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Cooking for One: Gravlax, Socca Blini make simple and elegant appetizers

Thursday, December 21, 2000

Anyone who entertains over the holidays is searching for win-win recipes that are easy to make, easy to love, can be done in advance and have a knockout presentation.

Solo cooks are sometimes shy on fancy equipment, so recipes that can be made in a small kitchen using everyday pots and pans are especially welcome.

As my holiday gift to you, I'm suggesting two party recipes that can be served at either brunch or cocktail time. They are portable as well, and both can be taken along when you want to contribute your share to a potluck party.

Gravlax, a mainstay on the Scandinavian smorgasbord, may be the easiest party appetizer you'll ever make. It will certainly be one of the best. The delicious, clean-tasting appetizer is not cooked, but well preserved (or "cured") in salt and sugar.

Then the pink slab of salmon is served on a board, sliced paper thin and speckled with pepper. Slices of gravlax tops plain or buttered rye bread and are garnished with a dab of sweet mustard sauce. All of the As are pronounced the same when you say, "Applause, applause for gravlax."

But plan ahead, because the salmon takes two or three days to cure in the fridge.

Caviar-topped blini is high-ticket cocktail fare. There is nothing more delicious or elegant. But if you have the proverbial Champagne taste and a beer budget, well, just deconstruct the dish and build on the idea, if not the original ingredients.

Traditional blini are a Russian specialty, dollar-size pancakes that are yeast-raised and made with buckwheat flour.

For our purposes, we'll part with tradition for the sake of expediency. There are two ways to go. For you not-too-adventurous types, make pancake batter that's not sweet. Thin it to the consistency of heavy cream and ladle onto a hot griddle by the tablespoonful to make silver dollar- (not Sacagawea-dollar) sized pancakes or crepes.

But here's the version I encourage you to try. I discovered this wonderful recipe in Chef Rozanne Gold's cookbook, "Entertaining 1-2-3."

She suggests making "socca" blini. (Socca is a popular snack food of Nice made from chickpea flour.) Gold's twist is to make a batter from powdery, nutty chickpea flour with water, olive oil, salt and pepper. Then the batter is dropped by the tablespoonful into a skillet to make "blini." So easy and unusual.

Chick pea flour shouldn't scare you off, by the way. This inexpensive flour looks like a tan powder and is sold by the baggie-full in Greek or Middle Eastern groceries. Try Stamoolis Brothers in The Strip.

As for a caviar look-alike, I make a completely bogus imitation with tapenade, a mix of black olives, olive oil, capers and other good things from Provence. I tailor the tapenade with a shot of orange zest and Armagnac to give it a subtle citrus undertone.

Have fun. Happy holidays. And if you discover any recipes that would be good for the solo cook, send me an e-mail at the address below.

Gravlax Describe the recipe to your fish cutter. She will fillet a salmon giving you 2 matching pieces that weigh the same, cut from either side of the fish.

3 to 3 1/2 pounds center cut of salmon, filleted but with skin intact
1 large bunch dill, (about 1/4 pound)
1/3 cup coarse (kosher) salt
2 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon black pepper corns, crushed
1 small book
1 brick

Rub your fingers over the fish to feel for bones. Using small pliers or tweezers, pull out the bones and discard. Rinse the dill and shake dry. Combine the salt, sugar and crushed peppercorns in a small dish.

Lay the pieces of salmon skin-side down and side by side on your work surface. Sprinkle the salt-sugar mixture evenly over fillets and gently rub it onto all sides. Spread dill sprigs evenly on one piece of the fish. Place the second piece of salmon, skin side up on the dill-topped salmon. It will look like a thick, whiskery sandwich.

Wrap the "salmon-sandwich" in two layers of plastic wrap. Place the package in a shallow baking dish. An 8- by -8-inch baking pan is just about right.

Choose a book that is just about the same size as the salmon, and place the book in a plastic bag and seal. This will keep the book from moisture. Place the book on the salmon.

Now, you're going to weight the "package" with a brick. Wrap a common brick in plastic wrap. Place it on top of the book.

Refrigerate the salmon for 3 days, turning over the package every 12 hours.

Before serving, scrape off spices and dill. Wipe the salt from the surface of the salmon. To serve, slice the fish thinly on the diagonal, detaching each slice from the skin. Place each slice on a piece of buttered Scandinavian rye bread and top with a dab of sweet mustard sauce. Serves 10 or 12.

Sweet Mustard Sauce

Combine 1/4 cup spicy brown mustard, 1 teaspoon dry mustard, 3 tablespoons sugar and 2 tablespoons wine vinegar. Beat in 1/3 cup vegetable oil in a steady stream to the consistency of thin mayonnaise. Stir in 3 tablespoons finely chopped dill and refrigerate 2 hours to mellow.

Socca Blini

1 cup chickpea flour
1 cup water
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
Grinding of black pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil, additional

Place the flour into a small mixing bowl and stir with a fork to break up any lumps. Make a well. Whisk in 1/2 cup water to form a smooth, thick paste. Add another 1/2 cup water and 2 tablespoons olive oil, the salt and pepper. Stir until very smooth.

In a large nonstick skillet, heat remaining 3 tablespoons oil when it begins to bubble, add tablespoonfuls of batter to make little pancakes. When the batter has set, turn over and cook for 30 seconds, or until golden.

Remove to platter. Top each with about a teaspoon of tapenade "caviar." Serve warm or at room temperature. Makes about 24 blini.

Joyce Goldstein's Tapenade

1 cup pitted Nicoise olives
2 tablespoons capers, rinsed
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 to 2 teaspoons anchovy paste or chopped anchovies
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons Armagnac, or other brandy
2 to 3 teaspoons grated orange zest
4 to 6 tablespoons olive oil

Combine all ingredients except olive oil in a food processor and whirl until coarse but not a paste. Add the olive oil and mix to combine.

Serve with chickpea blini, unsalted crackers or toasted rounds of Italian bread. Makes a scant 11/2 cups.

Marlene Parrish's e-mail address is mparrish@pitt.edu

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