Last month, I told you how to start your party planning process by estimating quantities of food accurately. And, now comes a sequel that, unlike most Hollywood sequels, is more fun than the first part: how to make interesting snacks to make your guests happy.
Of course, you can buy plenty of cookery books on snacks and hors d’oeuvres that will give you excellent recipes that this column can’t hope to match (hey, it’s just a small column!). But what I can give you are ways to think about structuring your snacks and combining different types of ingredients so you can come up with your own interesting variations.
First, a few general guidelines for party bites:
1. Size does matter
Snacks should be easy to pick up and munch. This means your portion sizes should be just large enough for one or two bites. Nobody wants to stand around munching an entire leg of chicken while talking to someone.
2. Don’t make a saucy mess
If you are making finger food, make food that won’t mess up fingers or clothes when eaten. This means avoiding heavily sauced or oily food (chicken wings slathered in barbecue sauce comes to mind). Even if you do the decent thing and provide toothpicks or skewers for them, sauces still dribble on to clothes while being eaten. People don’t want to leave your home with soy sauce stains.
3. Contrast makes your food pop
When all you have is a bite or two, contrast in flavours and textures makes delightful explosions on your tongue. Put together something crispy with something soft in a wrap, strong herbs with mild base ingredients in a nibble, spicy toppings with a gentle base in a stack, creamy dip with a spicy wafer, etc. Or reverse those roles for completely new variations. Or combine one or more of those ideas.
4. Keep last-minute cooking down
Ideally, the food you make should be the kind you can assemble, not cook at the last minute. This lets you make most of the food ahead of time, leaving you free time to mingle with guests. Who wants to sweat it out in a kitchen making French fries while everyone else is having a good time? Sticking to the ‘‘assemble” formula means you can get a couple of friends to quickly help out in a pinch without them needing to know how to cook. Say you have some lettuce wraps with some spicy mushroom mince and a creamy herbed topping as a snack. If you have your dip and your mushrooms ready ahead of time, friends can help you quickly spoon some of the mushroom mixture into the lettuce and put a dollop of your topping, getting the snack ready very fast.
Now let’s move on to a few basic types of party snacks to get your imagination going. In the last column, I wrote that they can be loosely classified as ‘‘Nibbles, Dips, and Dippers”, ‘‘Tops and Bottoms”, ‘‘Sticks and Skewers”, ‘‘Wraps and Rolls” and ‘‘Stacks and Cases”. So let’s start with:
Nibbles: This is your basic party snack. Nibbles are usually very-little-assembly-required snacks. Nibbles can be things like nuts (simple) or seasoned nuts (a bit more work) or nuts glazed with sweet syrupy ingredients like honey, chocolate, caramel, and other flavoured syrups (still more work) or nuts glazed with sweet syrupy stuff with some additional spicy ingredients added for contrast (harder but completely worth it). This is how you end up with things like wasabi peanuts, honey-glazed almonds and candied chilli-citrus walnuts.
Nibbles can also be stand-alone snacks such as kebabs, croquettes, grilled veggies, or other fried and grilled foods. Don’t limit yourself to those, however. Most main course dishes can also be downsized or converted into party snacks. For instance, large samosas can be made smaller and turned into mini-samosas. Or say you have a fantastic recipe for prawns with an orange-and-ginger chilli sauce. Just reduce the sauce quantity and convert it into a drier version of the same dish. Then assemble the prawns neatly on a plate and you have a tasty starter. Perhaps you have a Thai stir-fry of chicken with chilli, garlic and basil that you usually serve with rice. No worries. Cut up the chicken into slightly larger square pieces, make the same stir-fry with less sauce, take the pieces of chicken, put a small basil leaf on top of each one, and serve as a snack. How about that vegetarian version of Stroganoff you make with mushrooms instead? Hey, you can convert that by leaving the mushrooms whole (or halving them if they’re large), quickly pan-frying them and tossing them in a bit of your creamy sauce. You can then top each mushroom piece with a bit of goat cheese or blue cheese for more pop.
Even mundane things such as spicy chicken tikka can be made into a fun snack by cutting it into bite-sized pieces and topping with things such as herbed cream cheese, garlic and hung yoghurt sauce (for the health conscious), caramelized onions, or just fresh mint leaves for a fresh burst of flavour. (Vegetarians can do the same thing with veg versions.)
Has your imagination started working yet? Once you start thinking like this, your options go from anything this column can teach you and extends to cuisines all around the world.
Okay, I told a white lie at the beginning of this column. Yes, this is a sequel, but the world of party snacks is so wide that I ran out of words after talking about just nibbles. So instead of finishing this series with this column, I will spend the next couple of columns talking about the remaining kinds of snacks so I can do the topic justice.
Meanwhile, I want you to try this little exercise. Using the guidelines I’ve given you in this piece, come up with interesting ideas for party snacks. Don’t restrict yourself. Then send them to me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org with a photo if you can manage it. You’ll feel great about being innovative, and I’ll feel great knowing I’ve taught something useful.
Madhu Menon is a chef, restaurant consultant and food writer. He is on Twitter at @madmanweb
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