From catering jobs and my own parties over the years, I’ve learned that what works best for party hors d’oeuvres is food that can be dispatched in a bite or two, without cutlery. You want savory tidbits that guests can grab with fingers or a toothpick and eat with one hand while the other is holding a cocktail. Not only should each morsel be so tasty that you immediately want another, but the array should contribute visually to the festivity of the season without being too over-the-top snazzy. It should not compete with your guests for attention, but should make them happy. In my book, delicious and easy-to-eat trumps high glamour every time.
The appetizers should not require too much last-minute fussing on the part of the cook, and should be able to sit out for a while without wilting. Keep the timing in mind when planning your dishes, with a few that can be made way ahead of time to avoid last-minute freakouts.
The easiest of all are olives. Grab an appealing assortment and dump them into bowls; that’s it, done. Nearly as easy are some roasted spiced nuts. I like pecans and almonds, tossed in olive oil and curry powder, chili powder or some other savory blend, and baked at 325 degrees Fahrenheit for about 15 to 20 minutes, tossing now and then. You can do the same thing with pita triangles for an easy and appealing munch. Also simple is setting out mild white anchovies, and/or chunks of the best canned or jarred imported tuna that you can find, crusty bread required.
Cucumber rounds are a great base for little canapés. Use unwaxed ones, and score the sides with a fork or channel cutter before slicing. Then merely dollop hummus on top of the slices, with an olive or bit of roasted pepper for garnish. Or try spoonfuls of this simple salad on them: Marinate diced poached salmon in extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, chopped fresh dill, red onion, celery, capers, salt and pepper.
Seafood is always festive. Chop smoked salmon – available as economical end pieces from Adams Fairacre Farms – and mix with cream cheese and minced scallion or chives. Spread on tiny pumpernickel squares or halved Finn Crisp crackers.
Shrimp is easy to find and thaws fast. Think beyond shrimp cocktail (although that is easy and ever-popular) and try Spanish al ajillo style: Sauté them in olive oil with chopped garlic, a pinch of pepper flakes or cayenne. Serve with slices of crusty bread to sop up the tasty sauce. For an almost-as-simple riff on that, try them Vietnamese style: Sauté in vegetable oil with a spoonful of sugar, add chopped garlic and shallot, a splash of fish sauce, a glug of water and a pinch of salt. When pink and done, sprinkle with chopped cilantro.
Marinate mushrooms, sliced or whole, in plenty of Italian vinaigrette or make your own (olive oil, red or white wine vinegar, minced garlic, parsley, salt and pepper). A delightful make-ahead party dish that I love is cheese in green mojo sauce from the Canary Islands, from Penelope Casas in Delicioso! The Regional Cooking of Spain (Knopf, 1996). Cube fresh mozzarella and coat in a kind of pesto that you’ve made by combining in a food processor, blender or by hand: several cloves of garlic, some green bell pepper, a lot of cilantro leaves, olive oil and wine vinegar. Make several days to a day ahead for best flavor.
You can make super-easy quesadillas by sandwiching fillings between two corn tortillas and frying quickly on each side at medium-high heat in an unoiled pan: cheeses like queso fresco, jack, cheddar or a combination, lots of fresh cilantro or maybe pickled nopalitos (cactus pad slices). Cut into wedges and serve with salsa for dipping or not.
Take tips from the Mediterranean region, where snacking with drinks is a centuries-old, timeworn tradition. Fry slices of Halloumi cheese from Cyprus in a little olive oil until golden; garnish with lemon wedges and fresh mint. Wrap melon cubes in prosciutto or jamón Serrano; make a Spanish omelet frittata, with any combo of onion, potato or chorizo, then cut into cubes and stab with toothpicks to serve.
A crusty baguette is your best friend. Slice and toast lightly and top with something savory: olive tapenade or eggplant caponata (buy a jar or Google and make your own), or a tuna/cannellini bean/red onion/parsley salad.
Roast some of the fingerling potatoes that you bought at your favorite winter farmers’ market (find them in Saugerties, Kingston, New Paltz, Rhinebeck and Red Hook) and make filled potato skins with them. Slice in half lengthwise, scoop out and fill with the classic chopped bacon and cheddar, then back in the oven to melt the cheese, then top with yogurt or sour cream and snipped chives. Other things make good fillings, too; use your imagination, but some kind of melted cheese is key – maybe mozzarella over broccoli rabe sautéed with garlic, or Monterey jack over refried black beans?
Along the potato theme are cooked new potato halves, topped with salt, pepper, a dab of sour cream, crème fraîche or full-fat yogurt, then a speck of caviar in any price range.
As you can tell, my style is more retro than cutting-edge, but I find that people love those familiar classics. I’ve had lots of success with stuffed mushrooms (sausage or veg) and with pigs-in-blankets: I dab Li’l Smokies with spicy brown mustard and roll in crescent-roll dough. Also in this category are meatballs in a crockpot, whether Swedish, Italian-American or Spanish albondigas.
In the ‘80s I made millions of pita triangles, filled with the classic spinach and cheese, or other combos like ricotta, rosemary and prosciutto. You can modernize deviled eggs with some wasabi, or color red-and-green by doing half of the filling with enough paprika to color it red; garnish each one for more eye appeal.
Here are a few recipes that require a bit of fussing but can be made ahead. In the first, bitter endive, sweet pear and assertive sheep cheese marry beautifully. Zesty Creole crab salad fills little tomatoes, and a whole melty Camembert has a nutty coating. In my favorite, Brazilian empanadinhas, shrimp and hearts of palm combine in a rich sesame crust, for a harmonious blend of textures and flavors.