Let us all take a moment to consider Costco, patron saint of harried hosts. I’m certainly not new to using the warehouse wares as a party crutch. My parties have featured the plastic tray of veggies with pre-made onion dip, oversized cheese wedges inelegantly plopped onto a plate with a fan of soda crackers, giant containers of hummus, and comically oversized pumpkin pies. And while I’m not above the occasional platter of mini-quiche, this year I want to up my game and transform the fruits of a Costco trip into something both yummy and elegant. I want my cocktail party to be Costco incognito, with the best possible appetizers that aren’t obvious.
The mission: Plan a Costco-sourced cocktail party served without foodie-fuss but with finesse. The rules: All ingredients need to be purchased from Costco with the exception of a few fresh herbs. No real cooking allowed, just mixing, assembling and reheating. Easily eaten finger foods only. No risk to your guests’ favorite Christmas sweater.
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The shopping list:
• Produce: Honeycrisp apples, Bosc pears and heirloom baby tomatoes
• Bakery: baguettes and naan bread (Stonefire Brand in the refrigerator section)
• Cheese and meats: goat cheese, fresh mozzarella, triple-cream Cambozola, crumbled Gorgonzola and prosciutto
• Frozen foods: Bombay Chef Indian appetizer assortment
• Prepared foods: Costco chicken salad, cilantro lime marinated shrimp, Greek yogurt, salsa, fresh cranberry sauce and French macarons
• Other: walnuts, madras lentils (by Tasty Bites), honey, Kodiak Cakes raspberry syrup and Stonewall Kitchen Maine blueberry jam
Now to trick out your Costco haul.
While I admit that chicken salad is not exactly glamorous, the Costco version, made with their famously flavorful rotisserie chickens, is so tasty that it gets a pass for being a bit homely. I dressed it up by dolloping it onto thinly sliced baguette and topping it with diced Honeycrisp apples and a sprinkling of fresh tarragon. I also plated a few on thin slices of apple instead of bread, for my gluten-avoiding guests.
The Bombay Chef Bombay Indian Appetizer Collection (18 chicken samosas and 18 vegetable pakoras) was a huge hit in my household — even among the younger eaters who initially eyed the pakoras with suspicion. These crispy little bites came out of the oven tasting freshly fried. The interior is tender and potato-ey with a distinct but mild spiciness. I served these addictive little fritters with tamarind dipping sauce (included) along with warm naan bread, and a bowl of the madras lentils (cooked in the bag in the microwave or stovetop) which I served as a dip instead of an entrée. I mixed a quick, minty raita (made with Greek yogurt, fresh mint, cucumber, a bit of cumin and salt to taste) to make a more developed Indian-themed tasting board.
Costco’s cilantro lime marinated shrimp brings a bit of summery lightness to a buffet table. I decided to dice them up and serve them nacho style — over tortilla chips with sliced jalapenos and a cilantro crema (yogurt, mayonnaise, and minced fresh cilantro). This had the dual benefit of reinventing this familiar prepared food and making this rather pricey item go further among my guests.
It’s hard to argue with a caprese using fresh mozzarella, so I didn’t re-imagine this classic dish, but I did give it a little makeover. Using a tiny cookie cutter was my daughter’s idea and we had fun assembling little flower-shaped canapés. Fancy? Yes. Adorable? Indubitably. These are silly little bites but I stand by my fussy little mozzarella flowers. I served these with prosciutto slices.
I didn’t focus much on dessert because I maintain the theory that during the month of December, trays of cookies, cakes, brittles and peppermint bark will magically appear in your kitchen if you simply stand very still. I did, however, buy a box of pastel-colored Les Delices de Paris French Macarons because they are so very pretty. I stacked these up as a centerpiece until my centerpiece became a crumby, empty plate. Rookie mistake.
In any case, my ideal dessert is something cheesy with something sweet. So I spent an afternoon experimenting with the spoils of my shopping spree (more science!). The cranberry sauce and blueberry jam both paired well with the crumbled Gorgonzola. The raspberry syrup was a fun (and beautiful) accompaniment to the goat cheese. The Cambozola worked beautifully with the Honeycrisp apples and Bosc pears. My favorite, however, was goat cheese with toasted walnuts and thyme-infused honey. This recipe is exactly as complicated as it sounds. Roll the goat cheese in walnuts. Heat honey and thyme together for approximately three minutes. Drizzle honey onto the cheese. The only difficult part is not eating the whole thing before your guests arrive.