I have found that most people arrive for dinner hungry. That may sound like a “no duh” statement, but it’s amazing how many hosts forget that simple fact when they are planning a dinner party. So I always begin the evening, regardless of how formal or informal, with at least three different appetizers.
The appetizers don’t have to be fancy. They can be as simple as a small bowl of nuts, veggies and a dip, and shavings of a nice hard cheese like Parmesan or Pecorino Romano. Or they can be as fancy as Bacon and Parmesan Stuffed Mushrooms, Marinated Goat Cheese, and Rosemary Roasted Cashews. I keep the portions small and provide small plates, appetizer forks, and cocktail napkins as needed.
Not only do guests arrive hungry, they arrive thirsty. (Again, no duh!) So especially for a formal dinner party, I usually try to serve a “drink of the evening”. In the summer, it’s usually Margaritas; for Thanksgiving and Christmas, I often offer Cosmopolitans (because of the cranberry juice); and for winter dinner parties it’s usually martinis. And for those poor misguided folk who don’t drink martinis, Mr. C. is always available to provide some other adult beverage from the bar. I also always have Pellegrino or some other “fancy” water on hand as well as wine – red, white, and Champagne. (My husband loves Champagne with appetizers.)
For holiday or more formal dinners I usually serve a first course soup along with appetizers. Because I have a large extended family, I serve the soup before people are formally seated for the main course. I use small coffee cups that I have collected over the years from places like Goodwill and Value Village. Each cup is different and just the right size for a small serving. (The first course soups I serve are usually rich, so a small amount is all that is required.) If I am hosting a smaller gathering, I use my regular soup bowls and serve the soup as the “official” first course after people are seated. Regardless of how the soup is served, most people love this small amount of warm heaven.
Another great reason to serve appetizers and first course soups (as well as to stave off starvation), is that it relieves the pressure of having dinner on the table by a certain time. Especially if I am having a large gathering where some people arrive “on time” and others “on island time”, it allows me to serve dinner when I am ready. While I am making my last minute preparations, guests can be happily munching away on appetizers. My home has an open floor plan, so my kitchen and living room are one big happy space. So it is easy for me to be involved in the party even though I am dressing a salad or stirring gravy or risotto. If the kitchen is a separate room in your home, consider dividing the appetizers so that some are in the living room, and some are in the kitchen. I promise you, regardless of where you put the appetizers, at some point all of your guests are going to congregate in your kitchen. Kitchens are people magnets. People simply must be where the action is – and you are the action!
I select the appetizers I am going to serve only after I have planned the main course. Appetizers should either be a preview of what is to follow, or else something that has no shared main ingredient with the other prepared dishes. Example: guacamole is a perfect appetizer to serve with cheese enchiladas. However, if I am serving poached salmon for the main course, I would not serve a smoked salmon appetizer. In fact, I probably wouldn’t serve anything else from the sea! A flavor completely unrelated to poached salmon (such as Onion Dip) would be ideal. For me, the greatest pleasure in a fine meal comes from the variety of taste sensations. Flavorful appetizers and first course soups can positively impact an entire meal. So don’t be afraid to serve that pâté you have been dying to make or that fig spread recipe that looks so intriguing. Have fun with your appetizers. Your guests will thank you. I promise!