Make hors d’oeuvre hour the main event, treating guests to both regional favorites and reimagined takes—as well as plenty of Southern hospitality—with the help of Southern Appetizers.
By Elizabeth Bonner
Looking back, Denise Gee is unable to separate her upbringing from lessons in Southern entertaining. She grew up in Natchez, Mississippi, sharing a four-story Victorian manse with her mother, grandmother, and rotating groups of renters. The home doubled as the site of the family business: a boutique featuring clothing, antiques, and her grandmother’s renowned homemade jams and jellies. Helping with the eclectic shop, Denise learned the ways of the Southern hostess at an early age.
With Southern Appetizers, she brings this lifetime of experience to a collection of 60 crowd-pleasing recipes for laidback entertaining, along with seasoned advice for acting as a gracious host and pulling off a party to remember. “I was raised in a historic, party-loving Mississippi River town around family and friends who loved to cook, entertain, and tell a good story or two,” the author says.
After such a childhood, followed by years working as a food writer in the South, Denise has come to the conclusion that “food is the life of the party,” and in our region, no party is complete without a taste-tempting assortment of appetizers to welcome guests. “I devised a list of recipes that would stand the test of time—classics with an elegant or novel twist or a blending of Southern ingredients with timeless and tasteful flair,” she says of the book’s contents.
From “Pick-Me-Ups” like handheld snacks, dips, and spreads to heartier starters for sit-down dinners, Denise presents an assemblage of fine-tuned recipes that spans traditional favorites and innovative combinations of familiar flavors.
Readers will recognize delightful versions of Debonaire Deviled Eggs, Cajun-Seasoned Boiled Peanuts, and Fanciful Cheese Straws—spruced up with a voluptuous ribbon shape. But they’ll also find imaginative dishes such as Dr Pepper Brisket and Brie Quesadillas with Peachy BBQ Sauce, Wee Chicken and Waffles with Jezebel-Maple Syrup, and a creative Charleston Cheese Ball, shaped like a pineapple in tribute to the city’s icon of hospitality.
Additionally, Denise pairs the recipes with an abundance of tips and tricks for every aspect of party planning beyond cooking up the cuisine. She begins the compilation with a chapter on prepping for the gathering and finishes with a section full of ideas for themes and complementary menus. Offering her wisdom on the importance of balancing the menu, arranging flowers and other décor, organizing party flow and style, and simplifying the role of the host, Denise covers it all—right down to the history and proper preparation of finger sandwiches.
Ultimately, the author feels a true hallmark of this book lies in the genuine connection it seeks to foster between the Southern hostess and her guests. “I hope the recipes reflect the joy I get from creating inviting, flavorful, doable, memorable food connected to fun people and stories—and presented in ways that not only make them look special, but also make guests feel special,” she says.
Enter for your chance to win the cookbook, and continue reading for a couple of our favorite picks from Denise’s scrumptious compilation. Get more on Southern Appetizers, along with plenty of other entertaining inspiration, in our March/April issue on newsstands February 28.
- 1 pound cream cheese, at room temperature
- ½ cup mango chutney
- ⅓ cup finely sliced fresh chives or green onions
- 1 teaspoon Beau Monde or Old Bay Seasoning
- 1 cup shredded sharp white Cheddar cheese
- ½ cup finely chopped pecan pieces, toasted
- 1 tablespoon orange liqueur, such as Cointreau (optional)
- ½ teaspoon curry powder (optional)
- ⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
- 2 to 2 ½ cups (about 120), unbroken, equally sized pecan halves, toasted
- Garnish: fresh rosemary sprigs
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the cream cheese, chutney, chives, and Beau Monde, and blend until smooth, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the Cheddar and chopped pecan pieces, and beat until just blended. Season with salt, if necessary, and the orange liqueur, curry, and cayenne (if using).
- Scoop the cheese mixture onto a plate lined with plastic wrap overhanging each side. Fold each side of the plastic wrap up to cover the cheese, and use your hands to press the mixture into a teardrop shape (it will be soft). Refrigerate the cheese ball for 8 hours to let the flavors meld and texture bind.
- Loosely unwrap the cheese ball, and let stand at room temperature for about 20 minutes. With the tip of the oval facing downward, work from the bottom up to place pecan halves in overlapping tile fashion to mimic a pineapple’s exterior. Garnish with rosemary sprigs for the “crown” before serving, if desired.
Old Bay Seasoning hails from Baltimore and was created in 1939 by German immigrant Gustav Brunn as the perfect spice-and-herb mix for accentuating, not overpowering, Chesapeake Bay blue crabs, scallops, clams, oysters, and other delicately flavored seafoods. On OldBay.com, modern-day owner McCormick & Co. attributes the seasoning’s success to eighteen ingredients, but only lists (in this order) salt, celery seed, and “spices” that include red pepper, black pepper, and paprika. I doubt we’ll learn the dozen or so other spices anytime soon.
- 3 slices bacon
- 1 small sweet onion, finely chopped
- 1 medium red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
- 1 pound fresh collard greens, washed, trimmed, and coarsely chopped (see Cooking Note)
- 2 or 3 cloves garlic, minced
- ¼ to ½ teaspoon pepper vinegar or hot sauce (optional)
- 1 (8-ounce) package regular or light cream cheese, cubed and softened
- ½ cup regular or light sour cream
- ¼ cup shredded Gruyère, Emmentaler, or smoked Swiss cheese
- 1 teaspoon Cajun seasoning
- Preheat the oven to 350°F. Place paper towels on a plate, and set aside.
- In a large skillet, cook the bacon over medium heat until crisp; let bacon drain on the prepared plate, reserving the drippings in the skillet.
- Add the onion and bell pepper to the skillet. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are just tender, about 5 minutes. Add the collard greens, garlic, and vinegar (if using); cover and cook the mixture until tender, stirring occasionally, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat.
- Add the cream cheese, sour cream, Gruyère, and Cajun seasoning to the collard greens mixture, stirring to combine. Crumble the cooked bacon into the mixture, removing any fatty parts of the bacon, if desired. Spread the collards mixture into a 1½-quart baking dish.
- Bake, uncovered, until thoroughly heated, 10 to 12 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Southern Lady Entertaining Tip: For a pretty presentation, stir the dip after baking and transfer to a favorite serving piece.