Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The National Appetizer Crisis: A Retraction

Alright, there is no "national appetizer crisis." I've been trying to concoct some b.s. theory just to save face. Can't. 

That said, I do think there's a black hole in our cuisine where the shrimp molds, cheese balls, and canapes used to reside. I have two mental images of a cocktail party circa 2008:

1. The fancy catered affair at which crab cakes and hamachi are passed on silver trays by attractive servers in black pants.
2. The homey party where you'll find a bowl of guacamole on the coffee table along with other mismatched and dippy ethnic dishes, like hummus and tapenade.

What happened to the middle ground? What happened to the tidy, pretty, make-ahead hors d'oeuvres that the 1960s hostess carried into the sunken living room to be consumed with a pitcher of martinis? 

That was what I was after: tidy, pretty, make-ahead.

I wasn't thrilled with what I served at Justine's surprise birthday, but for the record, here's the menu:
-Smoked salmon rolls. Mark Bittman's recipe from the New York Times. Couldn't get the fish to roll neatly around the lemony ricotta so made a few messy little roll-ups and quit. Threw newspaper into the fireplace.

-Ajwain cashews from My Bombay Kitchen. Good. 

-Spiced pecans. Good.

-Date nut bread from Martha Stewart. Originally intended to top with cream cheese and chutney, but after sampling decided it was better plain. Good enough.

-Benne wafers. More dessert than cracker. Good.

-Fig tapenade. Served on baguette rounds. Not bad.

-Cheese straws. Long, skinny, breakable. Good.

-Chicken liver pate on toast cut into flower shapes. Martha Stewart's recipe. Better to look at than eat.

-Sausage rolls. Miniature sausages wrapped in a buttery yeast dough and baked, a.k.a. pigs-in-blankets. Recipe courtesy of my brother-in-law's mother. Served with bowl of catsup. Got more compliments on these than anything except the meat (see below). 

-Tuna mousse. Made by my mother in a copper fish mold with a pimento-stuffed olive to resemble bloodshot eye. Served with crackers. Silly name, but delicious.

-Avocado toasts. Mashed avocado and lemon on garlic toast. Similar to guacamole but neater and tastier.

-Aged beef tenderloin

Pictured here is roughly 5% of the meat that the very celebrated butcher shop convinced us we needed. Swindlers. So expensive. How expensive? I'm ashamed to say, but my mother paid and it was worth every penny. (I hope she thought so too.) Velvety and rich, this was the tenderest beef I have ever eaten. Served with rolls and 

-Macaroni and cheese which seemed easier than potatoes au gratin and pleased the children.

Dessert was a bakery cake. 

Just typing this out I am completely exhausted. 


  1. Why not just call the sausage things pigs in a blanket? It makes it a lot clearer.

  2. omg. I'm tired just reading it, Tipsy! I think you need 6 arms, at least..

    When people asked me for the basic ingredients in five dishes I made simultaneously at Thanksgiving (re: allergies and so forth) my mind went BLANK. Fer example, I *vaguely* remembered thinking I should be sensitive to those with pork issues but for the life of me couldn't remember if I actually USED the chicken sausage in one of the stuffings or not :-/

    And that was only five dishes... so... I'm surprised you're still even functioning! That was a serious LOT of food to attempt at one time. ack.

    And as for Harris beef -- yes it's grand and oh so dear. What a nice gift!!

    Btw, did you cook it the way they used to say to at Harris -- y'know the 20minutes per side at 500 degrees on a scalding cast-iron pan -- er what..?

  3. Helltoupee, I tried to cook the Harris meat according to their instructions, but in the interest of streamlining the narrative I left out the part about my oven malfunctioning. So -- don't know what "method" was used but the meat eventually did become brown on the outside and somewhat warm.
    We are still eating it and, sad to say, I am actually getting tired of it.

  4. I get stymied by the thought of offering anything more ambitious than a relish plate, so you are very impressive.

    We call the sausage things "blanketed pigs." Sounds more refined.

