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A prepared-in-advance finger food party offers a welcome change of pace for a Fourth of July picnic as well as a relatively easy day of ‘light duty’ for the chef and server. : Nibbles & Noshes

Times Food Editor

For the lucky ones who can take Friday off, a Thursday holiday adds up to a four-day weekend. And that’s long enough to be able to head for the mountains or the beach. For the rest, excluding those unfortunate enough to have to work on a holiday, the Fourth of July still means at least a one-day celebration. And since the Fourth is our very own holiday, it’s well worth celebrating enthusiastically and well.

Most of us associate the Fourth with picnicking--at the shore, in a park or simply in our own backyards. Even dedicated picnickers find a menu change refreshing now and then, however, so if that’s what you’re in the mood for, we’re full of suggestions for a different type of Fourth of July celebration.

First, keep in mind that a holiday means it should be a holiday for all. It’s a time for everyone to pitch in and help clean house, shop, prepare the decorations and, most important, help out in the kitchen. When one person gets saddled with all the work, entertaining becomes a drag rather than the fun it should be. That’s especially true on a holiday like the Fourth when there are all sorts of exciting things to do, like heading for the beach or watching a parade or running in a marathon.

So how about planning a finger food party? One that means almost everything served can be prepared well ahead and refrigerated or frozen. By offering an extensive array of appetizing nibbles and noshes to your guests, it won’t be necessary to provide the usual fried chicken and potato salad, too. You can do so if you choose, of course. Or you can fire up the barbecue and let them cook their own hot dogs to supplement the hearty snacks we’re suggesting if you’re afraid they won’t get enough to eat. But that’s up to you.

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Our finger food party really is designed to be a light meal. And by “light” we mean more than just the food. It’s meant to be light duty for those supervising the serving and those saddled with the cleanup. A finger food party is exactly what it sounds like. Small paper plates and napkins will be the only accouterments needed. No flatware will be necessary, except for a rare serving spoon or two. And disposable wood picks can be used for spearing bite-size tidbits where necessary. With the exception of the serving platters and glasses, cleaning up simply means a trip or two to the trash can. And if you’re really into taking things easy, disposable plastic glasses are worth considering.

Just because all you’re serving is finger food, however, don’t make the mistake of thinking your guests won’t get enough to eat. Quite the contrary. A broad array of delicious snacks can be every bit as filling as a hearty meal. And often such a spread is more appealing. No more guilt feelings about leaving too much food on your plate.

The one place where work is required in this type of party is in the preparation. But even that won’t be too bad if you pick and choose your offerings carefully. Select a varied group of recipes that can be prepared well in advance. Then fix two or three different choices a day for several days before your party. Wrap them well and refrigerate or freeze them until serving time. And if you want to serve a couple of hot items, do all possible preparation ahead of time and finish them off just before guests arrive. That way you avoid most of the usual last-minute panic that comes with trying to do everything at once.

In addition to the accompanying suggestions for compatible finger foods, don’t hesitate to add a platter of cheeses and crackers and a colorful variety of fresh, crisp vegetables and a favorite dip or two. They’ll round out a finger food feast for the Fourth in fine style. It will be a great way to celebrate the best birthday of the year.

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DOUBLE-DIP

ASPARAGUS

1 1/2 pounds asparagus spears

Boiling salted water

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Garlic-Mayonnaise or Mustard Dip

Trim asparagus and cut into bite-size pieces, separating tips. Drop tougher pieces into boiling salted water and blanch 2 minutes or until just tender-crisp. Rinse in cold water and refresh in bowl of ice-cold water. Blanch tips 1 minute. Rinse and add to cold water. Let stand 5 minutes then drain and chill. To serve, arrange on platter and serve with Garlic-Mayonnaise or Mustard Dip. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Garlic-Mayonnaise

1 cup mayonnaise

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1/4 cup balsamic or red wine vinegar

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons minced fresh basil

Combine mayonnaise, balsamic vinegar, garlic and basil.

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Mustard Dip

1 cup mayonaisse-type salad dressing

1/4 cup Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon lemon juice

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Combine salad dressing, mustard and lemon juice.

FILO FRIES

1 (1-pound) package frozen filo dough sheets

Butter or margarine, melted

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Ham Filling or Vegetable-Ricotta Filling

1 egg stirred with 2 tablespoons water

Oil for deep-frying

Let filo thaw in refrigerator according to package directions. Place 1 sheet filo on flat surface. Brush with melted butter. Top with second sheet of filo. Cut into thirds lengthwise.

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Spoon about 1 tablespoon filling into end of each strip. Fold, flag style, into triangles. Brush end of strip with egg wash. Press to seal. Repeat with remaining filo sheets.

Heat oil in deep fryer to 400 degrees and fry a few filo triangles at a time, about 2 minutes or until golden brown. Drain on paper towels. Refrigerate and serve cold, or reheat 5 to 10 minutes in 350 degree oven before serving. Makes 4 to 5 dozen.

