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Spread the word: Here's an appetizer to try

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Spread the word: Here's an appetizer to try
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

I'm in a rut. I cringe when I'm asked to prepare an appetizer to take to an event. I can never decide what to make. I browse through several cookbooks, check into my recipe collection and flip through the most recent food magazines. I mark potential candidates with torn strips of sticky note paper.

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After all that, I most often wind up making the old standby cheese ball. The same cheese ball that we've eaten every holiday season for at least 20 years, the very cheese ball that appeared at both of my sons' graduation parties and yes, the exact same round ball that over and over again I pack into my car to take to one occasion or another.

I got the recipe years ago from a friend. It has few ingredients, it goes together in a snap and it can be made ahead of time. When I'm heading out the door, I grab the cheese ball from the refrigerator, pull a box of Triscuits out of the pantry and I'm on my way. Easy. Great tasting. Why change a good thing?

I've discovered a few good reasons. Dried apricots and figs, fresh-squeezed orange juice, pita bread triangles toasted to crispness and a slightly tart mixture of cream cheese and goat cheese.

My inspiration for today's recipe came from a jar of orange-fig spread that I noticed in the deli cheese case at the grocery store. One thought led to another and soon I had developed Apricot-Fig Crostini.

Crostini are small, thin slices of toasted bread, often baguette that has been brushed with olive oil. For this recipe I decided hearty whole wheat pita bread would be well suited for the Mediterranean-style flavors of the apricot-fig and creamy goat cheese toppings. Cutting the bread into triangles makes just the right size to pick up and eat with just a couple of bites. No utensils required.

The triangles are brushed with olive oil and toasted in the oven. When they are completely cooled, they can be stored in an airtight container for up to a week.

A mixture of cream cheese and goat cheese tops each crunchy triangle. I prefer to leave out the cream cheese and use only goat cheese. For those who haven't developed a taste for goat cheese, just a little mixed with cream cheese produces a tang that most tasters will not associate with the strong flavor of goat cheese. And of course, if you don't dare to even try goat cheese, use only cream cheese.

Apricot-Fig spread is a little like tapenade, a rich spread most often made of olives, and it's a bit similar to chutney, a condiment made of fruit, vinegar, sugar and spices. Apricot-Fig spread is a unique blend of dried apricots and figs that have been simmered in freshly squeezed orange juice. Be sure to use the juiciest, tastiest oranges you can find. I used beautiful garnet-colored juice from blood oranges. Once the fruit has softened and the juice becomes syrupy, it spends a minute in the food processor or blender. Chopped kalamata olives are stirred into the pureed fruit mixture along with some balsamic vinegar.

The appetizers can be prepared an hour or two before serving. Store them tightly covered in the refrigerator. Serving the Apricot-Fig Crostini on a bed of toasted almonds and dried apricots offers nibblers more to eat when the Crostini are all gone.

The cheese mixture also can be spread on a platter, then topped with Apricot-Fig spread. Serve pita triangles on the side.

I'll fret no more over appetizers. I have a new plan. With one more choice in my "Old Standby" file, the rut I'm in becomes a lot more interesting.

Apricot-Fig Crostini

1 package (12 ounces) of 6 whole wheat pita bread

2 to 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

1 tablespoon finely chopped shallot

1/2 cup chopped dried Mission figs (about 2-1/2 ounces)

1/2 cup chopped dried apricots (about 2-1/2 ounces)

3/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice

1 (2-inch) strip orange zest

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

3 tablespoons chopped pitted kalamata olives

Salt and pepper

3 ounces creamy goat cheese, room temperature

5 ounces cream cheese, room temperature

Cut each pita bread in half. Cut each half into 3 triangles. Lightly brush both sides of bread with oil and place, in single layer, on ungreased rimmed baking sheet. Bake in a preheated 400-degree oven for about 10 minutes or until golden on both sides, turning once halfway through baking time. Transfer crostini to rack and let cool. Store crostini layered between sheets of wax paper in a tin and store at room temperature for up to 5 days.

In small heavy saucepan, heat a teaspoon or two of oil over medium-low heat. Add shallot and sauté for 1 to 2 minutes or until tender. Add figs, apricots, orange juice and zest and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer, uncovered, for 20 to 25 minutes or until orange juice is a syrupy consistency and figs are softened, stirring occasionally. Remove and discard zest. Let mixture cool slightly, then transfer to food processor or blender and process until smooth. Transfer to small bowl. Stir in vinegar and olives. Add salt and pepper to taste. Let cool. Cover tightly and refrigerate for up to 2 days.

In small bowl, mix cream cheese and goat cheese with a fork or wooden spoon until blended and smooth. Use a table knife to spread mixture over the top of each pita triangle. A dollop of tapenade is the finishing touch.

Makes 36 appetizers.

Tips from the cook

--Apricot-Fig spread will keep well in the refrigerator for up to a week when stored in a jar with a tight-fitting lid. Add a teaspoon or two to vinaigrette, spread it on a smoked turkey sandwich and for a grown-up breakfast or afternoon tea snack, spread it on a nutty scone or a toasted whole wheat bagel.

--Remember the zest of citrus is just the colored part of the skin. Leave the white pith with its bitter oils behind. I like to use my thin-skin peeler.

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