Make apéro time special in France

When it comes to appetisers Marie Asselin is the queen of the finger food. Here she reveals her secrets and provides three great recipes

27 February 2019
By Connexion journalist

My friends and I exchange this question every week. Calling (or more often now, texting) a friend to ask, “Will you come visit for l’apéro?” is a way to invite them over to have a drink and some bites before dinner. Often, l’apéro lasts only a couple of hours, usually from five to seven, but sometimes it’ll last all through the night, evolving into a casual dinner.

L’apéro” is short for l’apéritif, which is the name of a drink served in the early evening to whet your appetite. In French cities, people have l’apéro in restaurants and bars, with servers bringing salty snacks to go with your drinks, but this tradition of getting together after work to relax with a drink before dinner is also a full-blown ritual that is often hosted at home, accompanied by a variety of bites or appetizers that can be generous enough to become dinner itself.

L’apéro is in my blood: all through my childhood, I watched my parents host it. Even when my mother hosted a sit-down dinner, she’d always first gather guests in the living room for l’apéro. She’d ask my dad to help with the drinks while she served crackers and pâtés she’d saved specifically for such occasions.

When I was a young adult, l’apéro was pretty much code for “house party.” I’d get a bunch of friends over and we’d drink and nibble our way through the night against a background of very loud music.

When I lived in Paris for a while in 2009, I could enjoy l’apéro the Parisian way. I’d watch friends effortlessly unfold an array of delicious treats they’d gathered at their favourite gourmet stores on the way home from work. Such evenings would invariably stretch far into the night – and sometimes until the wee hours of the morning.

Now that I’m a parent, l’apéro is how I keep connected with friends who have families, too. All parents know having sit-down meals and meaningful conversations can be challenges when kids are around. L’apéro relieves you of that stress. Because it’s served early, kids can get together and play their little hearts out while we, the adults, enjoy a glass of wine and some delicious food. My trick is to serve a “mini apéro” to kids on a play table—veggies, cheese, cured meats, and bread—so they can keep busy and eat dinner at their own pace, while adults can (finally) take an hour or two to catch up. That way, everyone goes back home in time for bedtime, with bellies and hearts full.

L’apéro is a casual affair. If I invite friends over for l’apéro, they won’t expect me to dress the table or even clean up the house. On the simplest nights, we’ll huddle in the kitchen, share salty snacks, and wash it all down with cold beer or wine. On planned-ahead nights, I’ll expand the selection to include a few homemade bites. On celebratory nights, I’ll plan a whole menu that features several appetizers to create a full meal called an “apéro dînatoire,” and sometimes go the extra mile to pair each plate with an appropriate wine.

What to serve for l’apéro

A classic apéro features charcuteries, pâtés, or rillettes served with a sliced baguette and additional nibbles such as cornichons and olives. Modern French apéros often include chips, nuts, and even popcorn because they’re so convenient and even – dare I say – trendy.

Who doesn’t like salty snacks with a drink? I like to combine both approaches: I’ll start with a combination of store-bought items, such as sausages, olives, and some fancy chips, and add some crudités for good balance. Depending on the occasion, and if time allows, I’ll prepare homemade dips and more elaborate bites.

Whatever food you serve, make sure it can easily be eaten in one or two bites. Your guests will likely be standing with a glass in one hand, so you need to make things easy for them. Cut or slice food into bite-size pieces and keep napkins on hand at all times.

The appetizers included in this book should usually be served family-style – that is, placed on a side table, kitchen island, or dining table, along with small plates and utensils, so everyone can help themselves.

Drinks served for l’apéro are usually lighter in alcohol levels – the night is just getting started, after all. You’ll never go wrong by chilling a bottle or two of sparkling, white, or rosé wine. To stir things up, keep one or two syrups at the back of the fridge, and you’ll always be a few steps away from exciting virgin drinks, sparkling kirs, and easy cocktails. Make sure to keep water (still and sparkling) and extra glasses on hand.

Extract from French Appetizers by Marie Asselin with photography by Catherine Côté. Published by Gibbs Smith and available to buy at www.gibbs-smith.com.

