The holidays are fast approaching, and a casual cocktail party with appetizers is a great way to kick off the season. Invite your friends over to mingle, sip and nosh while you wow them with party-worthy food from a curated menu of stellar appetizers inspired by Marin chefs. We’ve selected some local favorites for you to re-create at home that will help you sail through the festivities. They include simple adaptations for the home cook, including do-ahead tips, easy shortcuts and local sources for unique ingredients. Make one, make several, make the whole menu — and be sure to pour yourself a glass while you entertain like a chef and enjoy your party like a guest.
Fried Camembert Wedges with Pear and Greens
Le Comptoir, San Rafael
Chef Jeremy Blarenghem
As if a ripe Camembert were not decadent enough, chef Jeremy Blarenghem raises the bar by frying wedges of the soft bloomy cheese as an appetizer at Le Comptoir in San Rafael. These wedges are best served immediately after frying, so the oozing cheese can be swiped up with slices of pear and crusty baguette. The cheese is presented as a dressed salad at Le Comptoir; for party purposes, we’ve deconstructed the salad and assembled it as a garnish on a cheeseboard.
MAKES 6 WEDGES; SERVES 12 AS A SMALL APPETIZER
1 (250g) Camembert round
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 large eggs, beaten
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
Oil for deep frying
1 to 2 cups mizuna, arugula or dandelion greens
1 Anjou pear, cored and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons toasted pepitas and/or sunflower seeds
Divide the Camembert into 6 equal-size wedges. Roll them in the flour to evenly coat and shake off the excess. Dip wedges in the eggs, then roll in the panko to evenly coat. Heat the oil in a large saucepan to 350°F. Fry the Camembert wedges until golden brown, about 2 minutes. Remove the cheese with tongs or a slotted spoon and blot any excess oil with paper towels. Spread the greens on a serving platter or board. Arrange the wedges over the greens and garnish with pear slices, pepitas (pumpkin seeds) and/or sunflower seeds.
Do-ahead: The cheese wedges may be breaded up to 6 hours in advance and refrigerated until fried. Remove from the refrigerator and let stand at room temperature while you heat the oil.
Tuna Lilly Tartare
Sushi 69, San Anselmo
Chef Hiro Makino
This tartare is a party pleaser — it’s simple to prepare and always popular, so you might want to make a double batch. Chef Hiro Makino’s Tuna Lilly is sublime — a simple concoction of five ingredients that tastes even better dolloped onto savory shrimp crackers. When you order this appetizer at Sushi 69, it arrives garnished with tobiko or masago, a tiny fish roe, which may be purchased at the Asian Market in San Rafael along with the shrimp crackers. As an alternative to the roe, garnish the tartare with toasted sesame seeds.
MAKES ABOUT 24 CHIPS; YIELDS ABOUT 1½ CUPS TARTARE
8 ounces sushi-grade tuna, finely diced
3 scallions, white and pale green parts finely chopped
1/3 cup finely diced yellow onion
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons sesame oil
Dash of hot chile oil (not sweet)
Shrimp crackers, about 24
Tobiko or toasted sesame seeds for garnish
Combine the tuna, scallions, and onion in a bowl. Add the soy sauce, sesame oil, and chile oil. Gently mix to combine, and taste for seasoning. Spoon the tartare on each shrimp cracker. Garnish with tobiko or sesame seeds and serve immediately.
Do-ahead: Prepare the tartare and refrigerate up to 2 hours before assembling on the shrimp crackers.
Mini Diver Scallop Tostadas
Panama Hotel and Restaurant, San Rafael
Chef Dan Miller
These mini-tostadas are one of the most popular appetizers on the menu at the Panama Hotel and Restaurant, and we understand why. Light, fresh and colorful, they look like a party on a plate, and their flavor does not disappoint, with caramelized sweet scallops nestled between fresh tomato salsa and guacamole. At the restaurant, chef Dan Miller fries fresh tortillas to make the tostadas. You can skip this step and purchase round unsalted tortilla chips.
MAKES 20 MINI-TOSTADAS
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon finely minced parsley
1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
10 large scallops (same size as the
chips), cut in half horizontally
Cherry Tomato Salsa
8 ounces grape or cherry tomatoes
1/4 medium red onion
1 serrano chile pepper, seeds, and membrane removed
1/3 cup finely chopped cilantro
1 clove garlic, minced
Juice of 2 limes
1/2 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 ripe avocados
1/2 serrano pepper, seeds and
membrane removed, finely chopped
1/4 medium red onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro
1 clove garlic, minced
Pinch of garlic powder
20 small fresh corn tortillas (or round tortilla chips)
FOR SCALLOPS: Whisk the garlic, oil, parsley, paprika, salt and pepper in a bowl. Add the scallops and turn to coat. Marinate for at least 2 hours or overnight. Remove from the marinade and pat dry. Sear or grill the scallops over medium-high heat, being careful not to overcook.
