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 crème fraîche.
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.