"Scrumptious Holiday Appetizers" class at the Denver Botanic Gardens

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After being rescheduled thanks to yet another Jackson Street substation outage, the "Scrumptious Holiday Appetizers" workshop finally took place last night at the Denver Botanic Gardens. Instructor Susan Evans of Chrysalis Herbs taught students to create a simple, scrumptious baked Brie, and advised them to "always toast your nuts."

Learning to prepare starters for holiday guests was the goal, and Evans' folksy humor and simple shopping instructions helped push her credo of making "appetizers with broad appeal." Most of the ingredients for the class's dishes were bought at Costco, the rest were from Whole Foods (or "Whole Paycheck," as someone in the class quipped). Evans told the class that everyday ingredients like cream cheese, mayo, avocados, garlic and tomatoes are uncomplicated and inexpensive, and that exotics like truffle oil -- "fancy stuff," she called them -- often discourage people from cooking.

She handed out recipes for five appetizers, three hot and two cold, and prepared each one quickly while giving step-by-step instructions. Students learned how to prepare baby crab cakes with Cajun-chive aioli, hot artichoke and spinach dip, cowboy caviar, fig and toasted almond Brie, and pine cone dip. The mini crab cakes, she said, can be made with fresh crab meat if you really love your guests, but canned crab meat is fine as long as you drain it really well. She recommended panko crumbs for a binder, and Tabasco, prepared Dijon mustard and fresh lemon juice for flavor. She showed students how to pat the mixture into tiny cakes, sauté them in a pan with a bit of olive oil and butter, and stir together an unfussy aioli using store-bought mayo, Cajun seasoning, chopped chives and more lemon juice and Tabasco. "Don't use Miracle Whip," she said, making a prune face. "What is that stuff, anyway?" Cowboy caviar is not new or exciting, but it's handy when holiday time and money demands are driving people closer to a bottle of Scotch than to their loved ones. Evans' version took less than ten minutes of prep time, and the flavor/texture profile of corn, tomatoes, black beans, onions and cilantro was augmented by the basic dressing of olive oil, garlic, red wine vinegar and a dash of cumin. While Evans explained avocado oxidation issues, somehow the students got off track discussing the best local Mexican restaurants. One student, new to the area, asked about the food at Casa Bonita, and the room went silent while one elderly female crossed her arms over her face and moaned "noooooo!." Artichoke and spinach dip has become so omnipresent in American culture that it's surprising not to see it used as stucco for public buildings. But it is also delicious, and Evans constructed the dip, spooned it into a frilled baking dish, and explained to the students the importance of using fresh-grated cheeses as opposed to the pre-shredded packets. She mentioned that the salty, gummy powder used to prevent caking adversely affected the flavor, and told students to try and keep their ingredients as close to whole and natural as possible. She added a few pinches of fresh chervil to top off the baked dip, and served it with homemade crostini. Baked Brie, also ubiquitous holiday fare, traditionally gets a sweet or savory topping, and Evans took a hefty wedge of the smooth, creamy cheese and carefully sliced off the top rind, placed it in a stoneware dish, shellacked the naked upper deck with a sizzling, sugary fusion of brown sugar, vanilla, chopped figs and toasted almonds, and instructed students to let it bake until it is softened but not melted. Evans saved the pine cone pièce de résistance for last, and while she added green onions and dill weed to the cream cheese mixture, she confessed, "I don't even think it tastes that good, but it makes a great holiday centerpiece." She demonstrated how to mold the soft cheese goop into a conical shape and then make concentric rows of toasted almonds, using a real pine cone for a model. It did not really resemble a pine cone (it actually looked more like a small hedgehog surrounded by crackers), but it's possible that after your holiday guests have been swilling eggnog for a few hours they won't notice or mind if they are served a small animal made of cheese and nuts.

"This is creative," said Evans, who then pointed out that for the same price as a crappy store-bought crudités plate with a plastic cup of ranch dip in the middle, you could prepare some admittedly simplistic but prettier and tastier appetizers. "Food should be a celebration," she concluded, smiling benevolently.

Evans will be holding more classes at the DBG. On January 18, it's "Warming Winter Soups and Chowders," featuring "Upstate" minestrone with spicy sausage, succulent salmon and corn chowder and warming pumpkin black bean soup; on February 8, "Mexican Fiesta South of the Border Bounty Cooking Class and Dinner."

For more information, go to www.botanicgardens.org/content/classes-and-registration

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