Soirées & Snacks: My favorite thing about parties is the food…

There is nothing I love more than party food. Something about food on toothpicks or passed nibbles on tiny plates just calls out to me. Everything is more fun when it’s on pretty platters and available for grazing. I love having a glass of wine in one hand and a plate brimming with appetizers in the other.

Posting all the food pictures from my birthday party a few weeks ago inspired me to go back through last year’s birthday photos. My first thought upon seeing them was hmm, I need to plan another party very soon.

This is a very dangerous thought — one, that if given a chance, would devour all of my productive energy for months. So I decided to write a bit about party food in an effort to keep the demons at bay.

First up are some delicious hors d’oeuvres. Last year, I did a variation of pub trivia for my birthday party, which was held at my favorite local bar, The Lion’s Eye Tavern. After the quiz portion was done, we walked back to my place to soak up the beer with a whole lot of food.

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In planning my menu, I was heavily influenced by these Greek salad skewers I had seen in an issue of Food & Wine and wanted to do a ton of them in a variety of flavors. I bought a salami (whole, not sliced), pitted olives, cucumbers, sharp white cheddar, goat cheese and baby mozzarella balls, pickled pipparras and piquillo peppers, cherry tomatoes and pickled asparagus. Most of the stuff I was able to get at an upscale grocery store’s olive bar. They had so many great things that I just got a little of everything. Then I got to work putting them in assorted patterns on little bamboo skewers.

* Helpful hint: I used some feta too but the brand I bought was apparently too soft and so I had a hard time keeping it on the sticks. Instead I sliced the olives open and stuffed them with the cheese and then slid the whole thing on the skewer. *

The nice thing is there are so many choices, nobody has to pick off the things they don’t like — good for picky eaters as well as the lone vegetarian. Plus they are so colorful, they basically double as party decorations!

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Next I needed some fun snack mixes, a nod to the pub theme I had developed. My mind went first to an Asian-style brittle recipe I had seen on Martha’s website. I had been dying to make it since it’s full of tasty morsels  — wasabi peas, various nuts and sesame sticks. It’s a little spicy and a little salty, altogether ideal for a post-pub party. I also wanted some pretzels but not just out of the bag, something a little more festive was required. Luckily, Martha had a recipe for Sweet and Spicy Pretzel Mix using pretzel sticks, almonds, cayenne and sugar. These were a cinch to make and very addictive. I had to remind myself to stay away from them until the party started!

Then I went searching for something more exciting than regular Chex Mix and found this awesome Maple & Soy Chex Mix recipe. It sounded perfect (the recipe even has some curry in it which really intrigued me) and I could tailor the components so I didn’t overlap too many ingredients — I used mainly Chex cereal (rice and corn), sesame sticks and toasted corn since I had already used so many nuts in the other two mixes.

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I made a ton of each one of these mixes, thinking I’d have plenty of leftovers to enjoy afterwards, but they were quickly demolished by hungry guests. Which is a good indicator that these recipes are worth making again!

Other party food favorites of mine are, of course, anything on puff pastry as well as a simple old-fashioned charcuterie board, like the one below. I think my husband put this together one lazy Sunday for us to snack on when we didn’t feel like cooking.

I like offer up a few patés (you can usually buy some nice ones at an upscale butcher shop), some salami or prosciutto, some cheese, coarse-grain mustard and cornichons. This plate also has an all-time favorite of mine — a beet terrine made with goat cheese. Some day I will show you how to make this. It is so very good and so pretty.

Finally, here are a few more party nibbles my friend Ariel and I put together when we catered a housewarming party for my parents. We needed it to be relatively simple since we only had one day to prep, but I think we did a nice spread. Ariel had a recipe for a frittata that could be sliced up and I had been dreaming about this recipe for adorable mini mac-and-cheese bites. I used some larger macaroni noodles that I had on hand — in hindsight I should have bought some smaller ones since they might have worked better in the mini-muffin pan, but these still got rave reviews.