FOR SALSA: Finely dice and chop the tomatoes, onion and serrano pepper in uniform pieces. Combine in a bowl with the remaining salsa ingredients and stir to blend.
FOR GUACAMOLE: Combine the guacamole ingredients in a bowl, and mash with a fork to blend. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
FOR CHIPS: Use a 1½-inch biscuit cutter or cookie cutter to cut 20 round tortillas chips. Fry until crisp, making sure to keep them as flat as possible. (Alternatively, purchase round unsalted tortilla chips.)
Spread a thin layer of guacamole on a tortilla chip. Place a scallop over the guacamole and top with a spoonful of salsa. Garnish with microgreens or chopped cilantro. Serve immediately.
Do-ahead: The salsa and guacamole may be prepared and refrigerated up to 6 hours in advance. Lay a piece of plastic on top of the guacamole to prevent discoloration.
Duck Confit Tacos
Marinitas, San Anselmo
Chef Frank Villa
Rich, meaty duck is perfect for the holidays, especially when it’s dusted with a heady chile rub and coated in a feisty mole. Marinitas chef Frank Villa serves the duck confit with tacos. We’ve adapted the recipe for appetizer portions to be served on round unsalted tortilla chips. Duck legs and duck fat may be purchased at Belcampo or any well-stocked supermarket butcher. The mole ingredients can be sourced at Mi Pueblo in San Rafael, and many supermarkets carry dried chiles in their international section. If you are short on time, you can purchase premade duck confit at Belcampo in Larkspur and proceed with making the mole (but we encourage you to try the recipe for the confit — it’s delicious).
MAKES ABOUT 24 MINI TOSTADAS
2 dried chiles de arbol, toasted
2 bay leaves
1 (2-inch) cinnamon stick
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
1½ tablespoons kosher salt
1/2 tablespoon ancho chile powder
1/2 tablespoon guajillo chile powder
3 duck legs, with skin and bone
1 quart duck fat
7 dried cascabel chiles
2 to 3 dried ancho chiles
2 cloves garlic
1/2 ripe plantain
1/4 medium yellow onion
1½ tablespoons pumpkin seeds
1/4 cup water
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1/2 small head green cabbage, finely
shredded, about 2 cups
1 medium carrot, peeled,
1/2 cup cilantro sprigs, chopped, plus
extra leaves for garnish
2 tablespoons chopped pickled jalapeños
2 tablespoons lime juice
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
FOR DUCK CONFIT: In a mortar and pestle, grind the chiles de arbol, cloves, bay leaves, cinnamon stick and black peppercorns. Mix in the salt and chile powders. Dust the duck legs with the spices and refrigerate on a sheet pan for 24 hours. Preheat the oven to 300°F. Place the duck fat in a Dutch oven and bring to a boil. Submerge the duck legs in the fat, transfer the Dutch oven to the oven and cook for 1½ hours. Remove and cool the duck legs completely.
FOR MOLE: Toast the chiles, garlic, plantain, onion and pumpkin seeds in a sauté pan over medium heat for 5 minutes. (Add a teaspoon of vegetable oil if the
ingredients begin to stick to the pan.) Transfer to a food processor or blender, add the water and salt, and process until smooth.
FOR SLAW: Combine the slaw ingredients in a bowl, stir to blend and taste for seasoning.
Shred the duck meat and sear in a saucepan over high heat until crispy. Toss with enough mole to coat, then taste and add more mole if desired (you will not use all of the mole for this recipe — save any remaining mole for another use). Mound the duck on mini tostadas or tortillas and top with the slaw. Garnish with cilantro leaves and serve immediately.
Do-ahead: The duck confit and mole sauce may be prepared up to 2 days in advance.
Polpettini with Castelvetrano Olives and Ricotta Salata
Poggio Restaurant, Sausalito
Chef Ben Balesteri
These rich, succulent meatballs are packed with cheese and aromatics, transforming the humble cocktail party staple into a holiday all-star. Chef Ben Balesteri serves the meatballs in a marinara sauce, which does double duty here as a dipping sauce. Veal and pork are a tried-and-true Italian combo, but if you prefer to avoid veal, then lean ground beef may be substituted.
