It’s a great time to play Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

Robert Perri's egg salad with caviar, shrimp salad on pumpernickel, and in front, roasted grape tomatoes, asparagus and goat cheese in phyllo cups. BY JACK CLEMONS
May 20, 2013

Earlier this month, the Historic Lewes Farmers Market organized a clever fundraiser: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. The event was arranged like a progressive dinner but with a twist - no one knew where each course would be served. At the start of the evening, we arrived at the Inn at Canal Square for an aperitif and directions to our various destinations.

Before introducing the numerous hosts and hostesses, we learned how these generous supporters of the HLFM handle the unexpected. Due to last-minute emergencies, two of the planned dining sites had to cancel their participation. Volunteers already cooking for 12 or 15 guests offered to find more seats at their tables, and several new hosts were recruited a short day before. What a wonderful illustration of the community connection to the market.

Our first stop was a short walk to the Lewes home of John Mini and Robert Perri. I recognized Robert from one of the tomato festivals and wondered if his appetizers would be as delicious as his prize-winning tangerine tomato tart. One look at the kitchen island and I knew we wouldn’t be disappointed – bottles of wine nestled in ice, glasses arranged in tidy rows and a stack of Williams Sonoma cheese plates at the ready.

We were so engaged in meeting the other guests and chatting with our hosts, it took a few invitations before we moved into the dining room. Here we discovered colorful platters and silver trays of elegant appetizers arrayed across the dining room table. They were so perfectly plated and garnished, it was challenging to decide where to begin.

I started with a bold shrimp salad (lots of cayenne) on miniature pumpernickel slices. When we were unable to identify the faint sweetness, Robert told us he’d spread a delicate molasses butter on the bread. Another flavor surprise was the combination of Asiago, Parmesan, green onion and chili on crostini garnished with sun-dried red pepper. For those of you who find sun-dried tomato too aggressive, you’ll enjoy the subtle sweetness of these (you can find them at Taste of Italy).

The caviar-topped egg salad in the photo captures Robert’s objective for these first-course selections – classy but casual. He chose a comfort food like egg salad, paired it with crisp sourdough toast miniatures and finished with a dollop of red caviar. When asked what kind of caviar is best, Robert advised choosing whatever your wallet can handle.

My favorite of all the appetizers didn’t make it into the picture – pastry shells filled with a mixture of merguez sausage, chopped kale, shallots and Madeira – a spicy, rich mouthful. My puzzled look started a tutorial on merguez, something I’d never tasted before. Native to Morocco and common to France, merguez is a fresh (not cured) sausage made of ground lamb, harissa (hot chili paste) and spices. It’s typically grilled and served with couscous, or eaten like a hotdog in a roll with mustard.

Sampling this selection of unusual combinations and novel flavors helped me appreciate Robert’s thoughts on appetizers. He suggested looking for foods you really enjoy eating and finding ways to serve them so people can just pop little bites in their mouths while still holding a cocktail and a conversation.

Since he didn’t have his recipes handy when we spoke, I don’t have Robert’s inventions for this column. Instead, here are three appetizers that feature a few of my favorite foods – some treats to nibble until I can get to the Historic Lewes Farmers Market Saturday morning.

Stuffed Phyllo Cups

mini phyllo (filo) cups
1 T olive oil
1/2 C minced onion
1 minced garlic clove
1 lb lean ground beef
1/4 C dry red wine
1 T minced parsley
1/8 t nutmeg
1 t grated lemon zest
Parmesan cheese for garnish

Arrange phyllo cups on a serving platter; set aside. Heat the oil in a skillet over medium. Add onion and sauté until translucent. Add garlic and cook an additional minute. Add the meat to the skillet and cook until no longer pink, stirring constantly to crumble the meat. Add the remaining ingredients and cook until heated through. Spoon the meat mixture into the phyllo cups and garnish with Parmesan cheese.

White Bean Squares

2 red or orange bell peppers
15-oz can cannellini beans
2 T flat-leaf parsley leaves
2 cloves garlic
juice of 1 lemon
1/2 t lemon zest
1/4 C olive oil
salt & pepper, to taste
snipped chives for garnish

Seed and core the peppers. Cut peppers into strips 1-inch wide and then into squares. Arrange pepper pieces skin side down on a serving platter; set aside. Place the remaining ingredients in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until the mixture is almost smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Place a dollop of bean puree on each square of red pepper and garnish with chives.

Blue Cheese Snacks

3/4 C blue cheese
1/2 C cream cheese
1/4 C minced celery
1/2 t cracked black pepper
1/3 C sun-dried red peppers
Pumpernickel bread

Cut out small pieces from the center of the bread slices using a decorative cookie cutter; arrange on a serving plate. Bring the blue cheese and cream cheese to room temperature. Place cheeses, celery and pepper in a mixing bowl. Blend thoroughly until combined. Spread cheese mixture on bread and garnish with a piece of sun-dried red pepper.