliengine style
1 4-ounce container fresh basil, leaves pinched off at stem and folded into quarters
SIMMER balsamic vinegar over medium-low heat in a small pan until it reduces by half. Glaze should stick to a metal spoon. Remove from heat and add honey. Chill. Sauce will thicken slightly.
TOSS mozzarella balls with olive oil, salt, pepper, and garlic powder.