We’re heading fast into holiday entertaining time and whether you’re planning a big dinner or just inviting friends over for a drink, choosing and making hors d’oeuvres can be a confounding part of the cooking and hosting.
So here’s a list of appetizers that are not very complex and most are very easy to make. I’ve tried to avoid expensive ingredients. No foie gras in sight, but there is a little prosciutto and some smoked salmon, as well as popcorn and bacon (although not together). I’ve included some buy-it-take-out options, which can make a cocktail party really simple to produce. Add a case of wine or prosecco or set up a serve-yourself bar, and everyone will be happy.
Remember it’s the guests who count. And the food!
- Mix crabmeat with tiny diced celery and shallots and a little mayo (I find regular lump or backfin work better in this than the more expensive jumbo lump) and serve on crackers or individual endive leaves.
- Place a dab of fresh goat cheese on a slice of seedless English cucumber or cracker. Sprinkle with a little freshly ground black pepper or paprika.
- Bruschetta. Small slices of baguette or good country bread. Lightly toast the bread, rub it with a piece of cut garlic, drizzle with a little olive oil (don’t soak it!), and top with halved cherry tomatoes or room temperature cooked spinach or broccoli rabe that have been tossed with a little olive oil and rough chopped so that it’s easier to eat. Most bruschetta end up being a two-bite hors d’oeuvre.
- Wrap pitted dates that have been stuffed with a shard of Parmesan and wrapped with a half slice of bacon. Skewer with toothpicks and broil, turning once, until the bacon is cooked.
- Arrange a charcuterie platter, with slices of salami, prosciutto, soppressata or chorizo. You can add a cheese selection, some grapes, and also some accompaniments like honey to drizzle on the cheese, fig jam, or slices of fresh pears.
- Cook a pork tenderloin by first pan searing it until brown on all surfaces and then oven-roasting at 400° F until it’s medium-rare, about 8 to 10 minutes. Let rest 10 minutes and then slice into 1-inch slices and cut again in half so that the pieces are bite-sized, and top with a thin piece of cheddar or manchego and a small slice or cube of membrillo (quince paste). If they don’t hold together, secure them with a toothpick.
- A dish of good olives and another dish for the pits. Do not serve pitted olives because there’s always an errant pit and no one will be expecting it if they think they’re all pitted. I know this from experience.
- A big, generous bowl of the best pistachios you can find, plus a little dish for the shells.
- Baby caprese on a little skewer: a little mozzarella bocconcini, plus a cherry tomato, and a basil leaf. Drizzle with a little olive oil and a tiny pinch of salt and pepper.
- You can do the same thing with the popular flavor combo of prosciutto and melon by stacking a cube of cantaloupe with a piece of prosciutto folded small enough to sit on top and then placing a basil leaf on each end.
- Most people love shrimp cocktail. You can buy shrimp already cooked and peeled (or do it yourself) and serve with a dish of cocktail sauce (1/2 c. chili sauce, 1/2 c. ketchup, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, a heaping teaspoon of horseradish, plus a few shots of Tabasco) or buy prepared pesto. Or you can turn the shrimp into canapés by placing a shrimp and a dab of the cocktail sauce or pesto on shrimp-sized slices of baguette.
- Generous bite-sized pieces of candied bacon, like Julia Reed’s recipe that we have. See our link.
- Buy slices of paté at a good specialty market like Zabar’s or its equivalent (not that there is an equivalent to Zabar’s). Include a salmon or vegetable paté for those who don’t eat meat and serve with slices of baguette, some coarse mustard, and a dish of cornichons.
- Good pizza made by your favorite pizza joint, gently re-warmed and cut into two-bite pieces. Keep the pizza thin and simple because it will re-heat more successfully than ones with complex toppings, plus simple ones are less messy to eat. A plain white pizza or margherita are good choices. If you’re anywhere near Sullivan Street Bakery in Chelsea, their potato pizza is ideal and re-heats beautifully, but if that’s inconvenient, investigate choices near you.
- Also made by someone else — a selection of sushi rolls, combining vegetable ones with those with fish. Just be sure to get them as close as possible to the time of your event because they do not refrigerate well (they dry out). Remember to provide a little dish of soy sauce and wasabi for dipping.
