A holiday open house often means open season on the host’s resources. Whether you use a caterer or prepare the food yourself, it’s possible to offer guests a feast for their senses without a feast on your nerves.
One secret to simple sophistication:
“One-bite wonders,” says Elaina Vazquez, owner and executive chef of catering company Boutique Bites. “They’re not messy and there’s not a lot involved.”
Guests appreciate smaller hors d’oeuvres over four- or five-bite appetizers.
“You pop it in your mouth and it’s done,” she says. No fumbling with crumbling foundations or talking with your mouth full.
Restaurant-quality nibbles, not standard chips and salsa, are feasible and affordable even for the do-it-yourselfer. Vazquez advises starting with inexpensive, versatile and hearty ingredients such as polenta, chorizo and pasta. A sauce adds instant zing, and most can be made the day before, then heated in the microwave the day of.
Polenta cakes with tomato jam and goat cheese, and dates with chorizo are elegant but easy.
“People don’t think about polenta. But there’s so much you can do to it. You can add different herbs. Chopped tarragon. Saffron. Every single time, at our tasting events, clients always choose it.”
Focus on complementary bites. “I always incorporate one spicy and one or two comfort ones, and then I usually like to have one upscale one, like a buckwheat-flour blini with smoked salmon and creme fraiche.”
Her shrimp lollipops happen to be economical because Vazquez butterflies the shrimp so that one turns into two, to make them manageable in one bite.
“The day of the party we reheat until they’re just warm — you want guests to be able to pick them up.” She sprinkles minced chives on top.
“The good thing about hors d’oeuvres, unless you’re getting into caviar, is that since they are so small, they’re not really going to cost you a lot.”
As a ballpark estimate, for an hors d’oeuvres and cocktail party, she recommends planning 10 to 12 bites per guest per hour and a half. A rough budget for a DIY host would be about $7 to $10 a person; for catered bites, $15 to $20.
“The only thing I like to do the day of is assembly and garnish and reheating,” she said. “The last thing you want on the day of is to be stressed out. If I can, I set the table the day before. The more you can do the day before, it really frees you up to enjoy the party.”
Here are some of her party trio tips and recipes.
3 to avoid:
• A one-dimensional table. “Height is always a good thing. I use risers, and you can get them at CB2 or Crate & Barrel,” Vazquez said. Even cake pans can be pulled out to add height.
• Chips and salsa. Guests standing at the bowl can create a blockade.
• Olives with pits. “You can find any kind of olive pitted.”
3 to remember:
• Sufficient glassware. “You don’t really want to be washing and drying to replenish,” Vazquez says. “You don’t have to go out and buy it, you can rent it — or there are nice options in disposables.”
• A shot glass or other vessel for disposal of toothpicks/skewers.
• Cocktail napkins and disposable towels for the bathroom.
3 to trade
• Table cloths: “I always like the look of just the table, even if it’s distressed wood,” she says. “Then I use different serving pieces and garnishes to make the table pop.”
• Flowers. In winter, consider potted herbs, flowering artichokes or kale, or branches in a simple cylinder.
• New platters. Disguise humble serving trays with banana leaves cut to the size of the plate. They can be found in the freezer section at some produce stores.
Bacon-wrapped dates with chorizo & red pepper sauce
Prep: 25 minutes Cook: 25 minutes Makes: 1 dozen, 4 servings 12 dates, pits removed 6 ounces Mexican chorizo, removed from casing 6 slices bacon, cut in half horizontally 1 tsp. sweet Spanish paprika 1 jar (7 ounces) roasted red peppers, drained, diced 1/4 cup tomato sauce