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Just a Bite

December 05, 1996|KATHY CASEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES: Casey is a restaurant consultant and freelance food writer in Seattle

Holiday cocktail parties offer a wide range of drinks, but the central problem remains: what to eat?

With all this potent sipping, some noshing is definitely important. These little tastes, also known as nibbles, bites, snippets and tidbits, must fit the mood of the get-together. Although gooey nachos would be gauche while elegantly sipping your perfectly chilled dry martini, tiny bite-sized savories are just right for the occasion. When choosing accompaniments, it is important to have the flavors complement, not compete with, the drink.

Appetizers can be as simple as spiced nuts, Parmesan crisps or smoked salmon slivers on little slices of toasted cocktail rye with capers and red onions or as kitschy as rumaki or Cheddar-Olive Poppers. The latter--baked cheese pastry-wrapped green olives--are an incredible taste sensation with a sip of gin.

If you're giving a martini party, your guests can make a whole meal of cocktail tidbits. Put out platters of toasted herbed crostini with Kalamata olive tapenade and pass little individual plates of seared peppered beef carpaccio with a mound of wild greens drizzled with a little horseradish vinaigrette.

One of my all-time favorites is gin-infused shrimp with martini aioli. The prawns are steamed in gin and vermouth, chilled and served with an aioli flavored with juniper berries, grated lemon peel, minced green olives and cocktail onions. An elegant presentation is to drape a few prawns over the rim of a small martini glass and put the aioli in the center for dipping.

Many old classics can be given a '90s twist for today's cocktail food. Coquilles St. Jacques, for instance, can be adapted for cocktail parties; poach cut-up sea scallops and prepare a Gruyere-thickened white sauce, using the scallop poaching liquid for a rich flavor. The scallop pieces are then mixed with the sauce, placed in empty clean oyster shells, topped with herbed bread crumbs and baked.

Deviled eggs, that old-time comforting finger food, are excellent when given a modern kick of spicy chipotle pepper puree added to the yolk filling.

Little Olympia oyster shooters are fun to serve, especially if you have a collection of old souvenir shot glasses. Place a few of the tiny shucked oysters in each jigger and drizzle with a bit of mignonette, a classic chilled sauce for raw oysters made with red wine vinegar, shallots and cracked black pepper. I like to add a little finely minced lemon peel and a shot of Tabasco to spice up my mignonette, then freeze it until icy before topping the oysters.

And, of course, I can't leave out the piece de resistance--tiny caviar-topped roasted new potatoes with shallots, sour cream and chives.

These days the garnish of the martini itself sometimes is a nice nibble--from the traditional pimiento-stuffed olive to pickled asparagus, hot peppers, tiny green tomatoes, sea beans or tiny baby carrots with their fluffy tops still on. As Johnny Carson put it, "Happiness is finding two olives in your martini when you're hungry."

GIN-INFUSED SHRIMP WITH MARTINI AIOLI

SHRIMP

1/2 cup dry white vermouth

1/4 cup gin

1 teaspoon (about 15) juniper berries, crushed

1/8 teaspoon black pepper

1/8 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 pounds large (16 to 20 size) shells-on shrimp, peeled and deveined

MARTINI AIOLI

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 egg yolks

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1/2 teaspoon crushed and finely chopped juniper berries (7 to 8)

1 1/2 teaspoons grated lemon peel

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon black pepper

3/4 teaspoon Dijon mustard

Dash cayenne pepper

1/2 cup olive oil

1/2 cup vegetable oil

1 1/2 teaspoons gin

1/3 cup finely minced stuffed green olives, drained well

3 tablespoons finely minced cocktail onions, drained well

1 tablespoon finely chopped Italian parsley

SHRIMP

Bring vermouth, gin, juniper berries, pepper and salt to boil over high heat in medium-large pan with tight-fitting lid. Stir in shrimp. Cover and steam 1 minute. Remove lid and stir shrimp. Place lid back on and cook until shrimp are beginning to turn pink, 1/2 to 1 minute more. Remove from heat and let shrimp cool and finish cooking in liquid, stirring occasionally. Cool shrimp in liquid in refrigerator until well chilled before serving.

MARTINI AIOLI

Process lemon juice, egg yolks, garlic, juniper berries, lemon peel, salt, pepper, mustard and cayenne in food processor to thoroughly combine. With processor running, gradually drizzle in oils, emulsifying aioli. Consistency should be as thick and smooth as mayonnaise.

Add gin, olives, onions and parsley and pulse couple of times to mix in but not to process more. Cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours for flavors to mellow before serving.

Place aioli in small dish on platter and surround with shrimp. Or place little mound of gourmet greens in bottom of small martini glass. Place dollop of Martini Aioli in center and hang few shrimp off rim of glass. Or if you have a collection of shot glasses, place 1 shrimp in 1 shot glass and dollop with a little aioli.

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