Throwing a party anytime of year can be either seamless or stressful, depending on how you set yourself up. After 25 years as a caterer and event planner, I always tell people not to take on too much: the point of the party is to have fun, not be running yourself ragged and working the entire time you have company. That said, mixing up what’s easy with a few well-placed appetizers can give the impression that you’ve pulled out all the stops.
1. The Basics
If there’s a gourmet market or Whole Foods in your area, stock up on quality hummus, chutneys, and an array of olives or other antipasto items. Pick out some good cheeses (especially goat and sheep cheese, which come in great variety and are healthier than cow cheese. Add beautiful clusters of grapes along with seasonal fruits such as berries, clementines, or figs. Buy nuts (shelled as well as whole, with a nutcracker; people actually enjoy cracking nuts!). Buy good quality breads and crackers, and some veggies for crudite (carrots, celery, broccoli, cauliflower, snap peas, green beans, asparagus, sweet peppers, cherry tomatoes or whatever looks good). With these ingredients you have the foundation for several easy and beautiful platters.
2. The Platters
Cheese tray with olives and antipasto (artichokes, roasted peppers, cornichons, smoked fish or chicken, etc)
Cheese tray with fruits, nuts and a dish of chutney
Crudite platter with hummus or other dip
Cracker tray with an assortment of whole grain, seasoned, and rice crackers
Bread tray with baguettes, good sourdough, and rustic breads, along with extra virgin olive oil and herbs for dipping
Nut bowls (shelled and whole)
From here select a few appetizers. The following are appetizers, spreads and dips that lend themselves beautifully to parties. None are particularly difficult to make and most can be prepared ahead of time.
This recipe for sweet potato latkes is a favorite of mine, and takes latkes to a new level. Choose jewel or garnet sweet potatoes for their rich flavor and deep orange flesh; Japanese yams are creamy in color with a deep chestnut flavor. Even better, mix the two!
A Sephardic dish inspires this recipe for spinach patties with Manchego (hard sheep’s milk) cheese. These are wonderful served plain with a spritz of fresh lemon or with a dab of slow roasted tomato or Romesco sauce. Make them bite sized for a party, or larger for a sit-down meal. Either way, they are delicious!
This easy recipe for smoked trout salad spread can serve as a fabulous appetizer on cucumber rounds; as a topper for crostini or bruschetta; a sandwich filling, or on a salad platter. Trout also happens to be rich in Omega-3 fatty acids and B-vitamins, so you get an extra nutritional bang from this recipe.
This recipe for Catalan Romesco (Spanish roasted pepper and almond sauce) is one of hundreds of variations on a theme. Many people use tomatoes in their Romesco, but I like mine without. Toasted almonds and roasted garlic lend layers of flavor to this complex condiment that is fabulous served with fish, grilled tofu, and meats, but also with crudités or as a topping for bruschetta, corn cakes, or spinach patties. Romesco is as versatile as it is flavorful.
This delicious recipe for roasted pepper and caper spread is bursting with flavors, and is wonderful party fare. It can be used for crostini (mini toasts with olive oil and herbs) bruschetta (thicker slices of bread, also toasted, but often of a more rustic variety). The bread can be spread with goat cheese or tapenade as well This topping can be prepared 2 days ahead of time, and is fabulous on grilled fish or poultry. Red peppers are very rich in Vitamin A, C and lycopene. They are also members of the nightshade family, and can aggravate arthritis or other sensitivity to nightshade vegetables.
This very easy recipe for festive smoked salmon and arugula bread stick batons with wasabi sauce only requires a bit of time to assemble. You can make the sauce 1 day ahead of time, and assemble the breadsticks an hour before your guests arrive. Just remember to refrigerate them until 10 minutes before serving.
This recipe for sourdough pizzette with sun-dried tomatoes, roasted garlic and goat milk brie is a whole foods answer to the English muffin/French bread “pizza”, and it’s all grown up. This is great party food: the breads can be assembled ahead of time, then heated and served with ease. Roasted garlic is very sweet and not nearly as volatile for the breath as raw or quickly cooked garlic. To be safe, you can always garnish the pizzas with sprigs of parsley, which freshen the mouth.
This chunky, herb-scented spread can be made with globe artichokes, artichoke hearts, or the tender baby artichokes that have completely edible leaves. The stems of artichoke plants are edible as well and quite sweet, so if your artichoke has stem attached to it, don’t throw it away! Simply peel and cook along with the rest of the flower. This recipe is delicious on little toasts or crackers; with salad or crudité; or as a sandwich filling.