Holiday

Holiday hors d'oeuvre alternatives to the problematic shrimp ring

Delicious bites to stand in for pricey ethically sourced shrimp.

Delicious bites to stand in for pricey ethically sourced shrimp

The first holiday party I attended this year, thanks to one particularly awkward social hurdle, took me by surprise. It was held at the community centre where I volunteer on Sundays. The badminton club was having a holiday meal and had invited staff to join. There was a gorgeous buffet, and I filled up on everything: honey-glazed pork loin, Vietnamese meatballs, crispy chicken wings.

Well, everything except the shrimp, though it looked amazingly plump.

A host asked if I was kosher, and I lied and said I was allergic. I didn't want to tell him the truth. Which is that, having learned of the widely documented forced labour in the Thai shrimp industry (the most likely source for supermarket frozen shrimp in Canada), I just couldn't bring myself to partake.

As a guest, I didn't want to be rude. But as a host, you don't want to put anyone in this position, either. It's a tough reality to swallow. After all, the shrimp ring, usually placed around a bowl of horseradish-based "cocktail" sauce, is a beloved classic. If you host an annual holiday party, friends and family may expect to see it every year. But if you're serving frozen supermarket shrimp from Thailand, due to the way that shrimp is sorted and frozen for export, there's no certainty your shrimp isn't connected to rampant human rights violations.

You can buy ethically caught, sustainable shrimp from Vietnam or Argentina, or B.C. spot prawns when they're in season. Planet Shrimp in Ontario produces delicious shrimp indoors in a closed-containment facility. But the fact is that all of these options can cost triple, even quadruple the price of conventional shrimp.

Ethical hosts may want to engage guests in a discussion about why there's no shrimp on the table this year, while others will simply opt to eschew the ring. Either way, we'll still want to provide a table full of comfort food — a spread to make people immediately long for next year's party.  

Here are three classic hors d'oeuvres recipes to try this year — enough to serve a party of thirty — that will produce the effect you want: guests elbowing each other to get at the buffet.

Gougères​

In case the name is unfamiliar, "gougères" are cheese puffs, essentially choux pastry (the same base used for eclairs and profiteroles) infused with Gruyère cheese. With no rising agents, volume is achieved through steam produced by the high moisture content.

Many recipes specifically command you to stir the dough with a wooden spoon. I asked celebrated baker Simon Blackwell (Blackbird Baking Co.), who told me the wooden spoon is unnecessary, and that professionals make choux pastry in a mixer.

While gougères are traditionally piped, the finished shape is expected to be a rough sphere, so the technique doesn't require the finesse of piping rosettes. If you don't own a piping bag (or, like me, your kitchen is mostly packed in preparation for a move), a Ziploc bag with a hole cut in one corner will do.

Served warm, these French cousins of the cheddar biscuit will be gone within minutes.

  • 8 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 2 cups flour
  • 8 eggs
  • 4 tsp mustard, such as Dijon or any non-grainy mustard
  • 3 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 cups grated Gruyère cheese
  • 2 additional egg yolks, whisked (for brushing)

Preheat oven to 350F degrees. Line a baking tray with parchment paper.

In a medium pot over medium heat, bring the butter, milk, water and salt to a boil. Lower the heat and add the flour. Stir with a spoon until the dough solidifies and pulls away from the pot's surface. Remove from heat and allow to cool for a couple of minutes.

While dough is still warm but not hot, add the eggs one at a time, mixing thoroughly before adding another. The dough will seem too wet until each egg is incorporated, at which point it will look silky. Mix in the mustard, pepper and most of the cheese (hold back ¼ cup).

Transfer the dough to a piping bag or a Ziploc. Pipe out blobs about 2 tablespoons in size onto the parchment-lined tray (though I often find it even easier just scooping balls with spoons). Brush each gougère with the egg yolks and sprinkle a few strands of the reserved Gruyère on top.

Bake until the gougères have puffed up and browned, about 35 minutes. (You may find the gougères still a little soft in the middle if you eat them straight out of the oven. They will have finished that last 5% of cooking by the time they've cooled down.)

