Food for fetes falls in two types: sitting and standing. Or formal and informal. Or kids and adults. Informal gatherings get along fine with simple foods. For example, drinks and chips with simple guacamole or seven layer dip or good salsa will go a long way in creating an informal party atmosphere. Grilled chicken quesadillas, barbequed ribs, or vegetarian spring rolls are ideal for picnics. Children will do fine, usually, with hot dogs, potato salad, and ice cream unless their parents care much about what they eat - in which case fresh fruits and vegetables would be part of the fare.
Sometimes more is required. There are those to-do's you give for people who are not really friends but who you have to entertain because it is part of your job or your work or your spouse's job or work. In these cases you want to impress. I suggest, get a caterer. But if you want to have a clue, read a little before you make the call.
A canape is a kind of dressed up finger food. It is finger food that works for people in expensive dress clothing. At this site we may use 'canape,' 'hors d'oeuvre,' and 'finger food' interchangeably to mean foods that require one hand and no implements. You see, in a party situation you need one hand for food, one hand for your drink, one hand to wave at friends across the room, and one hand to shake with strangers. That leaves how many hands for other things like covering your mouth when you sneeze? So you see why they have to be small, simple, able to be swallowed in one quick reflexive action.
Canapes are served at parties in which people dress up, tipple, and chat. Sometimes canapes precede the meal. Sometimes they are the meal. Sometimes they just are. Are chips canapes? Only when they are decorated one at a time with a bit of guacamole, a tiny slice of black olive, and exactly six shreds of Monterrey Jack cheese radiating from said olive slice. See also, no.
It is desirable that finger foods are visually appealing, but it is necessary that they be delicious. Sometimes a simple finger food will speak for itself by its familiarity or its aroma; but if the canape has two or more ingredients it is nice if there is someone on hand to describe it. Ideally, a canape can be eaten in a single gulp, although tiny lamb chops and other things with natural handles and no crumbs can be exceptions. The more formal the occasion, the more need there is to eschew goo and flake, or else make things truly bite-size. We are not talking here about being trendy or cool, we are talking about being polite.
These requirements turn out to be a huge factors in the design of the canape. Very few one or two-ingredient things taste good by themselves without some sauce. But sauce drips on clothing. So the design must lump three or four things together in a tiny package. Usually one of the four things has to serve as the package.
Cheese and smoked meats are frequently incorporated because they have big flavors. And what serious cocktail party can be without shrimp or scallops? I think if you could find tiny, well made sausages and wrap them in a pastry dough this might be good - especially if one could slip some pesto or horeseradish between the sausages and the dough.
Aside from pizza, spanakopeta is my favorite finger food. The feta balances the spinach in flavor, and the crunch of the phyllo complements the soft ingredients perfectly. It is not low on the crumb index, but it can be made in bite-sized pieces which obviates the problem.
If someone could miniatureize the taco or burrito, these could make great finger foods. Tiny egg rolls can work. On the novel-to bizarre level we find prunes stuffed with garlic cheddar. Or roquefort wedge with mayonnaise wrapped in romaine. A more retro preparation would be dried beef or Lebanon bologna wrapping a mix of cream cheese and horseradish. Or scallops wrapped in bacon.
In my opinion raw vegetables are right out. The world is pretty evenly divided on whether broccoli tastes best raw, blanched, or fed to swine. I happen to be in the third group, which I expect is in the majority. So you will please only a small group of people serving it. Furthermore it is not expensive so people will think you couldn't afford shrimp or even Ritz crackers with Cheeze Whiz. At least Ritz Crackers with Cheese Whiz have a kind of bizarre retro charm. If you are ingenious and can serve a killer dip like great hummus or a homemade blue cheese dipping sauce then, just maybe, consider veggies. And consider blanching them to take the severity out of the bitterness and the crunch. But remember the drips. And serve some meaty guy-food.
But entertaining is about far more than canapes. The most fun is getting together with people you like for a meal.
People enjoy most a party at which they can relax and be themselves. If you like to cook then the ideal foods for entertaining are the ones you like most to cook and eat. Don't be afraid; you cook your best dish differently from any one else. And you are unlikely to ruin it, because you know the little pitfalls and hazards of your commonly cooked recipes.
Don't give in to the idea that you have to cook something novel. If, for instance, you never cook lasagne or any other Italian food, and you are having Italian guests who know Italian food then, for goodness sake, cook something else. If you cook something they recognize it will never measure up to "mom's" old recipe. On the other hand, if you cook something very Anglo or very Mexican and you know what you are doing, the food will be unequivocally good. If your guests don't appreciate it then that is definitely their own fault.
When it comes time to entertain a crowd and people feel a little out of their league, most sane people seek professional help. It has the advantage of freeing you to be a good host. If you live with some other people and some of them like to cook and others like to mix, this is an ideal set-up for entertaining. Or if you are well organized and can figure out how to spend only a token amount of time in the kitchen, by all means, cook for yourself. Some of us like to try our hands at being Martha Stewart from time to time. Here are some cookbooks that will help.
Eat Well and Prosper!
Copyright S.R. Brubaker 2002 - 2006.