There is no such thing as a free meal, especially during the holidays. For a season that's supposed to be full of joy and wonder, the holidays are often overstuffed with obligations and a desire to please. Even if you enjoy entertaining, the thought of getting an elaborate meal on the table is less appetizing than Rush Limbaugh's plateful of crow.
A great way to make holiday entertaining a bit more palatable is to buy starters, side dishes or sweets from some of Portland's outstanding food professionals rather than make them your sorry, sorry self. WW sought out some of the tastiest goodies on offer in town this holiday season—goodbye, neon-hued whipped cream-and-Jell-O salad, and hello, tasty rabbit pÂtÉ! We've got everything you need to supplement your festive table (or even fill it completely) and, even more important, get the demanding in-law/brother/cousin/mom in your life off your overworked, underappreciated ass. We've even included a "wow factor" rating for you familial overachievers. And, by the way, if there's a guest who always wants to "bring something" but is a gawdawful cook, you can just specify something from this list as his or her contribution to dinner. Now, off to the store with you!
SAVORIES AND STARTERS
American Artisan Cheese Plate
A variety of American artisan cheeses from Steve's Cheese shop creates a tasty conversation starter and a great way to get your dairy on. For the perfect platter, Steve's recommends 1 to 2 ounces per person and a balance of goat, cow and sheep's milk cheeses. >> wow factor: 5.3. U.S.A. cheese, yet another reason to be proud to be American (besides the results of last week's election). Steve's Cheese, 2321 NW Thurman St., 222-6014. Prices vary.
European Cheese and Charcuterie Plate
Give your holiday feast Old World appeal without breaking the royal bank. Foster and Dobbs' European cheese and meat sampler includes a trio of cheeses like the fruity and full flavored Irish Gubbeen; the dry, robust Ossau Iraty from the French Pyrenees; and the creamy, complex Colston Bassett Stilton from England. One plate makes a tasty meal for two or a sampler for six. >> wow factor: 6.2. Show 'em there's more to life than a Tillamook Baby Loaf. Foster and Dobbs Authentic Foods, 2518 NE 15th Ave., 284-1157. $30.
Country Style Rabbit and Pork PÂtÉ
Viande specializes in quality, fresh-made pÂtÉs. For a fantastic hors d'oeuvre, try the rustic (read: chunky) rabbit and pork accompanied with a baguette and Dijon mustard. But make sure the vegans have already left the party. >> wow factor: 8.0. Share the gift of spreadable meat—it's like supping on Bugs Bunny without all those dangerous bones. Viande, 735 NW 21st Ave., 221-3012. $15.95 per pound.
Green Beans Amandine
Picky eaters can load up on fresh vegetables that offer a needed balance to a season loaded with sweets. Make a trip to Zupan's and check out the deli case. Their Amandine is made with lightly cooked green beans tossed with butter-toasted almonds. >> wow factor: 9. Buttery deliciousness you can easily pass off as your own handiwork. Zupan's Market, 2340 W Burnside St., 497-1088, and other locations. $7.99 per pound.
Quinoa Mushroom Stuffing
Who doesn't love getting stuffed? New Seasons Markets make this stuffing with quinoa, a South American grain with a rich, earthy flavor. Combined with roasted mushrooms, butternut squash and caramelized onions, this dish makes a hearty and colorful addition to a picture-perfect dinner. >> wow factor: 4.6. Breadcrumbs are for dirty, dirty pigeons; people should eat quinoa (psst: that's pronounced "kheen-wah," say it with me). New Seasons Market, 1954 SE Division St., 445-2888, and other locations. $5.49 per pound.
Cured Meat Tray
Our favorite four-letter word: meat. Market of Choice's custom-made tray comes with a variety of sopressata, a cured pork made with red wine, garlic and herbs; and prosciutto, dry-cured for 14 months. Garnished with a choice of specialty olives, these plates make an ideal antipasto. >> wow factor: 6.2. The stomach must be stretched for maximum turkey gobblability. Distend yours with specialty Italian meats. Market of Choice, 8502 SW Terwilliger Blvd., 892-7331. Available in 12-, 16- and 18-inch trays. Requires 24 hours notice. $45-$75.