MAKES ABOUT 30 (1-INCH) MEATBALLS
1 pound ground veal
1/2 pound ground pork
1/4 cup panko breadcrumbs
1/4 cup finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
1/4 cup ricotta
1/4 cup minced onion
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon chopped oregano
1 teaspoon chopped parsley
1 teaspoon salt
Pinch of red chile flakes
Pinch of freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup canola oil
8 cups marinara sauce, preferably homemade
1/4 cup rinsed Castelvetrano olives
1/4 cup grated ricotta salata cheese
Do-ahead: The meatballs may be formed one day in advance of serving.
Vietnamese Autumn Rolls
Rice Paper Scissors, San Francisco
Chef Katie Kwan
Marin native Katie Kwan, co-owner of the San Francisco pop-up Rice Paper Scissors (with partner Valerie Luu), created this vegetarian-inspired recipe for us per our request. These rolls are a sumptuous nod to autumn, with the addition of sweet potato and apple, while still maintaining the signature freshness of spring. Their unique flavor is enhanced by two sauces: a light peanut butter–hoisin sauce on the inside and a soy-lime dipping sauce on the outside — a perfect balance of nutty, tart and sweet.
MAKES 12 (6-INCH) ROLLS OR 24 (3-INCH) HALVES
6 teaspoons canola oil, divided
1½ tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
10 ounces extra-firm tofu, thinly cut into 4-inch pieces
1½ pounds sweet potato, peeled, cut into 4-inch matchsticks
1 (17-ounce) package bean vermicelli noodles
1 package rice paper rounds, 10 to 12 inches in diameter (you won’t use the whole package)
2 crisp apples, quartered, cut lengthwise into 1/8-inch thick slices
1 English cucumber, halved and seeded, cut into 4-inch matchsticks
6 ounces arugula
1 bunch cilantro, leaves picked
1 bunch mint, leaves picked
1/3 cup crunchy peanut butter
1/4 cup hoisin sauce
7 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 clove garlic, minced
FOR COOKED FILLING: Preheat the oven to 400°F. In a small bowl, combine 1 teaspoon oil, soy sauce, and sugar. Add the tofu and marinate for 15 minutes. Spread the tofu on a baking sheet and bake until firm, about 15 minutes. Remove and cool completely on the pan. Toss the sweet potato with 2 teaspoons oil and spread on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake for 15 minutes, remove and cool. Fill a medium saucepan with water and bring to a boil. Turn the heat off, add the noodles and let stand for 90 seconds. Drain the noodles, toss with 3 teaspoons oil and cool completely.
FOR SAUCES: Whisk the peanut sauce ingredients in a small bowl. Add 3 tablespoons water and stir to combine. Add more water as needed to reach the consistency of a thin dressing and set aside. Whisk the soy-lime sauce ingredients in a small bowl. Add 4 tablespoons water and set aside.
FOR ROLLS: Fill a wide bowl with warm water. Dip a rice paper in the water, then vigorously shake off the excess water. Lay the rice paper, shiny side down, on a work surface. Starting with the tofu, stack the ingredients in a pile on the lower third area of the paper (the pile should be centered and no wider than about 4 inches). For each rice paper, top the tofu with 4 pieces apple, 1 piece cucumber, 5 pieces sweet potato, a small handful of arugula, 2 sprigs cilantro, 3 leaves mint, 10 to 15 strands of noodles and a drizzle of peanut butter dressing. To roll, fold the outside edges in over the pile (as one would with a burrito). Starting from the bottom end closest to you, roll the rice paper up away from you, pinching and tucking so the roll is firm and tight. Cut the rolls in half and assemble on a serving platter. Serve with the soy-lime dip.
Do-ahead: Precook and cut the filling ingredients in advance of rolling. The rolls may be fully prepared and refrigerated for up to 6 hours in advance of serving.
This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition with the headline: “Party Like a Chef”.
Lynda Balslev is an award-winning food writer, editor and recipe developer based in the San Francisco Bay area. She authors the nationally syndicated column and blog TasteFood, and co-authored the cookbook Almonds: Recipes, History, Culture (2015 Silver Medal Winner Independent Publisher Awards). She is the 2011 recipient of the Chronicle Books Award (Recipe Writing) to the Symposium for Professional Food Writers, and a 2018 Fellowship Award recipient to the Symposium for Wine Writers at Meadowood, Napa Valley. Lynda’s writing and photography have been recognized by the New York Times Diners Journal, the Los Angeles Times, The Huffington Post and more.