In Southern California, invite family and friends over for Thanksgiving and you never know exactly when they'll arrive. Some show up early while you're still chopping giblets for the gravy or worrying over the pumpkin pie in the oven, throwing your whole cooking plan out of kilter. Others ring the doorbell 45 minutes after curtain call, wrung out from the drive.
The only way for a host to keep cool is to have something ready to occupy those early-arriving guests while you're still waiting for the stragglers to come. The traditional relish plate just doesn't do it. My fallback appetizer, hors d'oeuvre — or whatever you want to call it — is usually gougères, those adorable Burgundian cheese puffs so wonderful straight from the oven.
When I noticed Seattle chef René Erickson's recipe in her new book, "A Boat, a Whale & a Walrus," in which she adds a pinch of piment d'Espelette to the batter, I decided to go with her version. The powdered sweet-hot red pepper from the French Basque country tints the gougères a festive orange. Perfect for the season, no?
Another fun appetizer idea comes from Gabrielle Hamilton's new cookbook, "Prune," a collection of recipes from the minuscule restaurant that's been a fixture in New York's East Village since 1999. No cooking skills necessary. It's simply canned sardines with Triscuits, Dijon mustard and cornichons — and a branch of parsley to sweeten the breath. She simply stacks the elements on a plate for a DIY bite.
I also love the warm oysters in their shells with leeks and Champagne butter from former Chez Panisse chef Jean-Pierre Moullé's new book, "French Roots." It's so elegant and festive — and perfect with a great bottle of Champagne. He told me you can easily make the sauce and cook the oysters too, keeping them barely warm to the side of the stove. Have the oven hot, and when guests arrive heat the oyster shells, barely warm up the oysters, fill each shell with a spoonful of cooked leeks and a warm oyster topped with the Champagne butter.
Any of these appetizers would make a lovely welcome for your guests on the fast-approaching Thanksgiving Day.