- Meatballs. Easy to make in advance and then re-warm in a little tomato sauce. Make them one-bite-sized and serve with toothpicks. Or buy them already made, but only if they’re not too big because that can be a mess to eat without a knife and fork.
- Smoked salmon is luxurious and popular. Cut slices into squares and place on small pieces of pumpernickel or 1/4-inch slices of seedless English cucumbers. Make pretty with a little piece of fresh dill.
- Another deluxe hors d’oeuvre is small slices of filet of beef roasted to medium rare and served in generous 3/4-inch slices, on thin pieces of baguette with a dab of horseradish sauce. You can buy the sauce already made at many delis (Boars Head makes a rather nice one) so all you have to do is roast the beef. Medium rare is usually best.
- Another way to serve the filet of beef is to slice it thin and serve it on equally thin slices of rye bread with a little mustard.
- Wrap steamed asparagus in a slice of prosciutto.
- Wrap scallions in a slice of pancetta and broil it until the pancetta is cooked, about 5 minutes on one side and 2 on the other. Drain briefly on a paper towel and serve warm.
- Crudités. Bite-sized raw vegetables are always popular, even if there are more glamorous options nearby. Arrange a large platter of them, using some less common vegetables like raw fennel. You can also serve a dip like one made with feta (see our recipe) or store-bought hummus, which almost everyone loves.
- Hummus needn’t be just a sideshow to raw veggies. It’s also nice with small wedges of fresh pita or fingers of toasted good bread.
- Popcorn can become fancy by serving it in a big bowl and while it’s still warm, toss it with melted butter and grated Parmesan, or a drizzle of truffle oil.
- Cheese board. Choose a variety of cheeses — good cheddar, gouda, and other firm cheeses do well here, plus include a chevre and a blue cheese like Stilton — and either pre-cut them into small pieces or let your guests cut their own. Arrange the cheeses on a cutting board, perhaps alongside your crudités, some jam or fresh fruit, and slices of dry salami. Have toothpicks handy so that folks don’t have to pick up the cheese with their fingers.
- Make a cream cheese dip by adding minced fresh chives, minced red peppers and a tiny dice of red onion and mix with some cream to loosen it until it’s soft (or else buy a flavored cream cheese at your deli and whip this one, too, with a little cream or half-and-half until it’s softened into a dip instead of still being a spread) and serve with bagel chips.
- A bowl of mixed nuts or the luxury of good toasted pecans halves or cashews, warmed and tossed with melted butter, a pinch of cayenne, and tiny mince of rosemary.
- Potato chips. Who doesn’t love them? (I consider them one of the world’s most perfect foods.) Serve the best quality you can find — or make your own by baking them with olive oil (see our recipe).
- Cheese sticks are quick to make by using store-bought puff pastry. Defrost it, roll it out a bit, cut into strips and twist, dust with grated cheese and bake. Here’s a recipe from TheKitchn.com.
- My favorite dips are from Ina Garten who makes a luscious one with salmon caviar, another with sun-dried tomatoes, and a third with pan-fried onions that is reminiscent — but so much better! — than the one we used to make with Lipton Soup mix. Her dips are worth a web search or the price of one of her terrific books.
A few tips on serving appetizers:
- Try to keep each item or each piece a single or double bite. Beyond that and people will want a plate and fork and it sort of becomes dinner.
- Make the presentation attractive by putting each type of hors d’oeurve on its own serving platter.
- Use a cutting board to present things that need to be cut, as with your cheeses and charcuterie, even if you’ve already cut them.
- Have lots of napkins since most hors d’oeuvres are eaten with our fingers.
- If anything is remotely messy, offer small plates in addition to napkins.
- If you have a big selection of appetizers, give each its own serving tools.
- Cheese tastes best at room temperature so if you’re doing a cheese board, remove the cheese from the refrigerator about a half-hour before your guests arrive.
- As folks mingle and eat, make sure you or someone periodically makes a sweep to clean up dirty napkins, bowls of olive pits, and any other debris that may be collecting. You want to keep things neat and, well, appetizing.
- Save a couple of bites for yourself, stashed in the kitchen. Otherwise the cook will lose out!