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Mix it up this year with a potluck choice

You can only eat so much green bean casserole at the annual holiday potluck dinner.

Potlucks are traditionally a haven for rich, creamy, buttery and just plain bad-for-you casseroles and desserts. This year, why not rely on spices, fruits and seafood to create a new covered-dish tradition?

Spice it up

Updating a traditional covered dish can be as easy as opening up the spice cupboard.

Thai Appetizer Pizza

2 cans (8 ounces each) refrigerated crescent dinner rolls

1⁄2 cup chive-and-onion cream cheese spread

1⁄4 cup creamy peanut butter

1⁄2 teaspoon ground ginger

1⁄4 teaspoon ground red pepper (cayenne)

1⁄2 cup shredded carrot

1⁄2 cup chopped red bell pepper

1⁄2 cup chopped, seeded cucumber

1⁄4 cup chopped, salted peanuts

1⁄4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

Heat oven to 375 F. Unroll both cans of the dough; separate into 4 long rectangles. Place rectangles in ungreased 10 x 15-inch pan; press in bottom and up sides to form crust. Bake 13 to 17 minutes or until golden brown. Cool completely, about 30 minutes.

In small bowl, mix cream cheese spread, peanut butter, ginger and ground red pepper. Spread over cooled crust. Top with carrot, bell pepper, cucumber and peanuts. Serve immediately, or cover and refrigerate up to 2 hours before serving. Just before serving, sprinkle with cilantro. Cut into squares.

Makes 32 appetizers.

Source: Pillsbury

Curried Sweet Potato Salad

4 medium sweet potatoes

1⁄2 cup mayonnaise

2 teaspoons curry powder

1 teaspoon coarse-ground mustard

1 tablespoon brown sugar

1⁄2 cup cran-raisins

1⁄2 cup slightly toasted chopped pecans

2 green onions, sliced

salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Bake the sweet potatoes for 50 to 60 minutes, or until slightly firm but thoroughly cooked. Allow to cool, then peel and dice the potatoes. In a large bowl, combine the mayonnaise, curry powder, mustard and brown sugar. Add the sweet potatoes, cran-raisins, pecans and green onions. Season with the salt and pepper to taste. Chill overnight. Makes 6 servings.

Source: "The Blue Willow Inn Bible of Southern Cooking" (Rutledge Hill, $24.99).

Pop, pop, pop

Forgo chips and dip this year, and opt for popcorn instead. These dishes are perfect if you're in charge of the snacks at this year's party.

Savory Popcorn Snack Mix

3 quarts popped popcorn

2 cups miniature pretzels

1⁄2 pound bacon, chopped

1⁄4 cup butter or margarine

3 tablespoons chopped green onions and tops

11⁄2 teaspoons spicy brown mustard

1⁄4 teaspoon seasoned salt

2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

Combine popped popcorn and pretzels in large bowl. Cook bacon until crisp, drain on paper towels. Melt butter in small saucepan. Stir in green onions, mustard and seasoned salt. Sprinkle bacon and Parmesan over popcorn mixture. Pour butter mixture over all. Toss well to coat. Makes 15 servings.

Source: The Popcorn Board

Curried Popcorn

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 tablespoon curry powder

1 teaspoon salt

2⁄3 cup popcorn

Place all ingredients in a Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot. Turn heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, until corn starts to sizzle. Cover and cook, shaking pot frequently at the beginning, then constantly at the end, until corn is completely popped, 4 to 5 minutes.

Source: "Perfect Recipes for Having People Over," Pam Anderson (Houghton Mifflin, $35).

Natural delights

The holidays are usually the time for rich, buttery, chocolatey desserts. Switch things up with a lighter, fruit-based dessert instead.

Hidden Berry Cupcakes

13⁄4 cups all-purpose flour

11⁄4 cups granulated sugar

1 tablespoon baking powder

1⁄2 teaspoon salt

1⁄3 cups butter, softened

3 eggs

2⁄3 cup milk

1 tablespoon vanilla

1 cup oats, quick or old-fashioned, uncooked

1⁄2 cup seedless strawberry or raspberry fruit spread

Confectioners sugar

Heat oven to 350 F. Line 16 medium muffin cups with paper or foil baking cups, set aside. In a large bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Add butter and beat with electric mixer on low speed until crumbly, about 1 minute. In medium bowl, combine eggs, milk and vanilla, add to flour-butter mixture. Beat on low speed until incorporated, then on medium speed 2 minutes. Gently fold in oats. Divide batter evenly between muffin cups, filling each about 3⁄4 full.

Bake 18 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove from pan, cool completely on wire rack. Using a small, sharp knife, cut out a cone shaped piece from the center of each cupcake, leaving a 3⁄4-inch border around the edge. Carefully remove and reserve cake pieces. Fill each depression with a generous teaspoon of fruit spread. Top with reserved cake pieces, sift confectioners sugar over tops of cupcakes. Makes 16 cupcakes.

Source: The Quaker Oats Company

Apple and Cheese Pleaser Cookies

3⁄4 cup flour

2⁄3 cup margarine, softened

1⁄3 cup brown sugar

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla

1⁄2 teaspoon cinnamon

1⁄2 teaspoon baking powder

1⁄2 teaspoon salt

11⁄2 cups oats

1 cup shredded Cheddar cheese

3⁄4 cup raisins

1 cup chopped nuts

Combine flour, margarine, sugar, egg, vanilla, cinnamon, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. Mix well. Add oats, cheese and raisins. Mix well. Stir in apples. Drop by tablespoonfuls onto ungreased cookie sheet. Bake at 375 F for 15 minutes or until golden brown. Store in a tightly covered container in refrigerator. Yields about 24 cookies.

Source: "Best of the Best from Georgia Cookbook" (Quail Ridge Press, $16.95).

Under the sea

Skip the red meat and choose fish, shrimp or shellfish for an elegant main dish.

Shrimp & Wild Rice Casserole

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons flour

1⁄2 teaspoon salt

2 cups chicken broth

1⁄4 cup thinly sliced onion

1⁄4 cup thinly sliced green bell pepper

1⁄2 pound mushrooms, sliced

1⁄2 cup (1 stick) butter

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

4 drops Tabasco

2 (6 ounces each) boxes Uncle Ben's Wild Rice, cooked

11⁄2 pounds shrimp

To prepare the cream sauce, in a small saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the flour and salt, stirring as it begins to make a paste. Gradually add the chicken broth and allow the mixture to thicken. Preheat oven to 300 F.

For the casserole, in a large pan on medium heat, saute the onion, green pepper and mushrooms in the butter. Add the Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco. Add the rice and cream sauce. Allow this mixture to heat through. Remove from the heat. Add the shrimp. Pour the mixture into a 3-quart casserole dish and bake for 30 to 45 minutes. Makes 10 to 12 servings.

Source: "The Blue Willow Inn Bible of Southern Cooking," (Rutledge Hill, $24.99).