Caramelized Pecan Tart
Craving the classics? This holiday favorite features toasted pecans and caramel custard baked in a tart shell. The flaky crust is made with European butter (with less water than domestic versions), lending the tart a richer flavor. >> wow factor: 7.9. How do you spell love with six letters? That'd be B-U-T-T-E-R. Baker and Spice Bakery, 6330 SW Capitol Hill Highway, 244-7573. Requires two days advance order. $10 (for 6-inch tart serving four to six), $25 (for 9-inch tart serving eight to 12).
To make this traditional Italian sweet bread, the bakers at Pearl return every six hours to feed the dough, and when it's done baking, they skewer and hang the bread upside down to retain its domed shape. The result is a deliciously sweet and light holiday bread big enough for everyone to enjoy. >> wow factor: 8. This bread gets babied more than your ADD-addled nephew. And it's worth it. Pearl Bakery, 102 NW 9th Ave., 827-0910. Available throughout December without advance order, but quantities may be limited. $15.
Apple Pound Cake
This recipe was created in France by the grandfather of FranÇois Payard, proprietor of New York City's famed Payard PÂtisserie. Former Payard baker Marius Pop, now the owner of Portland's Nuvrei, recommends the apple pound cake for a distinctive holiday delight. It's made with a rich buttery batter and Fuji apples, and topped with a rum glaze. >> wow factor: 9.2. Does your cake come with a freakin' pedigree? Didn't think so. Nuvrei Fine Cakes and Pastries, 404 NW 10th Ave., 546-8430. Requires 24 hours advance order. $15.
Ruby Jewel Ice-Cream Sandwiches
Ice-cream treats from local company Ruby Jewel are notorious for their incredible flavors, like honey lavender and cinnamon chocolate espresso. This season try the pumpkin ginger ice-cream sandwich, made with organic ice cream and locally harvested pumpkins. Or grab them in a few flavors and cut into bite-sized snacks for tasting. >> wow factor: 10.0. A devastatingly merry taste and a sly reminder of the junk food of holidays past. Food Front Cooperative Grocery, 2375 NW Thurman St., 222-5658. $3.79.
Gilded Chocolate Swallows
Add some bling to your holidays with Alma's organic dark-chocolate birds, decorated with real (and edible) gold leaf and hand-brushed to resemble old reliquary carvings. This year's mold was designed by artist Scott Foster. For the spiritually inclined, Sara Hart also makes gilded chocolate Buddhas and Catholic images. >> wow factor: 9.2. They're freakin' birds, crafted out of chocolate. If your family doesn't think you're trying hard enough after these, you know what to flip 'em. Alma Chocolates, 140 NE 28th Ave., 517-0262. Requires one week advance order. $15.
BOOZE 'N' BUBBLY
Clear Creek Distillery is well known for its top-shelf eaux de vie and grappas. This season, check out the boozerie's new line of fruit liqueurs. To go with dessert, try the Bartlett Pear Liqueur, made with a brandy base; drink it chilled and straight up, or liven with champagne to make a Kir Royale. >> wow factor: 8.2. The best way to imbibe alcohol and fruit, next to taking shots of kids' cold syrup. Available at most state liquor stores. $22.95.
Jonesy Old Tawny Port
Great wines make great gatherings, and they're often less expensive than you'd think. In this Australian port, earthy hints of maple syrup and hazelnuts are well matched with salty nuts and strong cheeses, making it great for entertaining before or after a meal. >> wow factor: 6.3. Gramps isn't the only one who should enjoy a snifter full of this spirit. E&R Wine Shop, 6141 SW Macadam Ave., 246-6101. $11.
Elvio Tintero Moscato d'Asti 2005
With the distinct brightness of citrus, lower alcohol content and a bit more sweetness than Champagne or similar sparkling wines, Elvio Tintero Moscato d'Asti can be enjoyed throughout your holiday gathering, from starters through dessert. >> wow factor: 7.8. Aww, hell...let the kiddies have a glass. Happy Holidays! Liner and Elsen Wine Merchants, 202 NW 21st Ave, 241-9463. $11.95.