Appetizing Ideas

We asked four top Cleveland chefs to share a favorite appetizer recipe that'll help you wow family and friends this holiday season.

You could have brought fresh flowers, a box of gourmet chocolates or a great bottle of wine. But, no, you actually heard yourself say, "I'll bring the appetizer." Now you're leafing through your cookbooks, desperate to find something that will impress and delight, yet won't require hours in the kitchen. We've solved your dilemma by collecting a quartet of recipes from four Cleveland chefs. They're the same dishes they love to make for their own family, friends and, in some cases, their customers.

The secret to the crab cakes that Rachael Spieth's friends, relatives and seafood-loving customers clamor for is simple: lots of crab. "People are so used to eating crab cakes that are all mayonnaise and bread crumbs," she says. "Unfortunately, we sometimes do have [customers] who complain about them. They actually say they taste fishy." The tomato broth, however, always gets compliments. Spieth serves it as a soup, amuse-bouche and sauce, both at Georgetown (formerly Three Birds) and at home. Those who like very spicy foods may opt to turn up the heat of the gazpacho-like blend by using a full habanero or jalapeno pepper instead of a half.

Jonathan Guest isn't much for making the same thing over and over again. But after a day of rock climbing or motocross with friends, he always starts off his campfire dinners with these fantastic sliders. Fortunately for cold-weather cooks, their appeal doesn't rely on open-flame grilling but a blend of chorizo sausage and ground beef topped with blue cheese and roasted Vidalia onions marinated in honey and Dijon mustard. "They're nothing fancy," Guest concedes. "But man, are they good!"

This recent addition to the popular Cleveland restaurateur's menu at Sergio's in University Circle was inspired by his discovery of burrata mozzarella — a luxuriously rich mixture of cream and mozzarella shreds encased in a semisoft mozzarella rind — at an October 2010 food show. Abramof likens a first bite of the imported Italian cheese to a first lick of ice cream. "It's not just the flavor — it's the texture and the look of it," he says. "It's really pretty dramatic." But the real joy of the recipe is that its success relies on an expert combination of ingredients rather than culinary skill. In fact, the most difficult thing about making it is sourcing the ingredients. (We picked up domestic burrata at Heinen's but gave up on finding the fig molasses and used aged balsamic vinegar instead.) The mix of creamy cheese, sweet figs and salt also makes the starter amazingly versatile. "You can have it as a breakfast item, you can have it is as a lunch course with some greens, or you can eat it as dessert," Abramof says. As an appetizer, he recommends pairing it with fresh fish or an Italian pasta dish.

Karen Small came up with this appetizer for those days when she needed a course that could be made ahead of time and reheated at the last minute. The Shaker Heights native likes to pair it with a braised lamb shank. She strongly suggests resisting any urge to over-bake the eggplant slices once they're grilled, stuffed and rolled. "You're just going to have melted cheese all over the place," she cautions.

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