There are plenty of places to get your holiday trimmings, but the Whole Foods stores smooth over their Whole Paycheck nickname by serving above-average complimentary samples of holiday fare before they empty our wallets.
The Capitol Hill store is doing free samples every Wednesday from 5 to 7 p.m., and it takes its holiday food sampling seriously: These aren't just tiny paper cups of cheapo mixed nuts or those little toothpaste mints. Instead, shoppers are treated to small plates of fresh fruit, hot appetizers, chilled shrimp and warm bites of pie. It's like an informal tapas-train, so hopping on board means full bellies while you gear up for a happy (or at least somewhat organized) turkey/Tofurkey day.
Macerated Pears & Apples with Tangerine Juice. Pears are in good form right now -- soft, juicy, flavorful -- and when paired with fresh apples and steeped in tangerine juice, they make a naturally sweet, fresh and palate-cleansing addition to any holiday meal.
Raw pumpkin pie. Raw foods can be nutritious, but admittedly difficult to get used to if you're accustomed to a diet of cooked foods. The raw pumpkin pie has vanilla, almond milk and ground dates for sweetness; winter squash and sweet potatoes can be used instead of pumpkin.
Sweet Potato Mash & Smoked Almonds on Whole Grain Crackers. This is an interesting take on a traditional Thanksgiving dish -- and would make fine vegan/vegetarian canapés. The liberal use of Spanish smoked paprika pairs well with the natural sweetness of the potatoes.
Mushroom-Risotto Cakes, Green Chile Cheese Tamales and Red Chile Sauce. The cakes aren't too crumbly, the tamales are nice and fat, and the red chile sauce is local -- made by Abundant Foods Inc. out of Arvada -- and both spicy and flavorful (you don't always get both in a chile sauce).
Chicken-Toscano Stuffed Jalapenos, Stuffed Mushrooms, Shrimp Scampi and Chipotle Shrimp. There is never a bad time for jalapenos stuffed with meat, and Whole Foods has a franchise on particularly good shrimp. The stuffed mushroom caps are cut into quarters for sampling, but that's a good idea for feeding large crowds at home, too.
Flounder makes his own sausage -- and turducken to order.Matthew "Flounder" Younkin, the beloved face-man of the Whole Foods meat department, is awfully good with sausage. He sells it, makes his own at home, and gleefully imparts that he will make turduckens to order for customers' triple-meat holiday needs. What's Flounder having for Thanksgiving dinner? Sausages? Nope: turkey, brined for 24 hours and stuffed with oranges, lemons and onions. "I like to keep it traditional," he says.
Fig and Marcona-Topped Brie. This is an example of an appetizer that is fantastic served hot or cold, and simple enough that it could be a last-minute ass-saver.
Sisters' Chicken Potstickers. Sisters' Pantry is local out of Boulder, and its signature potstickers are thick, meaty and fragrant with Thai basil. The amazingly tasty lime-cilantro soy vinaigrette is $6 a bottle, but worth it, because it's a dressing, sauce and a marinade.
A trio of natural pies. Frozen pies are cheap and plentiful this time of year, but really good ones are harder to find. It's pretty impressive how close to homemade Wholly Wholesome's pumpkin, cherry and blueberry pies are in looks, mouthfeel and taste. If you baked one of these -- blueberry is the real standout -- nobody would have to know that you didn't actually construct it yourself. The Whole Foods brand whipped topping isn't bad, either, and I checked the ingredients: Real cream is nice, for a change.
The Whole Food's sample staff is damn friendly. They always come off like they are as happy as a bunch of sustainably farmed clams, and there's nothing they'd rather be doing than serving shoppers plates of organic pecan pie.
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The infamous Tofurkey. This poor meatless vegetarian crowd-pleaser has gotten a bad rap over the years as being ubiquitous, snotty, vegetarian yuppie-chow, but it's worth mentioning that it's now 20 percent larger and now comes with a chocolate cake, courtesy of Amy's Organics.