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Festive Foods for Your Cocktail Soirée!

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Maybe a long forgotten swizzle stick caught your eye. Maybe you heard laughter and the clinking of glasses on your way home from work. Whatever the reason, you cannot get “cocktail party” out of your mind. Go ahead! With a little planning, it’s easy and lots of fun! Here are some foolproof methods for combining fabulous flavors and creating a talked-about, swinging affair.

I like to present guests with an assortment of stationary finger foods that they can pick at all night long. This eliminates any pressure you may feel to crank out hors d’oeuvres for your guests nonstop, and frees you up to schmooze, giggle, and have fun at your own bash. Good things to put out just before guests arrive are cheese platters adorned with fresh fruit and pretty nuts, a big bowl of homemade hummus (or any other beloved dip), and spiced pita crisps—and of course—classic crudités.

I like to use edible garnishes to make my platters of finger food attractive. For example, I use chives for their wonderful long, green lines. You can also scatter edible flowers or some quails eggs (hard-boil them first to avoid making a heartbreaking mess) in your crudités basket. I use lemon leaves to make a simple visual flourish. Bunches of beautiful champagne grapes can also be used. If you serve food on trays or cutting boards, miniature fruits make great decorations. I’ve used one perfect, miniature pear in the reflective center of a mirror I was using as a serving tray, and it looked spectacular.

There are several basic types of hors d’oeuvres. I like to serve at least four different kinds so I can be sure of satisfying all my guests’ tastes: a couple cold (or room temperature) hors d’oeuvres, a meat or seafood selection, a couple of veggie options, and a tasty little dessert to round things off.

Here are some guidelines for creating the perfect combination of nibbles.

If you’re throwing a theme party, that will determine your flavor palette. For example, if you decide to throw a Mexican fiesta, dishes using chiles, cilantro, and lime are good ideas. If you’re using a 70s theme, choose snacks from that era. It may require some research, but believe me when I tell you that this kind of research is FUN. Take a nostalgic trip to the past.

Don’t worry about being high-falutin’ either. Be authentic! Use old-fashioned ingredients! Don’t be afraid of Spam. Don’t run screaming from creamed corn—that stuff makes the best and easiest fritters. Or take Cool Whip. Once I put a drop of red food coloring into a vat of Cool Whip and slid it onto a chic tapioca caviar bar. A tall, Hollywood blonde literally stood at the bar and shoveled in tapioca on blinis—covered, no SWATHED in pink, fluffy Cool Whip—babbling all the while about her secret obsession with it. You never know.

Think about the drink you want to feature. What food perfectly complements a Cosmo? The drink is sweet, limey and elegant. Go for hors d’oeuvres with some substance (to soak up that alcohol a bit) and flavors that pair well with lime. A spicy-ish bite of something in a tartlet would be lovely! Other citrus flavors would be great, too—orange-zested Ahi tuna on a wonton crisp is easy and delicious.

If you are serving international beers, go for food that will compliment their taste and mood; but take brewpub fare up a notch. Try prosciutto-wrapped superslim breadsticks with a favorite dipping sauce, multitudes of various spiced and herbed nuts, grilled mini burgers, Cubans, Ruebens, three cheeses with sundried tomatoes, sweet potato frites with garlicky sour cream—all are great choices.

Wine and cheese are practically fraternal twins. Pick cheeses from the same region as the wine if you can—and make interesting and unusual choices. There are a ton of amazing boutique cheeses out there; for God’s sake, if you serve a cheddar, it better not be from Wisconsin (and I am a native!) or California. Instead, get it sharp, aged, and from an exotic country. By the way, there is no written law that says you have to put cheeses on a big cheese plate, though I often do it because it looks so gorgeous. You can also slice them up in interesting ways and pass them around. Why not crumble some bleu on shortbread disk and present it in a bon-bon wrapper? Cube your cheeses and skewer them with a basil leaf and grape tomato—or a beautiful berry.

When deciding what canapés you should serve, always bear in mind what flavors will compliment—not overpower—each other. The food should enhance your overall cocktail experience, not eclipse it.

Don’t forget to garnish! Add splashes of color so your food looks scrumptious to the eye as well as appealing to the taste. Mini quiches are delicious, but lack pizzazz in the color department, so chop a bit of fresh herb to sprinkle on, or use a spear made of red pepper. A dab of bright jam (there are savory jams available) can work; just experiment.

Be prepared! To be safe, provide between three or four pieces of each hors d’oeuvres per person. Your stationary platters of nibbles will act as a backup. When making your head count, remember that guests eat the most during the first two hours of a party. Also, consider that if hors d’oeuvres are hearty and filling, guests may only eat one or two of each. If a treat is easily popped into a mouth, prepare more. Don’t forget to set out cocktail napkins!

As you can see, the choices of what to serve are endless and very subjective, but here are some general tips to help you along the way:

  • Learn to make a decent crostini—trust me on this one. One baguette yields about thirty crostini if you slice it thinly enough (not too thin or they will break). Slice your bread, brush both sides of each slice with olive oil, and lay the slices flat on cookie sheets. Sprinkle with salt, garlic, parsley, and pepper, any herbs or spices you want, and bake at 350° F. Start checking on them at nine minutes. They should be crispy on the outside, and slightly chewy in the middle. This prevents the “I took a bite and the rest of this hors d’oeuvres crumbled onto my chemise” problem. Another great tip? If the slices are big, cut them in half so they are manageable and easy to eat.

  • Do as much as you can the day before. Lots of things taste better after the ingredients hang out together overnight. Crostinis can be stored overnight in an airtight container, veggies can be chopped and kept in water, pita crisps can be baked and stored, dips can be made. Do anything that will help make the party day less hysterical!

  • Don’t blow off vegetarians—they’re people, too. Plan at least two delicious veggie hors d’oeuvres to soothe the health-conscious among us. Cucumbers make fantastic little cups, as do cherry tomatoes and tiny potatoes. Use a melon baller on them and scoop away! You can fill these three with anything yummy and they will look very pretty and delicate on a plate. I love to serve a cold soup “sip” in a cucumber cup and then watch my guests eat the little green bowl.

  • Remember the allergy-prone! Nothing kills a cocktail soirée faster than the shriek of a speeding ambulance coming for a wheezing guest curled in a fetal position on your hardwood floor. Do yourself a favor and ask around. Granted, most allergic guests will let you know in advance about any specific ingredient that could cause trouble, but it’s best to do a full appraisal. Know thy guests.

  • Shop ‘til you drop! Farmer’s markets are ideal places for this, as the produce is inexpensive and fresh. In addition, supporting your local farmers is never a bad investment for your karmic bank account. Most markets have wonderful, quality cheese and bread, too. If you are a GOB (Girl on a Budget), Asian markets sell vegetables for a mere pittance! They can meet your seafood needs as well. Not only that, but they have a whole world of cool things to explore: sauces, spices, noodles, and fancifully packaged candies. So get thee to Chinatown, and don’t be intimidated by the language barrier. Most of the items you need are recognizable, and every so often, there will actually be an English translation on packaging. You might see an interesting, nubbly fruit that would look fabulous on your table, or some inspired plates and platters. If you go with an open mind, Asian markets can be treasure troves. 

Whatever you decide to serve, make it all snazzy and make it your own. Find the sparkling, champagne flute of creativity bubbling inside you, and get it out there! That creativity was made for throwing a cocktail party. Above all…enjoy yourself. There’re few things better in life than a festive gathering with friends over drinks, accompanied by beautiful, tasty food. Happy cocktailing!


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