Appetizers and hors d'oeuvres don't have to be expensive or complicated. It's easy to create gourmet bites on a budget using common grocery ingredients -- and no, we're not talking pigs in blankets. Think puff pastry cups filled with goat cheese and tomato or artisan crackers served with thinly sliced chicken and pepper chutney.
They may sound -- and taste -- extravagant, but some of the best finger foods are also the easiest. Bruschetta, for example, is a simple blend of fresh diced tomatoes, fresh basil and olive oil, set atop thick toasted artisan-style bread. Add a little grated Parmesan cheese and a hint of garlic, and you have a surefire crowd pleaser.
"Delicious, memorable appetizers don't have to be difficult to make. At one dinner party, I labored over these tarts, and everyone passed them over for my soup shooters, which are dead easy, but people consider them a refined, fun option," says Stephanie Dickison, food writer, restaurant critic and author of "The 30-Second Commute: A Non-fiction Comedy About Writing & Working From Home," which includes a behind-the-scenes look at the restaurant industry.
"It's always the simplest recipes that people flip over. I made these goat cheese balls that are spiked with just a bit of vodka and rolled in slivered almonds for an event, and people still talk about them," Dickison says.
Keep your guests talking with these tempting morsels:
*Horseradish Cherry Tomatoes
Tiny cherry tomatoes are the perfect size for parties, and when hollowed out, they make a great vessel for tasty sauces and dips like horseradish mayonnaise. To make, use a small knife to core cherry tomatoes and carefully scoop out the centers. Mix three parts mayo with one part horseradish, and fill the tomatoes gently. Garnish with chives or chopped scallions. For a milder version, substitute brown mustard for the horseradish.
*Pesto Spinach Wraps
Create gourmet wrap sandwiches with lavash flatbread, pesto, spinach and sliced mozzarella cheese. Lay out the bread, spread each piece with pesto or artichoke dip, and top with layers of spinach and sliced cheese. Roll up the flatbread, being careful not to let any of the fixings fall out. Slice into pinwheels that are 1 inch thick.
There are endless variations on this theme. Can't find flatbread at your local market? Try large flour tortillas. Substitute artichoke paste or spinach dip for the pesto, and use Swiss cheese instead of mozzarella.
It may sound like an odd pairing, but the combination of woody greens and savory pork is a timeless classic. To create, wash and trim 1 pound of fresh asparagus. Wrap each stalk with a half-strip of bacon; try black pepper bacon for even more flavor. Place on a baking sheet, and bake at 450 F for 15 minutes, until asparagus is tender. Serve with soft garlic and herb cream cheese dip. For a healthier version, substitute turkey bacon for pork; just drizzle a bit of extra-virgin olive oil over the asparagus before wrapping with bacon.
*Simple Soup Shooters
No need to labor in the kitchen all day to create stunning soup shooters -- and they can be served hot or cold for year-round entertaining. Start with a creamy store-bought soup like Cashew Carrot Ginger or Organic Butternut Squash from Pacific Natural Foods. Chill overnight, or heat on a low temperature, then pour into tall shot glasses. Garnish with small sprigs of fresh herbs, finely chopped tomato or a dash of freshly ground ginger.
Virtually any soup that can be sipped from a glass is fare game for a shot-glass shooter, but gazpacho, cucumber soup and creamy vegetable-based soups taste the best when chilled. For cold shooters, steer clear of condensed soups, as they may not hold up well when reconstituted and chilled.
"With appetizers, it's all about presentation, so consider textures and colors more carefully," Dickison says. "Boiled fingerling potatoes aren't fancy on their own, but halve them, add a careful dollop of sour cream, and top them with sustainable caviar or finely chopped black olives for a dramatic and stunning opener."
Give bite-sized bits a fancy facelift with small skewers or toothpicks. Stage them on your most stylish serving platter, and garnish the plate with a leaf of kale and sliced red cabbage. Add a side sauce for dipping, garnished with a few sliced scallions.
A simple sprig of rosemary, parsley or cilantro livens up any platter of crudit?s, while standard chips and dip are even more tempting when piled high on a serving platter and paired with several small cups of various dips.