As we get closer to the holidays, our inbox starts to fill with questions from our readers about recipes for the holiday feast. One trend we've noticed in the past three years is that, in the final days leading up to Christmas, most of you are looking for ideas on what to serve your guests before the feast, to get the party started, if you will.

At this late stage, any new additions to your holiday menu should be easy to make with ingredients that are readily available in our local stores, but that doesn't mean you have to sacrifice flavor or presentation. The signature red and green colors of the holidays are naturally suited for the beautiful, abundant world of food, and we have some great ideas for your holiday table.

Each year, Tony, Gio and I host my family on Christmas Eve and we create a buffet, or Smorgasbord, of hearty hors d'oeuvres featuring a variety of Italian and Norwegian specialties. Some of the dishes are chosen because of their heritage or family tradition, and aren't festively colored at all, like pickled herring, Norwegian meatballs, honey Gorgonzola crostini, and Lipton's onion dip (the very first food I ever made for Tony).

Others that make the cut are both traditional and colorful, like red and green pesto pasta salad, Norwegian gravlax and our Sicilian Christmas salad, which features a spectacular array of blood, Cara Cara and navel oranges.

We have our perennial favorites, and each year we look for new recipes to add to the mix.

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This year, for the first time ever, my parents won't be home for Christmas, but that doesn't mean they won't be present at the feast. I'll be making my mother's fabulous chipped beef dip, a family favorite which has made occasional appearances over the holidays, but never on our Christmas Eve buffet. This dip is easy to make, savory and delicious, and is perfectly colored for a Christmas table.

Another item we'll be adding this year is a recipe for pomegranate salsa that Tony created nearly 10 years ago, and I just recently rediscovered. Pomegranates are in season now and with their gorgeous red shells and arils, or seeds, they are an ideal food to feature at Christmas, either in a recipe or just as decoration.

For an even easier burst of holiday (and Italian) colors, we'll be making Caprese skewers, a popular hors d'oeuvre with balls (bocconcini) or cubes of fresh mozzarella cheese, grape tomatoes, fresh basil and extra virgin olive oil. We have decorative plastic skewers that we use, but red and green toothpicks would also add charm to this simple specialty. I just love it when something so easy is also a crowd-pleaser, and this one never disappoints.

If your menu is already set and you're still looking for ways to jazz up your table, let food provide your inspiration. I love to buy a bag of whole nuts and scatter them around the table, or fill a tall vase with them, surrounded by nutcracker soldiers. If you're a little more industrious, like Tony, you can make a sweet potato Rudolph or strawberry cream Santas, which are always a holiday hit with guests, no matter their age.

We hope we can help you find a new holiday favorite. From our family to yours, we wish you a very Merry Christmas.

Hot Chipped Beef Dip

This recipe appeared in the popular "Entertaining with Imagination" cookbook produced in the 1970s by a group of local volunteers to support the work of the Lake Agassiz Arts Council.

Ingredients:

8 ounces cream cheese, softened

2 tablespoons cream

¼ cup sour cream

2½ ounces dried beef, finely chopped

2 tablespoons finely minced onion

2 tablespoons finely chopped green pepper

1/8 teaspoon pepper

¼ cup walnuts, chopped (optional)

Directions:

In a medium bowl, use a wooden spoon to mix cream cheese, cream and sour cream. Add dried beef, onion, green pepper and pepper and mix together until combined. Spread evenly in a baking dish and sprinkle top with walnuts.

Before serving, bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes, until top just starts to brown. Serve with crackers, substantial chips or cocktail breads. (Triscuits are perfect.)

To store: Cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days before baking, if desired, or bake and refrigerate leftovers for up to 5 days.

Pomegranate Salsa

Makes: about 3 cups of salsa

Ingredients:

1 medium to large orange bell pepper, seeded and diced

1 medium to large green bell pepper, seeded and diced

1 cup pomegranate arils (seeds)

1 avocado, diced (dice to the same size as the peppers)

2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar

1 tablespoon chopped cilantro

1 tablespoon pomegranate juice or Pama liqueur

½ jalapeno, seeded and diced into very small pieces (leave seeds in for more of a "kick")

Salt and pepper, to taste

Directions:

Combine all ingredients together in a mixing bowl and serve immediately or store in the refrigerator for up to 1 day.

To serve: Serve as a dipping salsa with tortilla chips or use as an accompaniment atop fish and poultry dishes. Recommended fish would be salmon, walleye and swordfish; poultry would include boneless breast of chicken or roasted duck breast.

Tony's Tips:

  • Do not use a red bell pepper if possible, so as not to compete with the star of the dish: the pomegranate arils.
  • For the pomegranate juice, you can either use a store-bought juice or create your own by pressing some pomegranate arils through a food ricer. The juice is an optional item, but definitely enhances the flavor of the salsa.

Festive Caprese Skewers

Makes: 24

Ingredients:

24 grape tomatoes (1 package should suffice)

24 1-inch cubes fresh mozzarella or bocconcini (little balls) (about or less than 1 pound)

Fresh basil, torn into 1-inch pieces

Extra-virgin olive oil

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

24 toothpicks (use red and green if possible)

Directions:

On each toothpick, skewer ingredients in the following order: grape tomato, piece of basil, fresh mozzarella cube or ball. Lay skewers on a platter and drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil. Season with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.

"Home With the Lost Italian" is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owns Sarello's in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their 11-year-old son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at dine@sarellos.com. All previous recipes can be found at www.thelostitalian.areavoices.com.