More than 12 years ago, a group of gardeners met each other in an Internet chat room.
As anyone knows who has visited these types of networks, chat rooms can be distracting and difficult to follow, so these gardeners decided to continue their conversations through e-mails. This was the mid-1990s, not long after the Internet first came to prominence and before MySpace or Facebook brought people together. It also was well before the terms "blog" or "networking" could be found in any dictionary.
I was fortunate to be one of those gardeners. Through e-mails, we were able to send photos throughout spring and summer of everything blooming in our part of the country. Some of us live in the East, some much farther South and still others across the country. It wasn't long before we began meeting in person, traveling to Asheville, N.C., where a group of us toured the gardens at the Biltmore estate. On other occasions, we got together at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia and Pigeon Forge, Tenn. Some traveled to Florida to tour the orchid greenhouse where one of our friends works, but more often plays. Others visited our friend who owns, works and lives on a vineyard in California's Alexander Valley, while others visited our friend who operates a nursery and landscaping business in upstate New York.
A good way to welcome friends during the holidays is with easy to make finger foods and appetizers. These recipes came from friends all around the country and are a little different than the typical holiday fare many of us are used to seeing served. Pictured from left are: tomato bacon cups, sauerkraut balls, stuffed jalapeno peppers and Scotch eggs.
We shared our garden successes and failures, and over time we began to share parts of our lives. We have laughed, cried and even bickered with each other, but we have always remained friends, separated by geography, but brought together on a nearly daily basis by this thing called the Internet.
When it became apparent that my turn to provide recipes for the Tribune Cooks segment was approaching, there were two things that crossed my mind. First that the holidays were coming fast, which means hectic schedules, shopping, parties and entertaining; and second, that I needed some new and different recipes for those occasions. I was growing weary of cheese balls and nacho dip. There had to be something else out there, something that would make my guests want to linger around the food table instead of sighing as they glanced over the same old holiday fare.
It was while I was thinking about these things that I came upon the idea to ask my Internet friends. After all, we live in different parts of the country. Many of us grow things in our gardens that others can't, so chances are pretty good that we eat differently as well. The response was great. I asked them for appetizer recipes and was sent everything from crab fondue to proscuitto wrapped asparagus bundles. Sue Edwards and her husband, Peter, who is originally from England, shared a traditional Scotch egg recipe he remembers from growing up in the U.K. As much as I would have loved to use every recipe I was sent, I had to narrow it down to just a few.
Baked Scotch Eggs
from Sue and Peter Edwards, Tampa, Fla.
6 hard-boiled eggs, peeled
1 lb. bulk pork sausage
1/2 tsp sage
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
1 cup breadcrumbs
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix sausage and spices in a small bowl. Divide sausage into six equal portions and shape into patties.
Place one egg on top of each patty, shaping the sausage mixture around the egg until completely covered.
Roll each sausage-covered egg in breadcrumbs and place on a baking sheet. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes until golden brown. Slice into halves or quarters. Serve these cut in half or quartered with a good English mustard.
from Sue Edwards, Tampa, Fla.
This recipe was originally published in the Chicago Sun Times by Dorothy Witkowski
8 oz. skinless pork sausage, finely crumbled
1 cup finely chopped onion
8 oz. sauerkraut, well-drained & chopped
2 tbls plus 2 cups fine dry bread crumbs
4 oz. cream cheese, softened
2 tbls fresh parsley
1 tsp plus 1 Tbl. prepared mustard, divided
1 tsp garlic powder
Dash of pepper
1 or 2 eggs, beaten
Oil for deep frying
1 cup mayonnaise
In a skillet cook sausage and onion until meat is browned. Drain excess fat. Stir in sauerkraut and two Tbls. bread crumbs.
In a bowl combine cream cheese, parsley, 1 tsp. mustard, garlic powder and pepper. Stir into sauerkraut mixture. Chill several hours or overnight.
