Guests give thanks for thoughtful appetizers

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      There’s a lesson in Darryl Ray’s wedding tale that anybody hosting Thanksgiving dinner should keep in mind. When the partner in The Butler Did It Catering Co catered his own wedding a decade ago, he wanted to serve more than just the standard roast beef. So he chose a meal that reflected his West Coast tastes: platters of sushi, a selection of European cheeses, and other culturally diverse fare. But it quickly became apparent that the food was a bit exotic for his relatives from small-town Saskatchewan, who circled the sushi hesitantly.

      The pungent goat cheese also threw guests off. “They were more of a Cheddar and Swiss kind of crowd,” Ray explains in a phone interview. “You know those Babybel cheeses wrapped in wax? I found my sister eating one, wax and all,” he says, chuckling. “And she didn’t even seem to mind!”

      The moral of the story? Know your crowd. “Serve what they want to eat, not just what you want to eat,” he emphasizes.

      If you’re hosting Thanksgiving dinner, chances are you’ve already planned the main course, whether that’s turkey or Tofurky. Appetizers, however, are often afterthoughts, so you may still be able to match them to your guests’ preferences.

      Conservative eaters crave the classics, like spinach dip and devilled eggs. “I’ve seen mini quiches go out [to catered events] every second day for the last 14 years,” Ray says. While they remain popular with a “more mature” audience, “younger foodies are kind of done with them and are looking for a twist”.

      Ray recommends serving an antipasto platter, which he considers “old-school but with modern rustic” flair and says is likely to please most guests. Assemble a platter of olives, grilled vegetables, artichoke hearts, stuffed peppers, and bocconcini, and set this out with a basket of crackers and bread. Adventurous eaters will appreciate prosciutto, and nonadventurous ones will relate to good salami.

      Ray adds that this spread keeps well over pre-dinner drinks, and refrigerated leftovers can be pulled out again for a late-night nibble. The ingredients can be found at grocery stores like Capers Whole Foods Market and Urban Fare, or you can order a $60 ready-to-serve platter that feeds eight from Ray’s company.

      Jenna Mawjee—who heads the cooking side of Cookshop & Cookschool (3–555 West 12th Avenue)—favours innovation over the same-old, same-old appetizers. “It’s good to shake things up a bit,” she says. She prefers options that “keep things small, seasonal, and light”, since people “tend to OD” on heavy dips.

      Mawjee suggests a plate of crostini—toasted baguette slices topped with a mixture of sautéed white beans and chorizo or heirloom tomatoes, bocconcini, and basil. “Save yourself some stress and make them the morning of or the night before,” she advises. The toasted bread and the toppings can be prepared separately in advance and assembled at the last minute.

      Got a vegetarian or vegan coming to dinner? “I’ve been to many dinner parties when the host says, ”˜Don’t worry, we’ll accommodate you,’ and when you show up all you can eat is salad and a baked potato,” says Sarah Kramer. (Note to cooks: vegans don’t do veggies slathered in butter.)

      Along with Tanya Barnard, Kramer is the author of How It All Vegan!, a vegan cookbook that has just been released in a 10th-anniversary edition by Arsenal Pulp Press. Speaking to Kramer by phone at her home in Victoria, the Straight asks what a host could serve her on Thanksgiving that would make her happy.

      “It would make me happiest not to have a dead animal on the table,” she replies. When invited to a family gathering, Kramer usually brings a vegan main course such as ginger “chicken” made from seitan (wheat gluten). For an appetizer, she points to her book’s mock chopped liver, a quick and easy mushroom spread served with crackers.

      Shari Darling, in contrast, raves about bacon. She’s the author of Orgasmic Appetizers and Matching Wines (Whitecap, 2008). On the line from Peterborough, Ontario, she relates how at a recent high-end dinner party, David Franklin—who possesses the highest professional culinary designation of Certified Chef de Cuisine—served grilled, bacon-wrapped banana coins as an appetizer. Although the luxurious menu included venison and smoked salmon, “People couldn’t stop talking about the bananas—they were a hit!”

      While offbeat appetizers may please your avant-garde friends, “for Thanksgiving you want to stick with comfort foods,” Darling concedes. Her book contains a variation on veggies and dip called Geisha Carrot Dip, which mixes puréed cooked carrots with Spanish onions, ginger, soy sauce, oil, and rice vinegar.

      Tailoring a menu to guests at Thanksgiving is much like catering to their preferences at a wedding. Something old, something new”¦and something for everyone.