Recently, we attended a holiday cocktail party hosted by our dear friends, Daniel and Shannon Hedrick of Fargo. The evening was a small gathering of about a dozen old friends who first met through our affiliation at Sarello's, our former restaurant, either as employees or beloved customers, all who have now become dear friends.
Daniel was the very first server we hired when we opened our restaurant, Sarello's, 16 years ago, and quickly won our guests over with his excellent service and passion for good food and wine.
Shannon's parents, Doug and Kathy Scraper, were the co-founders of Monte's in downtown Fargo, one of the original restaurants that helped launch Fargo's robust culinary scene more than a decade ago.
Suffice it to say, these two know their food.
Even though the invitation specified that appetizers would be served, we knew that we could forego dinner in lieu of the party fare, and we wouldn't leave hungry. Dan and Shannon didn't disappoint, as their spread featured about a dozen dishes for their guests to graze upon.
As a food writer, I love cocktail parties for their diversity of dishes, and I pay particular attention to those that guests keep returning to that turn out to be the stars of the table.
On this occasion, those stars were the Chicken Curry Coconut Cheese Ball and Hot Artichoke Dip.
The exotically flavored cheese ball has been a longstanding favorite in the Scraper family repertoire, and the artichoke dip came to Shannon by way of Susan Finneman, one of the other co-founders of Monte's.
Shannon graciously shared both recipes with me, and I was delighted to discover that not only are they eye-pleasing and delicious, but easy to prepare with ingredients that can be found in our local grocery stores.
For both dishes, most of the preparation can be done a day or two in advance, making them ideal for this busy time of year. The cheese ball can even be frozen for up to two months, and then coated in coconut just before serving.
Mayonnaise is a binding ingredient in both recipes, and if you're a regular reader, you may be aware that I have a strong dislike for mayonnaise, even going so far as to consider myself a mayo-phobe.
You will rarely (translate, never) find mayonnaise in my refrigerator. But these dishes were so delicious that this time, I put my fear aside in the interest of good food.
The cheese ball is a wonderful blend of traditional Indian flavors, and we made only one small modification to the recipe by adding some finely chopped parsley to the coconut coating, just to give it a touch of holiday flair.
I'm not typically fond of the distinctive flavor of curry, but, like the other guests, I could not get enough of this cheese ball. The amount of curry is just enough to bring uniqueness to the spread, while not overpowering the other flavors.
Susan's recipe recommends serving it with grapes and sesame rice crackers, but thin naan crackers also work well.
Tony loved the artichoke dip, which is a simple mix of canned artichoke hearts, mayo, grated parmesan cheese, onion, shredded mozzarella cheese and garlic powder, with a panko breadcrumb topping. I made the mixture a day in advance, and refrigerated it overnight before adding the breadcrumbs and baking.
With the holidays coming, we look forward to adding these two new specialties to our Christmas Eve buffet, and we are grateful for how they came to us: through good friends, gathered around good food.
Chicken Curry Coconut Cheese Ball
8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1 cup cooked chicken breast, finely chopped
¾ almonds, toasted and finely chopped (we used slivered, blanched almonds)
⅓ cup real mayonnaise
3 tablespoons chutney, chopped (mango works great)
1 tablespoon yellow curry powder
¼ teaspoon salt
½ to 1 cup flaked coconut
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, finely chopped
To toast the almonds, lay almond slivers in a single layer on a baking sheet and place in a 325-degree oven for 5 to 7 minutes until lightly golden brown and aromatic. Transfer immediately to cutting board and finely chop before using.
In a large bowl, mix cream cheese, chicken, toasted almonds, mayonnaise, chutney, curry and salt. For best results, use a rubber spatula to fold and press the mixture until well combined.
Chill for at least 2 hours, or even overnight. May be prepared 2 to 3 days in advance.
To serve, shape into 1 large or 2 small balls. In a shallow baking dish, mix the coconut with the parsley until well combined. Roll the ball in coconut mixture until completely coated. Serve with grapes and rice or naan crackers.
After forming the mixture into balls, wrap in plastic wrap and freeze in an airtight container or plastic freezer bag for up to 2 months. Thaw before adding coconut mixture.
Hot Artichoke Dip
2 cans medium-sized whole artichoke hearts, drained and mashed with a fork until well separated
1 ½ cups real mayonnaise
¾ cup grated parmesan cheese
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
8 ounces shredded mozzarella cheese
1 teaspoon garlic powder
½ stick butter, melted
2 cups panko breadcrumbs
Combine all ingredients in a large bowl. Transfer to baking dish (either 8 x 12-inch or 9 x 13-inch).
Continue with recipe or refrigerate for up to 2 days until ready to serve.
In a medium bowl, mix the melted butter with the breadcrumbs until well combined. Spread breadcrumb mixture evenly over top of artichoke casserole.
Bake in a 350-degree oven for 30 to 40 minutes until dip is hot and bubbly. Once the breadcrumbs have turned a medium golden brown, cover with tin foil to prevent over-browning.
Serve hot with assorted crackers or cheese.
Refrigerate leftovers for up to 3 days and reheat in 350-degree oven until hot.
"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 12-year-old son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All previous recipes can be found at thelostitalian.areavoices.com.