Halloween is coming and with it, the Halloween party. Unhappily, the fare served at these wingdings is generally…generic. Unlike Thanksgiving (cranberry sauce), Christmas (figgy pudding), St. Patrick's Day (corned beef and cabbage) and my birthday (peanut butter and chocolate ice cream), Halloween boasts no culinary specialties it can call its own. That doesn't mean you can't come up with your own fright night delicacies, of course. Every great gustatory tradition began somewhere, and a good party needs more than just spooky sound effects and black-and-orange crepe paper.
The cocktail question is, as always, of primary importance. For years humankind has attempted to concoct a passable drink out of something called Pumpkin Smash, but the stuff is so overwhelmingly sweet it demands a good gallon of lime juice to cut it, and then what? Better to soak sugar pumpkins, cinnamon sticks, whole cloves and nutmeg in a pitcher of rum for a couple of weeks, then either serve it as a hot toddy with a dollop of whipped cream or shaken with ice in a cinnamon-rimmed martini glass. A punch bowl of bloody marys - one part vodka, one part tomato juice, with celery salt, pepper, Tabasco, lemon juice, horseradish and/or Worcestershire added as desired - is another, more ghoulish boozing option. (Make sure to freeze little plastic spiders in the ice cubes.)
The great Halloween nibble is roasted pumpkin seeds. Hollow out a pumpkin, wash the goo off the seeds, dry the seeds thoroughly and toss them in melted butter. Spread out on a cookie sheet, sprinkle with salt and bake in a preheated 300-degree oven for 45 minutes, turning occasionally. Serve warm and stand back. For a hearty centerpiece, fill that hollowed-out pumpkin with a quart or two of chill-chasing chili. In two stints as a chili cook-off judge I've had the stuff laced with everything from tomatillos to sage leaves to fresh calamari, but my favorite chili is still the simple, soul-warming version out of The Better Homes and Gardens Junior Cookbook: Soften up a chopped-up onion in a little olive oil, then add a pound of ground beef and stir it up until browned. Stir in 16 oz. of tomato sauce, let simmer for a few minutes, then add 16 oz. of kidney beans and salt and chili powder to taste. Very good with cheddar-ribboned cornbread.
At dessert time, an evocative and less cumbersome alternative to caramel apples is a platter of sliced Galas or Granny Smiths served alongside a fondue pot of warm caramel sauce (melt a sack of caramels with a quarter-cup milk and voila). Another apropos option: the sugary Day of the Dead miniature skulls currently decorating the windows of several Mission District panaderias. Or just fall back on those fun-size candy bars. Twix, Almond Joys and Butterfingers are particularly tasty this time of year.
Photo Credit: Kinderkorner.com