Elegant doesn’t have to mean complicated or expensive. There’s little better than some dainty pink-and-white French breakfast radishes, washed and trimmed and served with a good sweet butter and the best sea salt you can afford. Smoked salmon tidbits (cheap at Adams-Fairacre Farms) over tiny pumpernickel squares, dolloped with crème fraîche and fresh dill, are simply beautiful. Prosciutto can be pricey, but a little goes a long way if you use it sparingly, wrapping strips of it around cubes of the sweetest, ripest melon you can find.
I think it’s okay to be a little clichéd or retro rather than cutting-edge, because people are attracted by the familiar, with just a bit of innovation to spice it up. Personally I tend to shy away from pesto and sun-dried tomatoes as ingredients these days, but many hors d’oeuvres that have been around a while are comforting, which is undeniably part of their appeal. Although it’s anything but elegant, I like to make pigs in blankets for parties, with tiny sausages dabbed with mustard and rolled up in crescent roll dough; they get snapped up fast. Snooty? No. Fancy? No. Cutting edge? Definitely not. But fun and popular.
I learned a lot of hors d’oeuvre ideas when I worked for Gallimaufry Good Food in Rhode Island in the 1980s, and some of those classics have staying power. I lost count of how many hundreds of mini-phyllo pies I folded and how many snow peas I slit open and piped with herbed cream cheese.
I learned that puff pastry and phyllo dough from the freezer section of the store are your best friends when it comes to festive appies. Puff pastry can be sprinkled with cheddar or parmesan cheese, herbs maybe, then cut into strips that you twist and bake for super easy cheese straws. Phyllo sheets come smaller than they used to and are easier to work with now. Don’t be intimidated by the delicate sheets; just keep them from drying out by topping them with a damp dishtowel while you work. And if they tear, that’s okay; phyllo is crumbly, crispy stuff after it’s baked, anyway, melting on the tongue. That’s what we love about it.
For phyllo triangles, simply cut the sheets into long rectangles and brush with melted butter. Place a little filling at one end and fold up like a flag. Once you get going, you get into a rhythm and can crank out a lot of them. Then brush them again with butter and bake on a tray. Popular fillings include the classic spinach and feta cheese, just cheeses or chopped mushrooms. Flaky and flavorful, they are always a hit, and they can be made ahead and frozen, great to avoid last-minute fussing before your party. After assembly, just freeze them on a baking sheet then store in a zipable plastic bag. You can bake them directly from freezer; they just need a few more minutes cooking time.
Lots of good ideas
Take your favorite crab-cake recipe and make mini-versions. Stuff mushrooms with savory breadcrumbs, sausage, crabmeat, or Roquefort and walnuts. Mushrooms are the perfect bite size for hors d’oeuvres; if stuffing is too labor intensive for you, just marinate them whole or halved in olive oil, garlic, parsley and lemon juice or vinegar for a tempting treat. Marinating olives or bocconcini (tiny fresh mozzarella balls) in the same sort of mix is tempting, too.
Cut small red potatoes in half and roast or steam them. Top with crème fraîche and fresh snipped dill. For a kind of caviar much less pricey than Beluga, look for red carp roe (Adams, again), and whip up some fluffy pretty pink Greek taramosalata. Serve with pita triangles. Don’t forget the crudités and dip, cliché maybe, but a most refreshing complement to all the rich holiday fare and ever popular.
Mini-bite-sized quiches are always a hit. If you don’t want to make a short crust from scratch, you can roll out Pepperidge Farm white sandwich bread, cut it into circles, and press into mini-muffin tins, very easy and tasty. Quiche fillings can include my favorite, wilted baby spinach and baby Swiss, or try diced pear and bleu cheese, ham and cheese, crabmeat and scallions or chopped mushrooms sautéed in butter.
Variations of another classic, rumaki, are a symphony of flavor and texture. The original version has chicken livers and water chestnuts marinated in a sort of teriyaki/soy-ginger-garlic-sherry mix, then wrapped in bacon and broiled or baked. At Gallimaufry we skipped the livers; some sub-chicken-breast bites, shrimp or scallops (a less economical option).
Baked pita crisps are easy and cheap, addictive with dip or simply herbed, oiled, baked and eaten plain. Gougère puffs are savory and easy to make. Think cream puffs without the cream: a savory cheesy melt-in-your-mouth tidbit. Many types of cheese work; the original gougères call for Gruyere but cheddar and blues work well, too. Olive tapenade is lovely spread on toasted crusty bread. So are rillettes, a sort of French potted meat that is rich and delicious. Rillettes take a while to simmer but are easy to cook.
Spiced roasted nuts are simple, too, and irresistible. All kinds of nuts work; my favorites are almonds and pecans. Toss the nuts in spices like cumin, chili powder, curry powder, garlic salt, ginger, cinnamon, and a little olive oil, and toast at 325 degrees Fahrenheit for about 15 minutes, tossing occasionally.
From one dish to dozens
Crunchy, sweet-bitter endive leaves make a festive holder for fillings. Arrange them in a starburst pattern and fill with shrimp salad, goat cheese and walnuts, herbed and garlicked cream cheese (maybe made pink with minced pimientos mixed in). A Spanish tapa version calls for simply topping the leaves with a bit of smoked salmon, adding a quick whisk of olive oil and lemon, salt and pepper.
Ric Orlando of New World Catering and New World Home Cooking restaurant doesn’t like to use too much filling bready stuff as hors d’oeuvres. He likes the “pure protein” of deviled eggs. “They’re amazing,” he says. “There are so many creative things you can do with them, and they’re very pretty.” He likes them with capers or little strips of smoked salmon on top.
He said his brother made some for Thanksgiving with pickled ginger, scallions and sesame seeds. “You can also serve stuffed mushrooms,” he says, “and even make them meatless by sautéing the stems with onion and garlic and adding Romano or Parmesan cheese to the stuffing.”
Many tapas make perfect festive hors d’oeuvres, with their simple basic ingredients in slightly exotic combinations. I like Tapas by Penelope Casas (Knopf, 1991, but it has since been updated). Many tapas can be made ahead and are economical because they’re based on small amounts of meat and a frugal use of ingredients. You can do a lot with a little parsley, a little ham, some hard-boiled egg, a little onion, some seafood or meat or vegetable. Think stewed octopus or chick peas.
Albóndigas take party meatballs to a new level, with a variety of ground meats and savory seasonings. Thin triangles of manchego, a zesty Spanish sheep cheese, topped with matching thin triangles of quince paste, are a heavenly pairing that is perennially popular. Little squares of tortilla, a sort of Spanish frittata, filled with onion or potato or spinach, are great at room temperature skewered with toothpicks. The crusty little baked pies called empanadas make a tempting display. Filling possibilities are limitless. My favorite is a zesty-sweet South American mix of shrimp and hearts of palm.
Your party assortment of delectable treats can range from one dish to dozens, depending on the size of the crowd and the time you have to prepare the food. And although it will likely appeal with its variation in colorful appearance, color and texture, extra touches don’t hurt.
Set out some fresh flowers, an assortment of colorful serving ware or perhaps hollowed out fruits and veggies as dip holders. Setting out all the platters together rather than around the room contributes to a show of abundance and extravagance.
My friend Sibley, party hostess extraordinaire, suggests putting boxes of various sizes on the table, before covering it with a cloth and laying out the platters, to add to the visual interest of your display.
Don’t forget the napkins for messy fingers or the festive libations of your choice. And with a few of these appies and some good company, no one will miss the caviar, I promise.
If you would like any more information on any of the above dishes, or recipes, please e-mail Jennifer Brizzi at email@example.com.