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Whipping up an appetizing first course 'Dips are not overly trendy these days, but they sure are the easiest way to feed a multitude.'

In regard to amuse bouche -- the trendy French word for appetizers described in the story on Page C1 today -- my compliments to the chefs.

After all, they are the ones responsible for dreaming up these imaginative first courses that are labor intensive and designed to impress the customers -- as well as stimulate their salivary glands, of course.

Needless to say, professional chefs walk a tightrope while doing so. That little bitty appetizer presented on the great big plate must be tempting and satisfying -- but not too tempting and satisfying.

Its main objective is to keep the customers hungry and ready to enjoy (not to mention pay for) all the food to come.

So I salute those chefs, but I'm sure glad I'm not one of them. The same challenge they face is confronted by an ordinary host or hostess, but on a smaller scale, needless to say.

That first course is the hardest course. Speaking personally, I never can figure out what to give the guests assembled in our living room waiting for their dinner. I'm usually the only one in the kitchen, so time and effort is limited.

In the past, I've been adventurous. Sometimes a little too adventurous. Like the time I decided to roll some pitted olives in a cheese dough and warm them in the oven. It sounded great.

But the dough melted away from the olives and into the oven. Which was not self-cleaning, I might mention.

Never mind, friends -- just ignore the smoke alarm. Here's a nice bag of potato chips to munch on while you wait.

Then there was the matter of the cheese fondue. Much too rich for a first course, but I persevered. Messy -- and the Sterno burner singed the coffee table. You still can still see the white ring.

Moral (for me anyway): Stick to cold, not-too-imaginative things before a meal.

Dips are not overly trendy these days, but they sure are the easiest way to feed a multitude. Not necessarily the sour cream and onion soup variety (though I am addicted to Bison Dip), but something like a Mediterranean-style tapenade that you can buy but is easy enough to rustle up in your own kitchen: Twenty pitted olives, a tablespoon of capers, a teaspoon of lemon juice, a couple of teaspoons of olive oil, a small clove of peeled garlic and a little fresh pepper smashed in the food processor. Serve with good crackers or rustic bread.

Shrimp is easy, shrimp is loved, shrimp is expensive. Why not settle for a pretty bowl of gleaming mixed olives? (Don't forget the little dish for the pits.)

Or take a lesson from Dale Eckl in our story and construct a relish tray. Or from Paul Jenkins and make an antipasto. (Buy veggies already prepared from the supermarket if you must, add some slices of good sausage and cheese, even a little smoked salmon if you're feeling flush.) You need plates and little forks on the side.

A bowl of nuts could not be easier. Buy the best you can and toast them if you want. At this time of year, you might use pumpkin seeds.

Elaborately served home appetizers aren't common in Europe and in Spain. In fact, many hosts simply offer a bowl of salted almonds. (Big ones, fresh ones -- some supermarkets and even warehouse stores have them.)

I finally have faced the fact that restaurant food is one thing, home food is quite another.

And, for the most part, never the twain shall meet.


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