Ham Filling

3 cups minced cooked ham

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1 tablespoon minced ginger root

1/3 cup minced green onions

1 (5-ounce) can water chestnuts, drained and chopped

2 tablespoons mayonnaise

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2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon lemon juice

Dash white pepper

2 eggs, beaten

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Combine ham, ginger, green onions, water chestnuts, mayonnaise, mustard, lemon juice, white pepper and eggs. Mix well. Makes about 3 1/2 cups.

Vegetable-Ricotta Filling

1 tablespoon butter or margarine

1 cup chopped mushrooms

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1 (16-ounce) carton ricotta cheese

1 egg

1/2 cup chopped olives

1 cup shredded carrots

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2 tablespoons minced basil

Dash white pepper

Salt

Melt butter in skillet and saute mushrooms until tender. Cool. Combine ricotta cheese, egg, olives, carrots, basil and white pepper. Stir in sauteed mushrooms. Season to taste with salt. Makes about 3 cups.

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BAKED CAMEMBERT

2 (4 1/2-ounce) cans Camembert cheese

1/4 cup butter or margarine

3 cloves garlic

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1 teaspoon chopped fresh tarragon

Crusty bread

Remove cheese from cans. Combine butter, garlic and tarragon. Place 1/4 of butter mixture in bottom of each empty can. Return cheese to cans. Top each with remaining 1/4 of butter mixture. Bake at 350 degrees 10 minutes. Serve with pieces of crusty bread. Makes about 8 to 10 servings.

MARINATED

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CHICKEN STRIPS

4 boneless chicken breasts, skinned and cut into strips

1 cup dry white wine

2 cloves garlic, minced

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Juice of 2 lemons

1/3 cup finely sliced green onions

1/2 teaspoon crushed dried tarragon leaves or 1 tablespoon chopped fresh

Salt

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White pepper

Salad greens

Combine chicken and wine in saucepan. Cover and poach over low heat until chicken is tender, about 15 minutes. Place chicken and wine in large bowl. Stir in garlic, lemon juice, green onions and tarragon. Season to taste with salt and white pepper. Cover and chill overnight. Drain and serve on greens with wood picks. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

BLUE CHEESE-

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YOGURT DIP

FOR FRUIT

1 (8-ounce) carton plain yogurt

1/2 cup blue cheese

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1 teaspoon grated orange peel

Stir about 2 tablespoons yogurt into blue cheese and blend until smooth. Add remaining yogurt. Fold in orange peel. Serve with assorted fresh fruit on skewers, if desired. Makes about 1 1/4 cups dip.

CRAB-Y MUSHROOMS

1 (10-ounce) package crab meat

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1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened

Few drops hot pepper sauce

2 stalks green onions, chopped

Salt, pepper

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1/4 cup butter or margarine

3 cloves garlic

18 to 20 large mushrooms, stems removed

Red pickled ginger, optional

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Combine crab, cream cheese, hot pepper sauce and green onions in food processor bowl. Process until smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Melt butter in saucepan. Add garlic and heat 1 minute. Brush mushrooms all over with garlic butter. Stuff with crab mixture. Place on baking sheet and bake at 400 degrees 10 to 15 minutes. Garnish top with strips of red pickled ginger. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

BARBECUED CHICKEN WINGS

5 pounds chicken wings

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1 cup brown sugar, packed

3/4 cup Marsala or Sherry

1/2 teaspoon dry mustard

1 cup soy sauce

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2 cloves garlic, minced

Cut off and discard tips of chicken wings. Cut remaining wing sections apart at joint. Place on baking sheet in single layer and bake at 350 degrees 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, combine brown sugar, Marsala, mustard, soy sauce and garlic in saucepan and bring to simmer. Pour over wings and continue baking about 1 hour longer, turning occasionally, until sauce has been absorbed and wings are deeply glazed. Serve hot or cold. Makes 50 to 60 pieces.

HAM ROLL-UPS

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1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened

1 (4-ounce) can diced green chiles, drained

Dash hot pepper sauce, optional

8 rectangular slices boiled ham

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Blend cream cheese with diced green chiles and hot pepper sauce. Spread each ham slice with 3 to 4 tablespoons cheese mixture and roll jellyroll fashion, beginning at long side. Press lightly to seal. Wrap in plastic film and chill well. (Can be frozen up to 2 months at this point.) To serve, cut in bite-size pieces and skewer with wood pick. Makes about 50 to 60 appetizers.

STUFFED SHRIMP

2 (3-ounce) packages cream cheese

2 ounces blue cheese

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2 teaspoons dry Sherry

1 pound cooked medium shrimp, chilled

1/4 cup minced parsley

Soften cheeses and blend thoroughly. Blend in Sherry. Split shrimp halfway through on vein side. Fill with cheese mixture and roll in parsley. Makes 25 to 30 appetizers.

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