Judge Rosemarie Aquilina loves cooking for her family and friends, especially around the holidays. She shares her favorite go-to appetizers for gatherings.
By Rosemarie Aquilina
Photography by Sylvia Jarrus
This is a must-serve on my appetizer table or with any Mediterranean meal. It’s easy, always a crowd-pleaser and leftovers can be heated quickly in the microwave. Easy to double or quadruple for a large crowd or hungry appetites.
1 large purple eggplant peeled, or 2 medium-sized ones, cut into ¼ to ½ -inch wheels then cut into 1-inch wide strips
Salt, plus more to taste
Garlic cloves and/or squeezable garlic paste
½ cup fresh parsley, curly or flat leaf
¼ cup lemon juice, freshly squeezed or bottled
¼ cup olive oil, plus more for baking sheet
Baking sheet with sides covered with foil and oil added
Sprinkle salt on sliced eggplant and place sliced eggplant in a large bowl for approximately half an hour. This will help release water from the eggplant. The slices will begin to turn brown and soften. Drain. Rinse well. Pat dry between paper towel. Place strips on prepared baking sheet. If you are using garlic cloves, place about four, or as many as desired, on the sheet as well.
Place in 350 degree F oven for about a half hour. The eggplant should shrink, dry out and soften. The garlic will soften. Turn about every 10 minutes. You can adjust doneness, depending on how you like your eggplant.
While eggplant bakes, prepare:
½ cup chopped fresh parsley
¼ cup lemon juice, adjust to taste
Salt and pepper
¼ cup olive oil, or more
Garlic paste, if using or chop the garlic warm from the oven, adjust to taste
When eggplant and *garlic cloves are finished baking, place in a mixing bowl. Add chopped garlic, parsley, olive oil and lemon juice. Add pinches of salt and pepper, tasting as you add. Adjust all ingredients for your taste. Blend all together with a spoon. Place in pretty serving dish.
*If you are using baked garlic cloves, add as much as you like for taste. If you are using squeezable garlic, begin with ¼ teaspoon and adjust. I like to whisk the squeezable garlic into the olive oil before I add it. Sometimes, depending on quantity, I use squeezable and the roasted garlic cloves.
For stronger lemon taste and for more color, grate fresh lemon rind (do not go into the white) to taste. Can add baked onion and/or red pepper slices for variation. Once you make it, it’s easy to be creative or serve a few variations.
Serve with breads, crackers or flat pretzels.
Sundried Tomato Tapenade
2 cups water
3 ½ to 4 ounce package sundried tomatoes
2 or more peeled garlic cloves
½ to 1 cup olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Bring approximately 2 cups of water to boil in a small saucepan. Turn off heat. If preferred, you can heat water in a microwave-safe bowl. Add dried tomatoes to boiling water. Let tomatoes stand in water for approximately 5 minutes. Drain water from tomatoes and place in a food processor. Add garlic cloves and slowly drizzle in olive oil, until it is a consistency you like. Add salt and pepper to taste and mix well.
Serve with breads, chips, crackers, carrots or other vegetable slices.
Note: I often double or triple this recipe. It keeps several weeks in the refrigerator, if there are leftovers. I often use any leftovers in my spaghetti sauce or any tomato-based sauce.
2 heaping cups parsley, flat or curly leaf
4 to 6 peeled garlic cloves
3 tablespoons lemon juice
Extra-virgin olive oil
Remove the parsley’s long stems. Place parsley leaves, garlic cloves and lemon juice in a food processor. As it chops, pour in slow stream of olive oil until it is a paste-like consistency. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and add more of any ingredient until you like the flavor.
Place in pretty serving bowl. Surround with breads, crackers, flat pretzels, carrots or other vegetable slices as preferred. Serve immediately.
Note: Stores for about a week in the refrigerator, and any leftovers can be placed in any sauce, like spaghetti sauce or stew. This dip is a add-on to an appetizer table or a side to any Italian meal.
Holiday Cheese Pinecone
This recipe is a family favorite for every holiday, especially Christmas and New Year’s Eve. It is always on my appetizer table. Over the holidays, I purchase decorative bowls with lids and fill them with the cheese. I then make a design with the nuts, put the lid on and place a bow on top. Guests are thrilled to take it home and serve at their own get-together. I am honored they love it!
2 5-ounce containers crumbled blue cheese
3 8-ounce packages cream cheese, softened
2 5-ounce Kraft cheese pimento spread
¼ cup minced green onions, about 3 to 4 stems cut into the green tops
½ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce,
or more to taste
In large mixing bowl, with mixer at medium speed, beat together all cheeses until well blended. Some lumps are OK.
Add green onions and Worcestershire sauce until blended, either by hand with spoon or spatula or with mixer. Taste. Add Worcestershire a few drops at a time to taste. Add another green onion if desired. When satisfied with taste, place in a smaller bowl, cover and refrigerate an hour or until you can work with it.
Meanwhile, place about a cup of sliced almonds on a cookie sheet and lightly toast in the oven. Almonds will turn slightly brown; do not burn. Heat oven at 350 degrees F for 5-8 minutes, but keep checking and flipping almonds for even coverage. Cool in bowl or on a plate.
I use disposable plastic restaurant gloves, but you can use your clean bare hands and mold cheese into one to three cones. Place on your serving platter a few inches apart. I like to divide and make three of different heights.
Carefully place almonds into each cheese cone to make them look like pinecones — pointed edge into the cheese, rounded end out and angled up. At the top, stick a few smaller ones straight up, with pointed edge. Cover whole cone in rows until you are satisfied. You can place parsley or other green sprigs around the bottom to look like tree branches around the cone.
Refrigerate until time to serve. Serve with a variety of crackers. Any leftovers can be pressed onto a small serving bowl and leftover almonds used to crumble on top, pressed slightly into cheese. No one will know it is left over when you serve again. It keeps in the refrigerator a few weeks.
Variation: You can make other shapes depending on the occasion, or save time by dividing into small serving bowls. I place a cookie cutter on top of the cheese in the bowl. Inside the cookie cutter, press in almonds. Lift the cookie cutter and you’ll have a professional design. Choose a cookie cutter for the holiday or event you are celebrating (i.e. heart, star, tree, etc.)