Wednesday, December 25, 2002

We put a finger on the best frozen appetizers

Taste Team turns out to be a crabby bunch - especially when the crab mixes with cream cheese in a wonton shell

By Chuck Martin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Excuse us for interrupting your merry gift exchange, but the holidays aren't over just yet. You might be hosting a big party in less than a week. Remember Dick Clark - Should auld acquaintance be forgot - and the slow descent of the big ball?

Don't choke on your French toast. Even if you've given absolutely no thought to what you're serving at next week's New Year's Eve celebration, we have a solution: Fall back on frozen finger foods, ready to shove in the microwave or oven.

To help you out of your holiday haze, we surveyed the freezers at club and party stores (Costco, Sam's and the Party Source in Bellevue) and asked our Taste Team to sample a dozen savory selections, from creamy baked brie to crispy vegetable tempura. And if the panel's impressions are a reasonable indication, you have plenty of tasty frozen finger-food choices.

The Taste Team liked most of the appetizers - they ranked every sample but one above 6 on a 10-point scale. But the clear favorite were Crab Rangoons - cream cheese and crab wrapped in a crispy wonton shell - by the Original Rangoon Co. Another Asian-style appetizer, Ling-Ling Chicken & Vegetable Potstickers, finished second in our test. Tied for third were Olivenos, breaded black olives stuffed with spicy salsa and cheese, and Nancy's Champagne Collection - tiny crab imperial, fromage puffs and portabella turnovers in delicate pastry.

As usual, the Taste Team judged this array of appetizers blindly with palate-cleansing bread and water. (We didn't have champagne.)

These frozen finger foods are delicious and convenient to prepare, but of course, there's a catch - the price. The appetizers we sampled ranged from about 8 cents to 42 cents per piece. So depending on the voracity of your guests, this party fare can set you back more than a few dollars. And you may have guessed the No. 1 crab rangoons were among the most expensive appetizers, at 32 cents per piece.

The best plan might be to offer less expensive and more filling food - cheese, crackers, bread, fresh fruit and vegetables.

Here's where we bought the appetizers for the taste test. Some products are available at two or all of the stores.
Costco Wholesale (Deerfield Township and Springdale): Original Rangoon Co. Crab Rangoons; Ling-Ling Chicken & Vegetable Potstickers; Delimex Grilled Chicken & Cheese Quesadillas; Alpenhain Baked Camembert & Brie; Nancy's Petite Quiche; Minh White Meat Chicken Egg Rolls; Tiger Thai Tempura Vegetable Medley; and Barber Foods Stuffed Chicken Appetizers.
The Party Source (Bellevue): Cohen's Assorted Hors D'oeuvre Collection.
Sam's Club (Florence, Springdale, Loveland, Monfort Heights, Eastgate and Columbia Township): Nancy's Champagne Collection; Nancy's Party Spirals; and Olivenos Salsa & Cheese Stuffed Olives.
Debora Morgan-Ademuyewo works for Color Resolutions International in Woodlawn. At home in Springdale, she hosts brunch parties for friends and cooks African, Chinese and Mexican dishes for her husband and two children.
• A resident of Colerain Township, Scott Allen is an avid cook and griller who works as a project manager for a Forest Park engineering company.
• A Loveland resident, Julie Bauke works for a career management firm. She likes to try new baking recipes on her husband and two children.
Susan Scott is a neurosurgery nurse at University Hospital and former restaurant critic for The News Record at the University of Cincinnati. At home in Hyde Park, she loves to cook Asian dishes and grill for her family.
• A flavor technologist for Gold Medal Products in Evendale, Kay Young is a master gardener and chili pepper aficionado. At home in Mount Lookout, she loves to cook "everything."
Val Zackery is a chemist who works at Procter & Gamble's Sharon Woods Technical Center in Blue Ash. She cooks Italian and other ethnic foods for friends at home in Amberley Village.
The most difficult aspect about buying frozen finger foods may be finding freezer space to store them. Before you buy, you might consider cleaning out your freezer. It may also help to take the appetizers out of their bulky boxes and seal them in plastic freezer bags.

One thing is for certain: After you serve these convenient appetizers, there will be few - if any - leftovers to store the morning after the big party.

Frozen appetizer ratings

The Taste Team rated the following frozen finger foods on taste, texture and appearance, using a 1 to 10 scale (1=poor;10=excellent). Prices may vary.