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The veggies were inspired by this Martha Stewart spread, where the crudite are arranged to look like they are in a garden. We just did ours in a big bowl, but Ariel worked some magic with those veggies and made them beautiful. We had an herb-filled buttermilk dressing for dipping, though you can use any salad dressing you have handy.

We also spent a good portion of the evening before the party making a laughably enormous cheese ball. I honestly don’t know how it happened, but it was larger than a softball. We started with some goat cheese (like maybe a pound, which might explain why it was so huge) mixed with cream cheese and then threw in store-bought pesto plus extra pine nuts and basil. I think we had half of this sucker left over, but it was a great post-party snack. I even used some with cooked pasta as an easy creamy and very cheesy sauce.

So basic rules for party food: cheese should always be present, food that can be eaten with one hand is ideal and anything on a stick will make people happy.

Now go forth and party on!

Speaking of Puff Pastry…

I wrote a post not too long ago discussing my love affair with onions. While I also briefly touched upon my affection for puff pastry, it occurred to me I could expand on this subject. Looking through pictures from the past few years, I found some excellent examples of why it’s a great idea to always keep a box of puff pastry in your freezer.

First up are some appetizers I did for Oliver’s birthday party last year. Since it was  a potluck-style game night, I thought a vegetarian-friendly finger food would be fun. In my recipe folder (of course!) I found a tartlet that involved ricotta cheese, roasted cherry tomatoes and puff pastry — clearly it was perfect.

I rolled out one dough and, since I was feeling frisky, decided to tweak the recipe a bit. I added cloves of roasted garlic and threw some pesto in with the ricotta. Once the puff pastry was cooked and the toppings were assembled, the final result was impressive. Not only was it pretty, but it was also damn tasty. Don’t judge — I had to try a piece. Or two. It is irresponsible to bring bad food to a potluck.

In fact it was so good that I felt like I should make one more tartlet just for kicks. Since I was out of cherry tomatoes, I decided to go in a slightly different direction. I still had pesto, more garlic and some Parmesan laying around. Then a small bag of yukon gold potatoes caught my eye. While working in an Italian-influenced restaurant a few years ago, we used the pesto/potato combination in many different applications, usually in pastas. This seemed to be a prime opportunity to play around with it.

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So I thinly sliced the potatoes, tossed them with some garlic oil, salt and pepper and then roasted them on a sheet pan until they were golden brown and tender. I did the same layering action, grated some parm on top and voila — tartlet number two was finished, delicious and ready to roll. And everyone loved them — hooray!

The tartlets are especially nice because you can cut the pieces as big or as small as you want. One large slice of either of these along with a small side salad would be the perfect brunch. Small squares were great for the potluck, as people could nibble on them throughout the evening. The best part is that humble ingredients can make a fancy-looking dish that people think you spend a lot of time preparing. In reality, once your puff pastry has thawed, this comes together quite quickly and you can use almost anything edible that you happen to have on hand.

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Here’s a couple more appetizers I made with my friend Ariel for my parent’s housewarming party a few years ago. I got my inspiration from a Food & Wine recipe and played around with the flavors. We topped the cooked squares of puff pastry with homemade fig jam, Roquefort and toasted walnuts. We did another set with roasted diced beets and goat cheese. As a helpful hint, we did follow the instructions of cooking the pastry between two cookie sheets to prevent the “puff.” This made the squares more like crackers — crunchy, buttery crackers.

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Another great use of puff pastry is for desserts. Besides your usual fruit tarts — here’s an example from one of my favorite blogs, The Pioneer Woman — there are hundreds of sweet recipes involving puff pastry. I came across one on Pinterest that I wanted to make as soon as I saw it — little golden-brown pillows, stuffed with Nutella, toasted walnuts and marshmallows. The toasty crispy outside and the warm gooey center was nothing short of amazing. They were insanely easy to make, instantly satisfying and, of course, extremely versatile. And they are also very popular — one google search will net you numerous recipes and variations.

Basically have fun with it — thankfully puff pastry is as forgiving as it is inexpensive. There’s no excuse not to experiment and see what goodies you can create. The possibilities are endless….and I promise you, they will be delicious.