There are many different types of hors d’oeuvres: canapés, crudités with or without dips, some extremely sophisticated and elegant, some less so. Pastries cut into funny shapes, fishcakes, you name it, you can probably turn it into an hors d’oeuvre. But for me, hors d’oeuvres that are served with cocktails, especially if your guests are going to be standing, need to be of a particular type.
First of all they need to be finger food that is not going to drip or splash, so no sauces, nothing wet and nothing runny, and nothing that will leave the guest looking wildly around for a napkin. There are a few exceptions, but if there is a sauce, it needs to be enclosed in pastry and small enough to eat in one bite or thick enough that it’s not going to drip. Secondly, they need to be savory, so nothing sweet. Generally, salty is good, particularly with a crowd that prefers Martinis.
Good flavors to use are cheese, olive, tomato, bacon, ham, perhaps fish, but not too strong, you want to complement the drinks, not overpower them. Anchovies are probably out unless they are tempered by some other flavor.
Hors d’oeuvres can be hot or cold, but not too hot, because guests don’t want any nasty surprises like a burnt tongue when they pop that interesting looking pastry into their mouth. Many a war has been started when the hors d’oeuvres at a diplomatic function were too hot. The First World War for example started over a fig pastry straight from the oven. I am just kidding, but you get the idea.
Starting with the basics, ready made snacks like peanuts, mini pretzels, nachos, (no chilli/hot cheese dipping sauces please) potato chips etc are a good start. They fit all the criteria: bite-sized, salty finger food that doesn’t leave too much of a mess on the hands.
Moving up the food chain, forgive the pun, things like quiches are excellent. There are numerous places to buy ready made mini quiches. If you are feeling adventurous, you could try making your own. They really take very little time to cook and ready made pastry cases are also readily available. It always nice to be able to say “Oh, I just whipped them up this afternoon,” when a guest asks where they came from. Of course, the less scrupulous amongst us have been known to say that as the caterers are leaving through the back door.
I prefer a quiche lorraine (cheese and bacon or ham) or tuna, but vegetables are good too. Of course, you are not limited to using only quiche fillings in a case and you can use them for other fillings. Try baking the pastry, letting it cool and then filling with cucumber, crème fraiche and salmon tartare.
Home made vegetable chips are also good, but require a lot of preparation and are probably better purchased ready made. Cut vegetables are good, but be careful with the dip. A heavy dip that won’t drip easily needs to be used.
Toast can be used spread with almost anything, cream cheese, smoked salmon and capers, chevre, salami with cornichons, sun dried tomatoes, the list is endless. Cut the toast into small pieces and make sure that the toppings are not runny. But these are a little boring so I have some different ideas also. Try a garlic pesto for a little zest or a strong English farmhouse cheddar with raw onion.
For something different and a little more adventurous, I like to use a white pizza. The pizza can be either homemade or delivered, but it needs to be a thin crust white pizza with a small amount of topping, just garlic, olive oil and a salty cheese. No Papa John’s meat eater’s spectacular that needs three people to carry it through the door. Cut the pizza into small squares and serve in a pile of squares. Unlike a traditional pizza, there is no sauce, so it will not be messy. Similarly, sprinkle a few herbs and spices on a flour tortilla, with a little olive oil, bake in the oven on a baking sheet and make your own flavored chips. You can use almost anything, but a mix of olive oil, garlic powder, oregano, chili powder, cilantro and lemon juice works well. Bake them for about ten minutes at a medium heat until crispy and then cut them into squares like the pizza. Devilled eggs are always popular too.
If you are feeling even more adventurous, try asparagus wrapped in Proscuitto. Or asparagus, Prosciutto and sun dried tomato pastries – one of the best asparagus recipes ever. Once again make sure they are bite sized. Crispy Chinese spring rolls cut into pieces or wontons, but not too fresh out of the oil.
Miniature salmon or crab cakes with a small amount of sauce, either tartar sauce, cocktail sauce or a crème fraiche base work well, but, once again, a small amount of thick sauce that won’t drip.
Puff pastry shells are also a wonderful way of providing a wide selection of tastes and you can use a lighter sauce if the shells are bite sized. This allows you to add a few different textures and flavors, because it’s all safely encased in pastry. Make sure the shells are small and the world’s your oyster. Shrimp scampi, shrimp and cheese, chicken, ham and cream, you can use pastry shells for almost anything. Some of my favorites include beef with a mustard cream sauce and crawfish tomato etouffee. Just remember, the shells take very little cooking time, so any meats used to stuff them need to be pre-cooked or able to be eaten raw.
Another way of providing hors d’oeuvres is on a skewer or cocktail stick. Fresh Mozzarella caprese, chicken satay, cheese and ham, whole shrimp, thinly sliced beef tenderloin with horseradish, all can be served on a small skewer. The same rules apply, they need to be bite sized, salty, and leave no mess. Cooked vegetables like whole shiitake mushrooms work also.
There are dozens of specialty websites offering suggestions for creative canapés and many of them are a lot less work than you might think. a lot of indian recipes are great for appetizers as well. One of the most important aspects of providing hors d’oeuvres is presentation and some chefs make an art form of this alone. In fact, some culinary schools award part of their final marks based on presentation alone. On the whole, guests are more likely to sample them if they don’t feel they are likely to drop anything when they help themselves to something off the plate. There are a few exceptions, such as the pizza squares and the chips, but a reasonable amount placed on a silver platter is going to be more appealing than a large precariously balanced pile of devilled eggs that are likely to end up on the floor if disturbed. In this case, less is definitely more.
Bon Apetit !