1. Original Rangoon Company Crab Rangoons

Average score: 9.1.

Price: 32 cents per piece or $8.99 per 28.

Comments: A little savory; a little sweet. Crispy, flaky.

2. Ling-Ling Chicken & Vegetable Potstickers

Average score: 8.2.

Price: 17 cents per piece or $8.45 per 50.(Includes dipping sauce.)

Comments: Flavorful, spicy. Crunchy vegetables.

3. Nancy's Champagne Collection (Fromage Puffs, Crab Imperial and Portabella Mushroom Turnovers)

Average score: 8.1.

Price: 25 cents per piece or $8.87 per 36.

Comments: Very cheesy. Flaky crust.

Olivenos Salsa & Cheese Stuffed Olives

Average score: 8.1.

Price: 20 cents per piece or $9.87 per 50.

Comments: Nice spicy bite. Crisp coating.

5. Delimex Grilled Chicken & Cheese Quesadillas

Average score: 7.2.

Price: About 33 cents each (12 cut in half to equal 24 for $7.99).

Comments: A little soggy. Skimpy on filling.

6. Alpenhain Baked Camembert and Brie

Average score: 7.1.

Price: 31 cents per piece or $4.97 per 16. (Includes cranberry dipping sauce.)

Comments: A little greasy. Nice combination of crunchy coating and soft cheese.

Nancy's Party Spirals

Average score: 7.1.

Price: 16 cents per piece or $9.88 per 60.

Comments: Doughy flavor. Doesn't fall apart easily.

Nancy's Petite Quiche (Lorraine and Florentine)

Average score: 7.1.

Price: 17 cents each or $9.99 per 60.

Comments: Slightly mushy filling. Bland flavor.

9. Minh White Meat Chicken Egg Rolls

Average score: 6.9.

Price: 22 cents per piece or $8.99 per 40.

Comments: Crunchy vegetables. Couldn't detect chicken.

10. Tiger Thai Tempura Vegetable Medley (sweet potatoes, carrots, eggplant, green beans, winged beans and onion/carrot bird's nests)

Average score: 6.6.

Price: About 8 cents per piece or $7.97 per 93 to 113. (Includes dipping sauce.)

Comments: Soggy coating. Some lacked flavor.

11. Barber Foods Stuffed Chicken Appetizers (Ham & Cheese with Dijon Mustard and Roasted Tomato, Red Pepper & Feta)

Average score: 6.0.

Price 22 cents per piece or $8.99 per 40.

Comments: Unable to taste ham. Chicken very bland.

12. Cohen's Assorted Hors D'oeuvre Collection (Cocktail Beef Franks in Puff Pastry, Potato Puffs, Beef & Mushroom Turnovers, Spinach &: Potato Puffs)

Average score: 5.7.

Price: 42 cents per piece or $16.99 per 40.

Comments: Soggy crust. Look better than they taste.


Serve these dipping sauces, from Asian Noodles (Hearst; $21), with party finger foods.

Spicy Korean Dipping Sauce

1/2 cup soy sauce

3 1/2 tablespoons rice vinegar

2 tablespoons water

1 1/2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger

2 teaspoons sugar

2 teaspoons toasted sesame seeds

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper

Combine all ingredients in bowl and mix well. Covered and refrigerated, the sauce will keep up to one week.

Chinese Peanut Dressing

11/2 -inch thick fresh ginger, peeled and sliced in half

8 cloves garlic, peeled

1 teaspoon hot chile paste, or more to taste

1/2 cup smooth peanut butter, or more if necessary

1/4 cup soy sauce

3 1/2 tablespoons sugar

3 1/2 tablespoons Chinese black vinegar or Worcestershire sauce

3 tablespoons toasted sesame oil

5 tablespoons chicken broth or water, or more, if necessary

Finely chop ginger and garlic in food processor. Add remaining ingredients in order listed and process until smooth. Dressing should be consistency of heavy cream. If too thick, add more broth or water; if too thin, add more peanut butter. Keep covered and refrigerated up to three weeks.

Satay Sauce

1 1/4 cups coconut milk

3/4 cup smooth peanut butter

3 tablespoons fish sauce

1 tablespoon soy sauce

3 tablespoons minced fresh ginger

3 tablespoons light brown sugar

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper

Combine all ingredients in food processor or blender and process until smooth. Cover and refrigerate up to five days.

We put a finger on the best frozen appetizers
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