GOUGERES, FOUR WAYS

Base ingredients, makes 36 gougères

  • 1 cup water
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, diced
  • 3⁄4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour 4 large eggs

Classic Gruyère Gougères

  • 3⁄4 cup grated Gruyère cheese (about 4 ounces)
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh chives
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon crushed black pepper

Olive and Parmesan Gougères

  • 1⁄2 cup finely chopped pitted green or black olives (or a combination of the two)
  • 1⁄2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Fresh Herbs and Comté Gougères

  • 1⁄2 cup finely chopped fresh herbs (a combination of chives, flat-leaf parsley, basil, marjoram or oregano, and thyme)
  • 1⁄2 cup grated Comté cheese

Bacon and Emmenthal Gougères

  • 1⁄3 cup finely diced and sautéed bacon
  • or pancetta
  •  2⁄3 cup grated Emmenthal
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

Method

  1. Position one rack in the upper third of the oven and one rack in the bottom third. Preheat oven to 400°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
  2. In a medium saucepan, bring the water, butter, and salt to a simmer, whisking until butter melts (no need to let it come to a full boil). Lower the heat to medium, and then add the flour all at once. Stir quickly with a wooden spoon until the flour absorbs all the liquid and the dough forms a ball, pulling away from the sides of the pan (this should take 30-60 seconds). Keep stirring vigorously until a film forms on the bottom of the pan and dough is no longer sticky, 1–2 minutes. Remove from heat. Transfer the dough to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or to a large mixing bowl if using a hand mixer. Let the dough cool for 5 minutes, beating it for a few seconds every minute to let some steam out of the dough.
  3. Crack 1 egg into the bowl with the dough. Beat until the egg is incorporated, about 2 minutes. The dough will first look curdled, but then it will come back together. Repeat to add the remaining 3 eggs, making sure you fully incorporate each egg before adding the next. At the end of the process, the dough should be smooth, thick, and sticky. Use a spatula to fold in the flavour ingredients of your choice.
  4. Using a mini cookie scoop, shape Gougères and set them 2 inches apart on the prepared baking sheets. If you don’t have a cookie scoop, drop the dough by heaping teaspoonfuls on the parchment paper. The dough should be thick enough to keep its rounded shape. Using damp finger- tips, pat down peaks of dough to create round puffs, if desired.
  5. Set a baking sheet on each oven rack. Bake until golden brown, about 30 minutes, rotating the baking sheets halfway through. Using a small paring knife, pry open one gougère to check for doneness: the centre should be slightly eggy and moist. Remove from oven and transfer to a wire rack. Allow to cool completely.  After cooling, store at room temperature in an airtight container for up to 12 hours, or refrigerate for up to 2 days.

TAPENADE, THREE WAYS

I always keep one or two jars of tapenade at the back of my fridge. It’s a versatile condiment that can be served with crudités, crackers, pita chips, fresh or toasted baguette slices, grilled or braised meats, fish, and seafood. It can also dress up pasta. Tapenade pretty much keeps forever if refrigerated in an airtight jar, and it couldn’t be easier to make: simply blend everything together and enjoy.

Black Olive and Lemon Tapenade 

  • 1 cup oil-packed pitted black olives (such as Kalamata), drained (about 5 ounces)
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon drained capers
  • 2 anchovy fillets
  • 1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 1⁄2 clove garlic, chopped

Sun-Dried Tomato and Basil Tapenade

  • 3⁄4 cup drained oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes
  • 1⁄4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1⁄4 cup fresh basil leaves, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons toasted whole almonds
  • 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon drained capers
  • 1⁄2 clove garlic, chopped
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon kosher salt

Green Olive and Za’atar Tapenade

  • 1 cup pitted green olives (such as
  • Castelvetrano or Cerignola), drained
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
  • 2 anchovy fillets
  • 1 tablespoon chopped preserved lemon rind
  • 1 teaspoon za’atar
  • 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves (optional)
  • 1⁄2 clove garlic, chopped (about 1⁄2 teaspoon)

Method

Add all the ingredients to a food processor or use a hand blender. Process or blend until finely and evenly chopped, scraping down the sides if needed. The tapenade will be quite thick and chunky. For a smoother, creamier texture, add an additional two tablespoons olive oil and process until desired consistency.

CAULIFLOWER AND APPLE VELOUTÉ

Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 leek, white part only, sliced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 head cauliflower, small florets
  • 3 sweet apples, diced
  • 4 cups vegetable broth
  • 4 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1⁄4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1⁄2 cup heavy cream

To serve: 1 apple (same variety used in the soup)

1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice Fresh thyme leaves

Method

  1. In a large pot set over medium heat, melt the butter into the olive oil. Add the leek and cook until softened, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute more. Add the cauliflower, apples, broth, thyme, salt, and nutmeg.
  2. Bring to a boil, half cover, and simmer for 25 minutes, or until the cauliflower is very soft. Remove the thyme from the soup. Use a blender to process the soup to a very smooth consistency. Return to the pot and stir in the cream. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed.
  3. You can serve this soup either warm or cold. If serving cold, store the puréed soup in an airtight container and refrigerate until cool, at least 3 hours. If serving warm, reheat the soup just before serving.

To serve, core the apple and cut into matchsticks; drizzle with lemon juice to prevent browning. Divide the soup between serving glasses or bowls, and garnish with apple matchsticks, thyme leaves, and crabmeat.

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