Over the years, I’ve devised a number of hors d’oeuvres that I can throw together at the drop of a hat. All are made with readily-available ingredients and take little time to assemble. Some involve my hanging out at the stove of my open kitchen, pan-frying or assembling the little bites. I find that my guests LOVE to sit at the island drinking wine or cocktails as food is actually being made.
Here’s a compendium of notated ideas to inspire your holiday entertaining.
My primary trick for jazzing up a classic hors d’oeuvresis to swap out bread base for really good potato chips, that is small-producer chips cooked only in oil with salt, and at the most, rosemary and/or black pepper — no powdered garlic or flavor enhancers. Instant amazement!
Potato Chips with Caramelized Onion Dip (above). Made with caramelized onions and sour cream, this always kills. You’ll find the recipe here.
Pancetta or Bacon Chips. Atlantic food writer Corby Kummer came up with the brilliant idea of serving crisp smoky bacon as a lets-be-real-here hors d’oeuvre. It’s also great with pancetta, which comes in rounds. If you handle the round slices carefully, you can cook them so they hold an elegant shape. I do them in the oven. Use thick-sliced bacon that has been smoked over apple or another flavorful wood; cut each slice into thirds. Pancetta slices should be thin, about 1 1/16 to 1/8-inch thick.
Arrange bacon or pancetta in a single layer in two large skillets. Cook, covered over moderately low heat, turning once until the fat has rendered out and the bacon is crisp, about 8 minutes. Drain on paper towels.
If you feel like doctoring the crisp slices up a bit, slick them lightly with wildflower honey or maple syrup and a sprinkling of pepper and broil for 2 or 3 minutes until glazed.
Potato Chips with Robiola. I learned this from Peggy Markel —food adventure facilitator extraordinaire — when she assembled this utterly simple combo after we’d made the long trek from Florence to the island of Alba. Robiola is a soft mild cheese from Italy that tastes like fresh cream. Arrange the potato chips around a robiola cheese with little knives or paddles for spreading the cheese onto the chips.
Pan-Fried Macaroni-and-Cheese The cheese caramelizes to make a crackling container for the molten mac-and-cheese. You can use home-made or store-bought mac-and-cheese. Chill and slice about 1/2″ thick. Dust each side with Wondra flour (for a crisper crust), or all-purpose if that is all you have. Heat some butter in a nonstick skillet until hot. Add a layer of mac-and-cheese-slices and cook until brown on the bottom, 3 or 4 minutes. Flip and cook until the other side is brown. Serve at once.
Pan Fried Olives. Pan-frying olives concentrates the flavor of good olives and magically enhances mediocre olives. Throw some drained olives into a skillet with some olive oil, a smashed garlic clove and a few sprigs of thyme. Roll them over a lowish flame for 20 minutes or more, until their skin just begins to shrivel.
Fine Prociutto di Parma, Serrano Ham, or Artisan Salami. Little is a more perfect hors d’oeuvre than thin slices or shards of an excellent ham or salami. The key: buy the best you can find, preferably hand-sliced (not pre-packaged slices). Nothing could be easier than slicing an artisanal salami. Two favorites: Creminelli Artisan Truffle Salami and Olli Salumeria Artisan Toscano Occasionally, fresh figs appear in the market this time of year. They are perfect with all these meats.
Pan-Fried Raviolis. These are an Italianate pan-fried dumpling. You can use leftover raviolis or boil up a batch to pan-fry a la minute.
To prep: Boil some raviolis in salted water until al dente. Drain well. Plung into a bowl of cold water to stop the cooking (let cold water run over them until they are completely cool). Set in a colandar to drain really well. Drizzle olive oil over and toss to coat. You can keep them in a bowl in the fridge until ready to use.
To pan-fry: Pat the raviolis dry with paper towels. Heat some butter and olive oil in a nonstick skillet until hot. Add a layer of raviolis and cook until brown on the bottom, 3 or 4 minutes. Flip and cook until the other side is brown. Serve.
Smoked Salmon, Plain or Tartared, on Potato Chips. The perennial favorite is made special with unusual spicing. Buy some smoked salmon, preferably one hand-cut chunk. Slice into cubes and mix with finely chopped chives, cracked coriander and black pepper. Stir in some thin slivers of lemon zest and extra-virgin olive oil. Serve on potato chips, thin slices of pumpernickel bread or caraway-scented Ry-Vita crackers. Don’t want to make the tartar? Put a little dollop of sour cream on a potato chip and top with shards of smoked salmon and finely sliced chive.
Warm Pimenton de la Vera-spiked Roasted Peppers (Faux Piquillo Peppers). These are warm slices of roasted peppers stewed in olive oil with garlic and Pimenton de la Vera, a smoky sweet paprika, until they taste like Spain’s fabulous slightly spicy Piquillo Peppers.