  5. no! i think you are right, i think there is a crisis! absolutely too much guacamole & hummus, or too much NOTHING which is second in terribleness only to no drinks when you arrive at a party. Food, tasty morsels of food, should be available right away. my personal favorites 1. welsh rarebit 2. pigs in a blanket 3. baked artichoke spread 4. bruschetta 5. smoked trout spread

  6. Layne, I had not realized it until you wrote it, but "pigs in blankets" is kind of hard to say, which is why I never want to.

    Anonymous 9:32, We should collaborate and maybe I'll retract my retraction. I do have a problem, however, with bruschette, not with the flavor but with the way every time you take a bite little bits of basil and tomato fall on your new party dress. It's part of the peasanty trend in appetizers which requires everyone have a PLATE. Can you imagine Don Draper eating bruschette????

  7. ooh ooh have to add to anonymous' comment about the Natl Crisis at least as it pertains to Dinner Parties.

    Pet peeve numero uno: cocktails served, yes, appetizers meager, but then HOURS(!) before dinner is on the table.

    Ettiquete books (I realize no one else reads these) suggest waiting no longer than 45minutes to an hour after the first guest arrives before serving dinner. The joy and conversation at a dinner party takes place AROUND the table not while standing cocktail in hand.
    My well-intending parents are the worst offenders; sometimes three hours before the meal is actually served! Of course everyone is smashed, starving and surly by that time.

    With "dinners" like these it's imperative to eat a light meal before setting off..

  8. But I digressed.
    With multiple hearty appetizers like those listed above, dinner could be served much later, as there's plenty of food to balance the booze..

    It's just so unusual in my experience to attend a dinner where the appetizers play such a lovely role!

  9. In the Dewey family we call those sausages wrapped in dough "weinerwraps" (that might be two words, or maybe it should be hyphenated). They're a much smaller version of the full-size hot dogs in dough that were a staple of the cafeteria at my Catholic grade school (many of my most Proustian food memories stem from the food in that cafeteria--hamburger rolls, weinerwraps, tater tots, really good cheese pizza in square pieces....aaah). But I haven't even read Proust, so I'm probably not allowed to even talk about food-triggered nostalgia.

    But regarding appetizers: That is an impressive lineup, Tipsy, and I quite agree with you that pre-made, piecework finger food is a lovely thing in the appetizer stage of an evening. I love appetizers. I often find many more things to get excited about on restaurant appetizer menus than on the entree lists. And I frequently enjoy the sitting-on-the-couch-drinking-a-cocktail-and-knoshing part of a dinner party more than the sitting-around-the-table part. It's more relaxed and comfortable--as long as there's enough to eat. A signature drink is always a nice addition, too. Some of my all-time fave appetizers: mustard-marinated shrimp on a slice of cucumber; a water chestnut wrapped in bacon with a bit of chicken liver stuffed in there for good measure (one of my mom's specialties--basically, anything wrapped in bacon is great; I recently was at a heavy hors d'ouevres party where the caterers served dates drizzled with something like truffle oil or really good balsamic and then wrapped in bacon and broiled--I ate my body weight in those things); the asparagus roll-ups that are in one of the Silver Palate books; deviled Smokies with a chutney-lime dipping sauce; and let's not forget those hearty perennials, the mini-quiche and the deviled egg. Yummy. I could go on.
    I think a summit meeting on this crisis may be in order. We could invite C. Ray Nagin, Rod Blagojevich, Kenneth Lay, George W. Bush, and others who have been hardened in the crucible of crisis. They might have some wisdom to share. While munching on really good appetizers, of course.

  10. 9:32 am anon here- just to clarify- i'm not talking about the ol' tomato basil chunky, prone to falling bruschetta- i know those, and i like them, but only when seated with knife, fork and bib, as you note. For standing bruschetta i advocate, i guess, crostini, more firm spreaded things- walnut pesto, etc. i don't know what the official difference between crostini and bruschetta is though. this calls for a google search, but its my night and my internet and i just want to talk, not search. so i'm just leaving it a question.

  11. anonymous 9:32 again- i may have been a little tipsy myself when i wrote that nonsensical thing. my internet! i wish.
    here's just a little appetizer portion of what google offered up on the question of crostini v. bruschetta:

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