Prepare three bowls: one with one cup bread crumbs, one with egg (if you run low on egg, add second one), and the third bowl with the remaining one cup bread crumbs.
Shape sauerkraut mixture into one-inch balls. Dip balls into bread crumbs, then egg, then second bowl of bread crumbs.
Into a deep skillet, pour in enough oil to come up two inches up the sides of the pan. Heat oil to 275 degrees. Add half of the balls and fry until golden, about five minutes. Drain on paper towels. Fry remaining balls; drain.
To serve, place on a heated platter. Stir together mayonnaise and remaining 1 Tbl. mustard; serve on the side as a dip.
Makes 2 dozen
Sausage Stuffed Jalapenos
from Sue Scoggins, Clarksville, Tenn.
1 lb pork sausage
1 cream cheese, softened
1 cup shredded parmesan cheese
22 large jalapeno peppers cut in half and inside removed
Fry sausage crumbled. Mix cream cheese, sausage and parmesan cheese. Stuff peppers. Bake 15 to 20 minutes at 425 degrees.
Tomato Bacon Cups
from Maureen Petrilli, Sugar Hill, Ga.
This is a variation of a Pillsbury Bake-Off recipe that was submitted to the Wild Timber Residents neighborhood cookbook.
1 10 oz. can flaky Pillsbury Grands Biscuits
8 slices cooked bacon, crumbled
1 medium tomato, diced
1/4 small onion chopped
3/4 C grated Swiss Cheese
1/2 C mayonnaise
1 tsp. dried basil
Divide biscuit flakes and form to fit into mini muffin pans as crusts. Mix remaining ingredients. Spoon small amount of mixture into each cup. Bake at 425 for 10 minutes or until golden brown. Makes around 24 cups.
To keep it easy, with both ingredients and cost, three of the four appetizers I chose are made with sausage. I chose the fourth - tomato bacon cups - because the ingredients are something we are likely to have on hand and the recipe is simple and can be quickly put together in a pinch.
But I'm not going to leave out the others. Look for them on my blog at www.tribtoday.com.
To make my life a bit easier, I did most of the preparations the night before. The recipe for sauerkraut balls called for the mixture to be chilled for several hours or overnight. Taking a cue from this, I decided to split the preparation into two days. First I prepared the three sausage-related appetizers, by browning one and a half-pounds of sausage for the sauerkraut balls and the stuffed jalapenos in one pan. I removed the one-pound needed for the jalapenos and tossed the chopped onion in the pan with the sausage slated for the sauerkraut balls.
While the cream cheese softened and the eggs boiled for the Scotch egg recipe, I sat at the table in front of my laptop, cleaning the jalapeno peppers and catching up on my e-mail. Once the peppers were ready and after the mixture for the sauerkraut balls was put it in the fridge to chill, I mixed the ingredients for the stuffed jalapenos. Once stuffed, I lined the peppers on a cookie sheet, covered them with a sheet of foil and slid them in the refrigerator. By then, the eggs were boiled, cooled and peeled, so I wrapped them in their sausage coats and refrigerated them as well.
On the second day, most of what was left was the cooking. While I breaded and fried the sauerkraut balls, the stuffed jalapenos and Scotch eggs were baked. I had to bake them separately because they cooked at different temperatures. In hindsight, I should have had the tomato bacon cups ready for the oven because they baked at the same temperature as the stuffed jalapenos. If I make these dishes simultaneously again, I will remember that. Instead, I made that dish last after the three sausage dishes.
Even so, the tomato bacon cups were a cinch. While the bacon cooked, I chopped the tomato and onion and mixed the filling. Three cups were cut from each rolled-out biscuit, using a trick my grandmother taught me by cutting the rounds with the rim of a water glass.
The appetizers can be served with any number of your favorite dipping sauces. I used hearty mustards, including one with horseradish and a spicy brown variety.
Forget about layered taco dips and cream cheese blocks covered with hot pepper jelly. OK, don't forget them if you like them, but at least try something different when you gather with your friends.