(When I don’t feel like roasting pepper, I drain jars of the meaty piquillos peppers —they are much better than any ordinary jarred roasted pepper — and treat them the same way for an intense piquillo experience.)
Roast the bell peppers directly over a gas flame or under a broiler as close to the heat as possible, turning until charred all over, about 5 minutes. Using a thin knife, scrape the skin off the peppers and remove the core, seeds, and ribs. Cut the peppers lengthwise into 1-inch strips. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use. (The peppers may be prepared up to 3 days ahead).
If using jarred piquillo peppers, drain, rinse and pat dry with paper towels.
Slice into thin strips, place in a skillet and stew over low heat in extra-virgin olive oil with thin slivers of garlic and some Pimenton de la Vera (until the garlic is translucent and the peppers are meltingly tender. Serve warm right out of the pan with sliced or toasted bread to spoon them on.
Aged Manchego Cheese with Quince Paste. This is an age-old combination with a curious affinity for cocktails. Slice the cheese into bite-size shards and top each with a sliver of quince paste. Goya makes a good quince paste that’s available in supermarkets. A variation of this sweet-savory combination is Parmigiano-Reggiano with a dab of fig jam.
Bocconcini with Olive Paste and Parsley, or Wrapped with Prosciutto de Parma. Bocconcini, tiny mozzarella balls, are lovely simply tossed with prepared olive paste and chopped flat-leaf parsley. Put out a glass of toothpicks for your guests to skewar them with. Be sure to drain the bocconcini and blot dry with paper towels first. You can also dab them with olive paste and wrap each one with as much of a thin sheet of Prosciutto de Parma as it takes for one go-round. Arrange on a platter.
Potato Chips with Shredded, Slow Roasted Meat and Sour Cream. I make this assembly when I have some leftover slow-roasted pork, beef or lamb on hand. I warm it in its juices in a covered saucepan, then shred with a fork. Assemble as needed by placing a tiny dollop of sour cream on a potato chip, topped with a few shreds of meat and a few needles of slivered lemon zest, or chopped parley. The gist is something like this shredded 7-hour leg of lamb piled onto corncakes. Swap out the corn cakes for potato chips and you’ve got it! (If you’re up to making them, corn cakes make a great base for holiday bites, especially smoked salmon or caviar.)
Marcona Almonds (or faux Marcona almonds) Marcona almonds are big fat Spanish almonds that have been fried in olive oil and sea salted. They are much more flavorful than the usual salted nut. But they can be expensive and hard to find, though Costco’s Kirkland Almonds can be good quality and value. Years ago, I figured out a way to slow roast blanched almonds in extra-virgin olive oil, to make a delectable alt-Marcona almond. You’ll find the method here. They are superb with chilled Manzanilla sherry and also make great gifts.
New Potatoes with Fragrant Rosemary Olive Oil and Sea Salt. Boil the smallest new potatoes or fingerlings you can until tender. Drain them and place in a warm bowl or on a platter. Let sit until cool enough to handle before serving with a bowl of fine olive oil for dipping and some flaky sea salt, such as Malden, for sprinkling. If you can’t find a wonderful extra-virgin olive oil, make a Fragrant Rosemary Oil:
In a small heavy saucepan, heat 1/2-cup extra-virgin olive oil over moderate heat until hot. Add 1/2 cup fresh rosemary leaves (stripped off the branches) and cook about 2 minutes until the oil is very fragrant; tiny bubbles should barely dance around the leaves. Remove the pan from the heat and let the oil steep at least 10 minutes before using.
Rosemary Oil itself is a great way to doctor up drained olives, or as a dip for rustic bread or fresh fennel slices.
Giant Cheese Puff Popover Pancake. This is dramatic, easy-to-make popover that has the flavor of a gougere, an eggy, crispy cheese puff usually made in bite-size portions. It is a tad more work than the other hors d’oeuvres but still entirely doable. I usually make one when I have a small group of four or six over for cocktails. It’s cooked in an iron skillet and will knock your guests out when you pull it out of the oven, to slice or simply pull apart. The trick is in assembling the ingredients ahead of time so you can whip the batter together and throw it in the oven. The recipe is here. Just follow this plan of action to do before your guests come:
Beat together the milk and eggs; leave at room temperature for up to an hour.
Assemble the dry ingredients (flour, salt, cayenne, pepper, nutmeg)
Measure 2 tablespoons butter and the grated Parmigiano and have at the ready in the fridge.
About 25 minutes before your guests are due to arrive, heat the skillet in the oven.
5 minutes before your party starts, assemble the batter, top with Parmigiano, throw into the hot pan and bake. It will be ready in 25 minutes.