Remove from the oven and cool. These can be made hours in advance of a party. To serve, reheat at 300F degrees for 10 minutes.

Makes 32 gougères.

Devils On Horseback

My first encounter with these devils was not under that name. I was cooking in an Italian restaurant, and the chef asked me to remove the pits from a case of dates, stuff them with Taleggio cheese and wrap them in prosciutto.

Later, I learned that the dates or prunes (sometimes soaked in brandy) are usually wrapped with bacon. It's not that much more work, using a toothpick to skewer the uncooked bacon around the dried fruit, but it's unnecessary.

Prosciutto is more effective as cling wrap, a strip easily looping around the date and forming a seal, as if that was what it was designed to do. Those two ingredients on their own, served warm — a gangbusters interplay of sweet and savoury — are all anyone needs.

The version here, though, is exactly as I first tasted them. Because why not gild the lily by stuffing your dates with cheese?

  • 60 medjool dates*
  • ½ lb block of Taleggio cheese
  • 20 slices of prosciutto

*It's essential to use the large and juicy medjool dates, as opposed to the more commonly available deglet noor, which are great for baking, but are drier and too small to stuff.

Use a paring knife to remove the pit from dates. It's easier than you think: just run the tip along the length of the fruit like you're making an incision with a scalpel. This will force the pit out the root end.

Slice the cheese into pit-sized strips. Stuff each date with a piece of cheese. It's OK if the cheese is larger than the crevice. The prosciutto will hold the bundle together.

Cut each prosciutto slice lengthwise into three strips. Use each strip to wrap one date. When all of the dates are assembled, store them in the fridge until party time (even a few days ahead).

To serve, preheat oven to 375F degrees. Place wrapped dates on a baking tray lined with parchment paper. Bake until cheese melts, about 10 minutes, turning occasionally as the prosciutto gets crispy on the pan-side.

Transfer dates to a serving platter and arrange in a big pile.

Makes 60 hors d'oeuvres.

Baked Lobster Dip

My fishmonger used to get sustainable crab meat from Canada's East Coast. But with US tariffs on China driving up demand for Canadian seafood, his supplier is no longer canning because the crabs are being bought for lobster bait. Instead, I got a container of pre-cooked Bay of Fundy lobster meat and transformed it into this powerhouse dip.

Dan and Kristin Donovan of Hooked suggests looking in the supermarket freezer aisle for canned lobster meat packed in Tignish, P.E.I., where a co-op of a couple hundred lobster fishers share ownership of a processing plant.

There are so many variations on this dip, sometimes including mayonnaise, Cajun seasoning or sour cream. But at its indulgent core, you're dipping bread or chips into hot, seafood-flavoured cream cheese.

A note: A lot of recipes call for raw onion or onion powder. At the risk of adding a step, I think caramelizing onions — adding a deep, sweet, base note to the spread — makes all the difference.

  • 2 onions
  • Small knob of butter
  • ½ lb lobster meat, chopped (fresh or frozen meat, thawed)
  • 1 cup cream cheese
  • ½ cup cheddar cheese, grated
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • 1 bird's eye chili, minced
  • Zest and juice of ½ lemon
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • Chips or baguette, to serve

Peel and dice the onion very small. Combine the onions and butter in a wide pan over low heat. Stirring occasionally, allow onions to eventually turn a light copper colour. (Recipe writers often make the false promise of caramelized onions in 10 minutes. This is impossible; it takes 30 to 40 minutes. But they only require a sporadic stir in that time — no more work than checking Instagram.)

When the onions are caramelized (they will also lose two-thirds of their volume) transfer them to a mixing bowl, and combine with the lobster, cream cheese, cheddar cheese, garlic powder, paprika, chili, lemon zest and juice. Stir to combine and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Make the mixture in advance, up to one day but no more than that, storing it in an air-tight container in the refrigerator. When you are ready to serve, preheat oven to 375F degrees. Transfer mixture to a baking dish and bake until the surface bubbles, about 15 minutes.

Serve with chips or sliced baguette.

Makes about 4 cups.


Corey Mintz is a food columnist for the Globe and Mail and TVO. Find him on Twitter and Instagram @coreymintz.

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