You’re hosting an Appetizer Party.
Do those five words fill you with anxiety — or excitement?
About two months ago my next-door neighbor asked me if I’d consider catering her daughter-in-law’s baby shower. I’ve never cooked directly for either of them, but ten years of block party cooking (and dropped off treats) I guess gave her the confidence that I was up to the task.
I have to say though that the request gave me pause; I used to be a professional caterer but I’d grown tired of it. The hours were too long, the profits too slim and the clients effusive but as a perfectionist, I could never be 100% happy with what I produced.
And as good as my food usually was, production was always so stressful and as much as you prepared, things could and would go wrong. My friend Elona has probably still not forgiven me for enlisting her help at a wedding I catered and the oven didn’t work properly (and I had 150 uncooked meatballs and just as many buzzed but hungry attendees).
I love this neighbor though, and the party was just for 25 — so I agreed.
I’m happy to say that last weekend’s party was a complete success, and this past week I’ve committed to memory the lessons I’d learned from this event to remember for the next time.
And because I get hit up all the time with party tips (and the holiday season is fast approaching), I thought I’d summarize here.
MY SEVEN TIPS FOR THE PERFECT APPETIZER PARTY.
1. Figure out roughly how much food you’re going to need.
I’ve been to cocktail parties where the booze offered outnumbered the food 10-1 — and everyone got sloshed on empty bellies. I’ve also been to parties in which the hostess offered huge crockpots of food but they remained barely touched as the dippers disappeared (and then the warm food was sort of forgotten).
Here’s a good rule to keep in mind.
If you’re serving food with liquor during cocktail hours (say 4-6 or 5-7 p.m.) for a limited time, plan on 2-3 bites per person of savory, and maybe 1 of sweet.
If you’re serving food for an extended period during dinner (say 6 p.m. on), plan on as many as 5 or 6 bites per person and 2-3 of sweet (depending on size of food and hormonal surges of women attending).
2. Don’t make everything yourself; pay for the items you can’t or don’t want to make.
For this baby shower, I encouraged my neighbor to buy dessert. Not only do I not know a lot of gluten-free desserts, trying to also nail this detail too would have stressed me out to no end.
Roberta picked up those cupcakes at Back to Eden — and they were perfect.
Use this same trick. Pick the most labor-intensive item at your party and buy it from an expert.
Think focaccia from your favorite Italian shop. Mini pastries from the bakery you love. Or even warm up one of your preferred appetizers from the freezer department (think gougeres, dumplings or phyllo triangles).
3. Make sure all your appetizers have complementary flavors.
I hate going to a party in which too many contrasting flavors are being offered. You can’t prevent this from happening at potlucks, but when you’re in charge of the food, please don’t offer things like Sun-dried Tomato Goat Cheese Crostini next to Sesame Chicken Cups and Mini Taco Boats.
Just offer things that won’t make your friends cringe if they take alternating bites of them.
For this baby shower, I offered: Grilled Shrimp Cups with Avocado and Sesame, Ahi Tuna Poke Cups with Basmati Rice, Thai Turkey Larb and Fruit Kabobs.
So all the offerings were pan-Asian, but with ginger, sesame, garlic. lime, fish sauce and basil intermingling, it was all good together.
4. Make pricy ingredients go further with a little hidden bulk.
My neighbor really wanted to offer fresh Ahi Tuna Poke appetizers, but I knew how expensive the sushi-grade tuna would be, so I served little amounts on warm basmati rice and topped with macadamia nuts.
They were so so good –and the rice added not just heft, but extra texture and crunch, too.
5. Keep your serveware neutral — and leave pops of color for accents and the food.
I’m a big fan of white porcelain; it makes everything look elegant and no matter the shape, it’ll look good with everything else on the table.
6. Decant liquids and remove all the packaging from offerings: drinks, snacks, everything.
I think everything but wine or champagne bottles should be decanted. Everything. Who wants to see a Tropicana carton on the cocktail cart or a hummus container on the buffet? Nobody.
For crying out loud, just grab a bowl, a plate, or a saucer. And if you don’t have enough pitchers, use a quart sized Mason jar or any clear vase or bottle.
Trust me on this one.
7. Unless your appetizer is really straightforward (like a kabob or stacked), stick your appetizer in a container.
I was originally thinking about serving this Turkey Larb in endive, but the leaves were so small and not as deep as I’d like, and I feared that they’d either collapse on the platter or end up all over the pretty clothes of the guests.
I took disposable shot glasses and filled them with the ingredients (along with mini-spoons) and I’m happy I did — even when the platter was half-emptied it still looked neat and pretty.
(This strategy will also make any germophobe or double-dipper haters super happy.)
Okay, and here’s my one last bonus tip.
Don’t Panic. About Anything. I promise it will be fine.
Case in point.
The cantaloupe I was planning for the fruit platter turned out still to be underripe on the day of the party — so I cut it up, marinated the tiny pieces in a bit of rice wine vinegar, chopped red onion and herbs and then added it all to my Grilled Shrimp Salad Cups.
When I realized that my Tuna Poke Cups were looking kind of monochromatic, I grabbed some pomegranate seeds from the bar and added them atop.
And thinking back to that wedding a couple years ago, even a non-working oven worked out okay; I ended up cooking those meatballs on a flat-top and when they were too wet and flat to skewer, I added them to butter lettuce cups and topped them with peanut sauce (and pretended that I was planning to do that all along).
After all, here’s the reality, friends.
If your friends are lucky enough to get an invite from you for an appetizer party, the last thing they’re going to do is nitpick or judge— they’ll just be so grateful that you’re the one hosting.
But just in case, keep those drinks coming.
*A very special thanks to the very talented Los Angeles-based photographer Jessica Zollman who provided some of the pictures above. And to my wonderful neighbor Roberta and equally lovely mom-to-be Leah, thanks for being the easiest clients ever.