Holiday appetizers big on taste, small on stress

Bacon and shallot cheese puffs, a holiday appetizer created by Kate Washington, can be frozen ahead and reheated at party time.
Bacon and shallot cheese puffs, a holiday appetizer created by Kate Washington, can be frozen ahead and reheated at party time.

Hosting a festive holiday party for friends or family always sounds like a great idea – in October, when you put it on the calendar. Then this season of maximal merriment rolls around and boy, does cooking for that party seem stressful.

If you volunteered to host this year, or you’re thinking of an impromptu shindig, don’t panic. Putting out a spread of appetizers doesn’t have to involve hours of anxiety or fussy prep, says Ed Roehr, who with his wife, Janel Inouye, owns Magpie Cafe, Nido Bakery and Yellowbill Cafe. Roehr and Inouye got started as caterers (though they’ve recently scaled back Magpie’s catering business) and after conducting countless holiday parties, he’s got tips.

“For me, the most important thing when I’m hosting family and friends is to enjoy my time with them,” Roehr says. “So what I tend to do is to plan ways to eat that don’t consume my time while the guests are in the house.”

Of course, the easiest way to guarantee no stress around cooking and serving is to hire a caterer, Roehr points out – but that’s outside of the budget for many hosts. “It’s a nice luxury, but not all of us have that option,” he said.

One compromise is to pick up a couple of party platters, or to serve a mix of purchased, prepared foods and a few showpiece items you’ve cooked yourself. To keep things manageable, focus on two or at most three passed individual appetizers and set out platters for the other items. A good rule of thumb is to count on each guest eating two or three of any small passed canapé, but if you have especially hearty hors d’oeuvres, you can reduce this number slightly.

Use a similar strategy for serving drinks: Stock a house wine in white, red or sparkling, or plan on a special, made-ahead house cocktail, so you’re not caught playing bartender all night. Don’t forget that offerings from guests will likely add diversity to the bar.

Making foods ahead, serving items cold or at room temperature, or planning for warming and serving at party time, is key, Roehr says. “Have some element that you can have already figured out, that’s already assembled and you can unwrap.” That can mean serving cold appetizers made a few hours before the party and chilled, like our recipe for smoked trout and endive canapés. It also can mean prepping individual elements ahead (that trout filling, for instance, can easily be prepared the day before). Then there’s the reheat strategy, which can be used with our bacon and shallot cheese puffs; these savory bites re-crisp perfectly after 5 minutes in a hot oven.

Don’t be afraid to think outside the box about serving temperature: “Meats and even chicken skewers can be served cold,” Roehr says. (Our following recipe for coconut chicken skewers works well cold.) Or deploy a Crock-Pot or a good old-fashioned chafing dish: “If you want to serve something hot, try doing a braised or confited meat,” he says. “If you have some hot, shredded animal, you can put it in a Crock-Pot to spoon onto crostini or slices of bread.”

A hearty braise or shredded meat is ideal for a party where guests are expecting to eat a dinnerlike meal. For a lighter cocktail party, simple platters of crudités or cheeses are an easy option. Roehr notes that even these standard party trays, however, can become more memorable with a little creativity.

“At home, it’s nice not to have hard lines between different plates,” he says. “Most people will have crudites and a meat plate, say, but it’s nice to mix them together and push the limits. You can pair cold slices of charcuterie, grilled pieces of onion, small pats of hummus and roasted vegetables. It’s a nice way to bring in diversity without killing yourself with eight different plates.”

Likewise, he suggests mixing up other items often kept separate: chunks of grilled or roasted sausages alongside sliced cold charcuterie, for instance. Or put a fresh twist on a classic by substituting different ingredients, as Magpie does by using chard instead of spinach in the standby party dip.

Most important, he says, is to keep things within your comfort zone. “More times than not, at a holiday party, there can be pressure,” he says. Avoid it by planning and cooking ahead and keeping things simple – which goes back to Roehr’s first principle of hosting – make sure you can enjoy your time with friends and family.

“My experience as a cook and a gourmand is superseded by my wish to hang out,” he says.

Whatever you serve, don’t let the food get in the way of your – and your guests’ – good time.

Five easy (party) pieces

Ideas for rounding out a party spread without a lot of fuss:

  • Dress up a cheese platter by surrounding the cheeses with casual handfuls of dried fruit (figs, cherries, and apricots make a nice mix), a drizzle of honey or a chunk of comb, and nuts that pair well with the cheeses. Balance the platter by selecting a mix: Try one soft cheese (such as Brie), one tangy (chevre), one blue and one firm (such as an aged cheddar).
  • Roast almonds, tossed in a few tablespoons of olive oil, at a low temperature (200 degrees), until they are lightly browned inside, about 1 hour. For the last 10 minutes of oven time, sprinkle with a mix of flaky sea salt, cumin and paprika or cayenne.
  • Mix charcuterie and colorful roasted vegetables on a single lavish platter, as Ed Roehr of Magpie suggests. Try roasting Brussels sprouts, slices of sweet Delicata squash and whole sweet mini peppers. Make sure to offer plenty of toasted bread or sturdy crackers alongside. Roehr also suggests mixing in chunks of grilled or hot sausages on any meat plate to diversify it.
  • Make your own hummus, as Roehr does, with chickpeas and plenty of brightly colored, smoky pimenton (Spanish paprika). In a pinch, you can gussy up store-bought by adding the spice yourself.
  • Go local with a party plate sourced exclusively from area producers: Think pickled vegetables from Preservation & Co., a selection of crisps and crackers from Potter’s Crackers, cheese from Orland’s Pedrozo Dairy or Modesto’s Fiscalini Farms, and cured meats from Fra’Mani. If you really want to extend the theme, make your wine and beer all-regional as well.

