Appetizers Set the Tone for Your Meal
As their name implies, the traditional function of appetizers is to whet the appetite of your guests for the meal to come. Currently, appetizers, or hors d’oeuvres are often served on their own as finger food perfect for a party setting. While there’s nothing wrong with serving the classic pigs in a blanket or simple cheese and crackers, learning to create elegant and tasty appetizers can take your entertaining skills to a new level. When creating hors d’oeuvres, keep in mind their intended function. If they are to precede a meal, serving too many appetizers can backfire by making your guests too full to appreciate the meal. As party food, be sure to have plenty on hand as you don’t want to run out too soon.
Simply Elegant Appetizers
Hors d’oeuvres don’t need to be complex to be both elegant and delicious. One of the most common appetizers is crudités (crew-de-tays), which is a fancy way to describe fresh cut vegetables. Transforming a plain old vegetable tray to a dish worthy of its French moniker is simply a matter of presentation. Start with a bed of romaine lettuce or spring greens to provide color. Use a variety of cleanly cut vegetables in assorted colors for the best effect. For fancy flourishes, try edging seedless, peeled cucumbers, making radish rosettes or curled scallions.
Another easy to prepare, yet impressive, appetizer is to provide a selection of soft cheeses and pâtés. While fois gras is certainly elegant, not all pâtés are created from goose liver. To cater to friends that might be scared off by traditional pâté, try serving common variations such as sun dried tomato pâté, almond pâté or lentil pâté. Some soft cheese choices include Boursalt , Chaource, Brie, Humboldt fog, and Camembert. Both cheese and pâté should be served with a selection of breads and crackers. Rye, pumpernickel and water crackers make excellent choices that will not overpower the taste of the spread. Both spreads should be served at room temperature to heighten the flavor. For a traditional presentation, create a “wheel” of cheese and pâté on a cloth covered round platter.
If you are planning to serve appetizers as your main source of food, you’ll want to be sure to include a few choices that appeal to larger appetites. Bruschetta is delicious, substantial and very easy to put together. Start with a baguette (long thin loaf) of French or Italian bread. Cut the bread into ½” to ¾” slices (some delicatessens and stores will have pre-cut baguettes, but cutting your own is the only way to insure freshness). Mix together in a large bowl 2 large diced tomatoes, 1 small sweet onion, 2 tablespoons of olive oil, 1 pressed or diced clove of garlic and a teaspoon each of fresh chopped oregano, basil and parsley. Apply the mixture to the bread, sprinkle with freshly grated parmesan cheese and bake in a 400° oven for 8-10 minutes. After a brief cool down period, your bruschetta is ready to be served.
Another bread-based appetizer option is cheese fondue. Fondue sets are once again popular wedding gifts, but most people don’t take the opportunity to use them. Aside from being absolutely delicious, fondue is a fun food for your guests to experience and is easy to prepare. Start by tearing a loaf of fairly heavy bread (such as sourdough or hard French bread) into chunks about an inch in diameter. You can vary the type of cheese you use, but a distinctively tempting option is natural Swiss cheese.
Before starting the fondue mixture, cut a clove of garlic in half and rub it along the inside of the fondue basin. Next, add two cups of dry white wine (Riesling makes a nice choice) and heat it until it is warm, but not boiling. Once the wine is warm, gradually add one pound of grated Swiss cheese that has been dipped in flour, continually stirring until it is completely melted. Add a dash of pepper, nutmeg, and two table spoons of Kirsch (cherry brandy) or brandy to complete the fondue. Fondue should be served while it is still bubbling. If the mixture becomes too thick, you can add more wine to make it fluid.
Creating more complex hors d’oeuvres doesn’t require the efforts of a master chef. There are many simple recipes that will provide you with scrumptious appetizers that only look like the work of a professional. Mini-quiche in individual pastry shells look like works of art, taste divine, and are fairly simple to make. Here’s a recipe for roasted red pepper and sweet onion quiche to try at your next event. Start by gathering the following ingredients:
- Preformed mini-tart shells from your grocer’s freezer (thawed)
- ¼ cup roasted red peppers, either cooked at home or from a jar
- 1 cup Swiss cheese, shredded
- 2 eggs
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 pkg dried cream of onion soup mix
Set your oven to preheat to 375° and place the mini-tart shells on a baking sheet. Divide the cheese and peppers equally amongst all of the shells. Now mix together the eggs, cream and soup mix with a whisk and pour evenly into the tart shells. Bake these treats for 20-25 minutes and you have an aesthetically pleasing and delicious appetizer ready to serve.
Another elegant choice is filo cheese straws. Not only are these some tasty pasties, but they offer many unique presentation options and can be served with a variety of dips and sauces. Start by preheating your oven to 375° and melting a stick of butter in a saucepan. While the butter is melting, mix together 8 oz of softened cream cheese, a beaten egg, ¼ cup freshly grated parmesan cheese and ¼ teaspoon of salt. Next transfer this mixture to a pastry bag. If you don’t have a pastry bag to work with, you can improvise one by putting the mix into a plastic sandwich bag and snipping off one of the corners. By this point, the butter should be melted, so you are ready to start working on the dough. Brush the first sheet of dough with melted butter and pipe the filling along the long edge, leaving about a half inch on either end. Fold both ends over to keep the filling inside and roll the dough lengthwise into the shape of the straw. As each straw is complete, transfer it to a baking sheet. Once all the appetizers are complete, back the straws for 12-15 minutes, at which time they will appear golden. How you serve the straws is a matter of preference, but one way is to create little trees. Fill tall shot glasses with about a ¼” of sauce (marinara, pesto, and cocktail sauce work nicely) or dip and arrange 3 or 4 filo straws per glass to create the tree effect.