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Good as gold for party appetites

Miniature turnovers and calzones make the perfect treat to nibble while you work the room.

June 18, 2008|Denise Martin and Donna Deane | Special to The Times

A LET'S-get-a-few-friends-together soiree begs for party snacks with a few surprise ingredients -- bite-size turnovers that have personality and that go down perfectly with either a glass of crisp, cool white wine or a light summer ale.

These are life-of-the-party appetizers. Green and leafy watercress puts a peppery twist on traditional spanakopita, and fresh herbs and wild mushrooms class up mini calzones with truffle cheese. Ripe plantains used as the "dough" for festive vegetarian empanadas are a sweet-savory indulgence, light enough for a spring evening.

The fun one: Ditch the flour and make the empanada dough from a combination of plantains and bananas. Roast the plantains until they literally ooze from their skins, then blend them with super-ripe bananas and salt. A tortilla press -- inexpensive and readily available at most Latino markets -- and two sheets of plastic wrap serve best to flatten balls of the sticky dough into round discs ready for stuffing, but a heavy-bottom skillet can substitute for the press.

Toss together green onions, roasted chipotle, cheese and refried beans and spoon a little onto each empanada, then carefully fold the dough into half-moon shapes. Pan-fry them quickly in hot oil until golden brown on the outside; the result is light and crisp on the outside, warm and tender on the inside. Serve them immediately with chilled chipotle-inflected creme fraiche.

Herb 'n' mushroom bliss: Mounds of fresh herbs are overflowing at markets, so it's almost a given to throw a handful into a calzone dough. Sprinkle in some thyme and make way for the guests who will follow the crisp aroma into the kitchen.

For the filling, a mix of wild mushrooms -- like oyster, shiitake and creminis -- pairs beautifully with the thyme. Add a bit of pancetta and truffle cheese (truffle cheese is easier to find than truffles). Grind some black pepper onto the thyme-flecked calzones and watch them puff up into golden morsels, warm and deliciously gooey in the middle.

Presto pesto: Watercress is the base for a pesto that gets tucked into spanakopita-style turnovers. We keep the feta cheese, the tang of which goes well with the watercress pesto (made with the addition of garlic and almonds) and add lemon-garlic chicken. The marinated chicken can be grilled ahead of time and stored in the fridge.

The sheets of paper-thin filo dough traditionally used for spanakopitas can be found at most grocery stores and Greek markets. (Keep them covered with damp paper towels and handle delicately.)

Lay one sheet on a clean surface and brush lightly with melted butter. Add two more sheets brushed with butter. Cut the dough cross-wise into eight strips, then spoon a little chicken, pesto and a pinch of feta on one end before folding into triangles.

In less than 20 minutes, the lightly golden turnovers emerge sharp and rich -- a brilliantly buttery party treat.

You can also put them in airtight plastic bags and freeze them and then reheat them at your leisure -- for even those unexpected guests.

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food@latimes.com

Denise Martin is a freelance writer; Donna Deane is the Times test kitchen director.

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Mushroom and cheese calzones

Total time: About 2 hours

Servings: 2 1/2 dozen

Note: From test kitchen director Donna Deane. Truffle cheese is available at Trader Joe's stores and specialty cheese stores. The calzones can be made several hours ahead and reheated at 350 degrees for 5 minutes just before serving.

2 teaspoons dry yeast

1 teaspoon sugar

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided

3 cups flour

3 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme, divided

Salt

1/2 pound mixed mushrooms such as shiitake, crimini, oyster and button, cut into 1/2 -inch pieces (about 4 cups)

1/3 cup pancetta, cut into 1/4 -inch dice

1 tablespoon minced shallots

1 clove garlic, minced

Freshly ground black pepper

1 egg, beaten

1/2 cup shredded truffle cheese

1. Dissolve the yeast in one-half cup of warm water. Sprinkle the sugar over the mixture and stir. Allow to stand until bubbly, 10 to 15 minutes, then stir in 1 tablespoon of the olive oil.

2. In a large mixing bowl or in the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the flour, 3 teaspoons thyme and 1 teaspoon salt. Add the yeast mixture to the flour along with an additional one-half cup warm water and mix to combine.

3. Turn out the dough onto a board and knead by hand, or continue to mix using a dough hook, until smooth and satiny, about 5 minutes. Place the dough into an oiled bowl and cover loosely with plastic wrap, then allow to rise until doubled, about 45 minutes.

4. While the dough is rising, prepare the mushroom filling. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large, heavy sauce pot over medium-high heat until hot. Add the mushrooms and three-eighths teaspoon salt. Saute, stirring, until the mushrooms are lightly browned and dry, about 5 to 8 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.

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