Smoked trout and endive canapés

Time: About 20 minutes

Makes about 50 canapés

Elegant and colorful, these light party bites rely on fresh endive. The major American grower is the Delta’s California Endive Farms, which markets the traditional white heads and a festive red variety. Look for smoked trout in vacuum-sealed packets at specialty food stores; if you can’t find it, flaky hot-smoked smoked salmon is a good substitute.

8 ounces smoked trout

1 red apple

1/3 cup finely minced shallots

Juice and finely grated zest of 1 Meyer lemon, plus more to taste

1/2 cup crème fraîche

1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley, plus more for garnish

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

6 heads red and white endive

Remove skin from trout and flake meat into a small bowl. Core and finely dice apple (leaving skin on for color) and add to bowl with shallots, lemon juice, and lemon zest. Stir well to combine. Gently fold in crème fraîche and parsley. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and more lemon juice if desired.

Cut cores from endive leaves and separate into individual leaves. (Save very small leaves for another use.) If desired or if making ahead, rub cut ends of endive leaves with lemon halves to prevent browning.

Spoon trout mixture into sturdier cut end of each endive leaf. Arrange on a platter and serve.

Bacon and shallot cheese puffs

Time: 1 hour

Makes 40-50 puffs

These rich, flavorful bites are a spin on gougères, a French cheese puff made with eggy choux paste – the same pastry technique used to make éclairs and cream puffs. Here, the dough is loaded with bacon, caramelized shallots, and smoked Gouda cheese. They store well at room temperature or in the freezer, so you can make them a few days ahead and then warm in a 400-degree oven just before serving.

1/4 pound bacon, finely diced

1/2 cup minced shallots

1 1/2 cups water

6 tablespoons butter

1 1/2 cups flour

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Pinch salt

6 large eggs, lightly beaten

1 cup shredded smoked Gouda cheese

2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a large skillet, cook the bacon over medium-high heat, stirring often, until beginning to brown, about 5 minutes. Add the shallots and continue cooking and stirring until bacon is crisp and shallots are caramelized, 5 minutes more. Transfer to paper towels to drain and reserve 2 tablespoons fat from pan.

In a saucepan, combine the water, butter, and reserved bacon fat and bring to a boil over high heat. Remove from heat and add the flour. With a wooden spoon, beat in flour, cayenne, and salt vigorously until mixture is thoroughly combined in a smooth, thick paste. Add 1/4 of the egg mixture and beat until well combined. Continue to add eggs, a little at a time, until mixture is no longer slippery and all eggs are thoroughly incorporated.

Stir in bacon, shallots, Gouda and Parmesan. Line baking sheets with parchment paper. Spacing evenly, drop dough onto sheets in rounded tablespoon-sized portions. Bake until well browned, about 30 minutes. Serve warm.

Coconut chicken skewers with cilantro and tomato-tamarind dipping sauces

Time: 30 minutes, plus marinating time

These bite-sized chicken skewers, a quick-to-make spin on chicken satay, are good either hot or served at room temperature, paired with two colorful dipping sauces. They get appetizing color and a little extra flavor from grilling, but if that’s too big a hassle for winter entertaining, cook them stovetop in a grill pan or bake in the oven for about 10 minutes at 400 degrees.

2 pounds thinly sliced chicken breast meat or chicken tenderloins

1 can (15 ounces) coconut milk (reserve 2 tablespoons)

2 tablespoons fish sauce

1 tablespoon red chili flakes

1 tablespoon ground cumin

Juice of 1 lime

2 tablespoons brown sugar

1 tablespoon Sriracha sauce

Cilantro dipping sauce:

1 large bunch fresh cilantro, coarsely chopped

1 or 2 green serrano chilies, chopped

1/4 cup lime juice

1 clove garlic, crushed

Tomato-tamarind dipping sauce:

2 teaspoons olive oil

1 teaspoon coriander seeds

1 teaspoon mustard seeds

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1/4 cup tomato paste

1 tablespoon tamarind paste

2 tablespoons honey

2 tablespoons Sriracha sauce

Cut the chicken into 2-inch-long strips, each about 1 inch wide. In a bowl, stir together the coconut milk (reserving 2 tablespoons for dipping sauce), fish sauce, chili flakes, cumin, lime, sugar and Sriracha. Add the chicken pieces to the marinade, cover, and chill for at least 1 hour and up to 12 hours.

Meanwhile, make the dipping sauces: For the cilantro chutney, combine the cilantro, chilies, lime juice, garlic and reserved coconut milk in a blender or food processor and whirl until smooth. Spoon into a small bowl.

For the tomato-tamarind chutney, in a skillet, warm the olive oil over medium heat. Add the coriander, mustard, and cumin seeds and cook until they are fragrant and beginning to pop, about 30 seconds. Stir in the tomato paste, tamarind, honey and Sriracha until well combined and heated through. If sauce is too thick, thin with a little water or add more Sriracha to taste. Spoon into a small bowl and, if desired, garnish with a sprinkling of the whole spices.

Prepare a gas or charcoal grill for cooking over medium-high heat. Drain marinade from chicken and thread pieces onto small skewers. Grill, turning once, until cooked through, 6-8 minutes total. Serve warm or cool, with the dipping sauces alongside.