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Wasabi Cheese dotted with colorful wasabi peas can be served with sesame rice crackers to create a tasty appetizer. Photo by Sue Doeden

Spread the word: Wasabi Cheese is a tasty appetizer

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Lights twinkling under a night sky the color of a Spanish black olive, brick pathways winding through lush tropical foliage and the soothing sound of fluttering palm fronds set the stage for a champagne reception on the opening night of the 29th annual Key West Literary Seminar.

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Jennifer Cornell, chef and owner of Small Chef at Large Classic Catering in Key West, strolled through the Tropical Gardens of the Audubon House with an air of tranquility, as though she had just come from a relaxing massage at one of the Key West spas. Quite the contrary. Cornell and her team had been working all day, slicing, dicing, whipping and cooking, preparing to serve a large gathering of writers, including several with a focus on food.

Tables adorned with an abundance of temptingly beautiful food were strategically placed along the brick pathways running through the Gardens. Servers wound through the crowd of people, balancing large trays of lamb lollipops, perfectly cooked scallops, shrimp skewered with fresh sprigs of rosemary and shrimp bruschetta. Appreciative guests with gourmet palates eagerly seized the food from the walk-around offerings.

Several days after that reception under the Key West night sky, I visited with Chef Jennifer in her office tucked in the back of a VFW hall. Between phone calls and employees with questions, I was able to glean some insight on what makes this woman one of the most respected caterers in Key West. I also came away with a couple of her recipes.

A guided tour through the kitchen is clear evidence that Cornell's calm demeanor is achieved through extreme organization. Papers with information about upcoming catering jobs were taped to the stainless steel doors on the large refrigerator. Cornell believes the key to success of everything in life is having lots of lists.

The chef explained that eating fresh and local in Key West looks different from what those of us in the Midwest expect. Almost no green space and poor soil makes gardening in Key West next to impossible. Fresh produce comes by truck from Miami. That's about as "local" as vegetables get. For eaters in Key West, it's boat to table rather than farm to table. Fresh seafood is what local looks like in Key West. Cornell uses fresh seafood as she prepares light, lively and exciting menu items for her clients.

As I pedaled my bike back to the guesthouse where I was staying, I thought about how Chef Jennifer's philosophy for running her catering business could be used by everyone preparing meals in home kitchens - be organized, prepare meals using local seasonal ingredients when possible and keep food light, lively and exciting.

I was also thinking about returning home to prepare the recipes Cornell kindly shared with me. At the champagne reception several nights before my visit with the caterer, I found myself returning several times to the table that had a cheese ball covered with wasabi peas, those crunchy dried green orbs coated with horseradish. If you eat too many at once, you'll feel your nasal passages burn. But on this ball of wasabi-flavored cream cheese, the heat of the wasabi peas is perfectly balanced with sweet chili sauce, soy sauce and sesame oil.

You don't have to be a trained chef to make Wasabi Cheese. It's easy to mix the short list of ingredients together. Be sure to read through the entire recipe and gather all of your ingredients before starting. In no time at all, you'll have a very lively snack to excite the eaters in your house, whether they are family or friends.

Wasabi Cheese

2 tablespoons wasabi powder

1 tablespoon sweet chili sauce

1 tablespoon water

2 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, softened

1 1/2 teaspoons reduced sodium soy sauce

1/4 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

Salt and pepper to taste

1 cup wasabi peas

In a small bowl, mix wasabi powder, sweet chili sauce and water. When all of the powder has been mixed into the liquid, set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, beat cream cheese until smooth and creamy. Add soy sauce, sesame oil and wasabi mixture. Blend well. Taste and season with a little salt and pepper. Use a rubber spatula to transfer Wasabi Cheese to a serving platter, smoothing the mixture to form a mound. Press wasabi peas into the mound. Cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours or overnight. Serve with sesame rice crackers.

(Recipe courtesy of Chef Jennifer Cornell, owner of Small Chef at Large Catering in Key West, www.smallchefatlarge.com)

Tips from the cook

--Wasabi Cheese can be prepared in a food processor as an alternative to using an electric hand-held mixer.

--Toasted sesame oil is dark and has a richer flavor than regular sesame oil. It can often be found in the International aisle in grocery stores with the Asian food products or in the natural and organic food section.

--Add ¼ cup sour cream to Wasabi Cheese to create a spreadable consistency perfect for spreading on sandwiches or rolling up inside of deli roast beef slices to serve as an appetizer.

--For more kick, add another tablespoon of wasabi powder to the cheese mixture.

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