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Appetizers: the best of the party table

Throwing a party means having a few appetizers on hand. From cream cheese to prosciutto, here a few ideas and recipes for pleasing your guests.

Hors d'oeuvres can be anything from mundane and simple to fresh and exciting; either way, your guests will probably be happy. Trays full of special cheeses and meats alongside plenty of veggies, dips, and crackers are all you need for a quick get-together. However, not only should appetizers taste good, they should look pretty.

Take the time to plan and you can throw together some decorative and distinctive types of appetizers - a far cry from chips and dip.

Make your shopping and recipe lists with a focus on colors, textures, and presentation. For cheeses, choose a range of whites to yellows to oranges. Mix shapes and heights, using wedges, cubes, slices, and blocks.

Veggies offer the best rainbow: radishes, celery, peppers, carrots, cauliflower and broccoli flowerets, and cucumber.

Toasted baguette slices, or crostinis, will add crunch and a great base for many types of toppings, including cheese and meat, such as roast beef and prosciutto. Spreadable cheese dips make a nice layer; then add a cocktail onion or olive. You can make the crostinis - sliced on an angle - ahead of time by placing in the oven on low heat. Brush on a little butter and let them bake for a few minutes or until they are lightly browned. Let cool and bag until ready to place next to the condiment tray.

Bread sticks also make good dippers. For a standalone basket, make cheese sticks ahead of time with puff pastry and grated cheese. Just roll out the pastry, add the cheese, fold over, roll again, and cut in small strips. Twist the strips, brush with egg yolk, and place in a 425-degree oven until golden brown.

For a taste of Indonesia, grill up a batch of pork satay ahead of time and then reheat in the oven. Serve with a peanut dipping sauce.

For a Latin America flair, cook up albondigas, or meatballs. These will appeal to those with heat-conditioned tastebuds. Just add minced jalapeno or habanero peppers to your favorite meatball recipe. These can also be made and cooked ahead of time, then reheated just before serving. Heat them in batches, so you'll always have a fresh supply of warm meatballs. Make them extra-small and skewer with a toothpick before serving.

Cream cheese is the work horse of veggie dips, celery stuffers, and cracker spreads. Here's a great make-ahead recipe. You can substitute just about any ingredient to make a cream cheese spread.

Spicy seafood cracker spread

1 block cream cheese, softened
½-3/4 cup cocktail shrimp, cooked and minced
3 green onions, finely diced
1 large jalapeno, seeded & minced (optional)
2 Tablespoons, heaping, grated or crumbled cheese (cheddar, Roquefort, your choice)
1 Tablespoon, heaping, fresh parsley, minced (adjust for color)
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon yellow mustard

Mix all ingredients and refrigerate overnight. Use to stuff celery sticks or spread on crackers.

In addition to making your appetizer table pretty, make sure the foods you prepare are easy to handle. You want to be able to pick up food, balance it on a plate, drink a beverage, and enjoy the conversation without having to think about how to eat the food.

The best part of serving appetizers is that they are so easy, you can enjoy your guests without having to worry about the food.


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