The most challenging part of Thanksgiving dinner is not getting the turkey and 16 forms of trimmings to the table. It's deciding what to serve before those 17 components of the heaviest meal of the year.
Offer something too calorie-free with the preprandial Zinfandel, and the lightness will go to everyone's head. But set out something rich and soulful such as chicken liver pate, and no one will have room for the big dinner. Sitting down too full to do justice to the main attractions is a fate worse than indigestion.
For the chief cook and turkey wrangler, other considerations come into play. Canapes and other finger foods that require acres of counter space and last-minute futzing are not worth the bother when there are potatoes to be mashed and cranberries to be sugared. Far smarter are things that can be made ahead in quantity and set out to be enjoyed with just enough effort to keep anyone from gobbling too much too quickly.
Nibbles from a food group that never shows up alongside the sweet potatoes and green beans are most alluring, and of course that means seafood. One of my friends always brings a platter of boiled shrimp with cocktail sauce for dipping, which is perfect because it takes two steps to consume, tastes light and repeats no flavors on the traditional menu.
Just as enticing is a plate of smoked trout fillets, broken into easy-to-eat chevrons and served with dill-flecked creme fraiche for dipping. (Don't reach for the usual baguettes as a base, though, because the bread is excess bulk with stuffing soon to land.) You could also set out sliced smoked salmon, or smoked scallops, oysters or mussels on toothpicks. None of those flavors will disrupt appetites for the traditional flavors of turkey day.
Tapenade meets the same criterion, but if you serve it as predictable bruschetta, it might be too filling as well. Spooned into "cups" made from curved slices of fennel bulb rather than bread, it's totally light and lively. Fennel, black olives and orange are a hallowed combination in Italy, but green olives flecked with a little lemon zest taste much more bracing. And, fortunately, at this time of year small, perfect fennel bulbs with delicate flavor are easy to find.
Fennel is also an obvious candidate for crudites, but while there is much to be said for raw vegetables, they need -- on this the most important food holiday of the year -- to be dressed for company. One dramatic way to do that is to serve whole tiny turnips to be spread with sweet butter and dunked into Maldon sea salt, the same way the French do radishes. The treatment, a signature of farmers market-obsessed Dan Barber, chef at Blue Hill in New York City, turns a decidedly unglamorous vegetable into a whole new taste sensation that just whets appetites for more fall flavors to come.
Another easy way to gussy up raw vegetables in advance, especially carrots, is to pickle them. Macerated with white vinegar, sugar, salt and chipotle chiles, they will be hot even served crispy cold. You could pickle fennel, cauliflower, broccoli, even Brussels sprouts and serve them chilled as well.
Nuts are another traditional opener, but not salted and straight out of the can. A bowl of walnuts, Brazil nuts and pecans set out with a nutcracker is an excellent diversion; roasted chestnuts served in the shell take so much energy to extract they almost add up to negative calories.
And for a seasonal touch, consider pumpkin seeds coated with egg white and dusted with salt and curry or chili powder, then roasted at 300 degrees until they puff and turn crisp. Mix them with sun-dried cranberries and you get turkey trail mix. And no one goes away full.
Fennel with green tapenade
Total time: 20 minutes
1 tablespoon capers, drained and rinsed
2 oil-packed flat anchovies, drained
1 cup pitted Provencal olives
1/4 cup best-quality olive oil
Finely grated zest of 1 small lemon
Freshly ground black pepper
2 to 3 small fennel bulbs (about 3 inches wide), washed and dried
1. Combine the capers and anchovies in a bowl or in the jar of a regular or immersion blender. Process until the ingredients are chopped and mixed. Add the olives and process until they are roughly chopped. Gradually add the olive oil to make a fairly smooth puree. Stir in the lemon zest and season to taste with fresh pepper. Scrape the mixture out into a small shallow bowl.
2. Trim the fennel bulbs and cut them lengthwise into quarters. Pull out the centers to separate the inner layers and make pieces that can be used for dipping. Cut the outer layers lengthwise into smaller pieces.
3. To serve, place the bowl of tapenade on a small platter and arrange the fennel pieces around it.
1 chipotle pepper in adobo sauce, seeded and roughly chopped
2 bunches carrots (about 16), trimmed, peeled and cut into strips one-fourth-inch by 3 inches
1. In a wide, nonreactive saucepan combine the vinegar, sugar, salt, cumin seeds, bay leaf and allspice berries, the pepper and 1 cup water. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, covered, 5 minutes.
2. Add the carrots and bring the mixture back to a simmer. Cook uncovered about 3 minutes, stirring often. The carrots will still be very crisp. Remove from the heat and cool to room temperature. Transfer to a glass dish and cover. Chill at least a few hours, preferably overnight.
3. To serve, drain the carrots and arrange on a platter or in a couple of coffee mugs to be nibbled on.