The purpose of the hors d'oeuvre is to take the edge off the appetite while you have a drink before dinner – they are not a meal themselves. In Southern California, where I am spending some time, drinks before dinner is the expectation and served with them is a series of heavy hors d'eouvres. Some are excellent, but they are mostly too heavy to serve before dinner.
Hors d'oeuvres should be tasty and light. It is also wise to think about what people will be drinking. Do you have a house cocktail? If so, try to match the food with it. James Chatto concocted a citrusy martini-like drink called Home James for the party to launch the book we co-authored, A Matter of Taste. We served it with thin water crackers topped with Comté cheese and droplets of icewine syrup or honey. It was a brilliant match.
A pet peeve is the cheese tray or charcuterie board as an hors d'oeuvre. People tend to gorge on them and then are not so interested in dinner. Cheese trays should be properly served after the main course and before dessert. Charcuterie trays make a good first course on the table for people to help themselves.
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Light hors d'oeuvres may be veggie based. Forget the ubiquitous hummus or baba ganoush. Use your imagination; try a spicy mushroom dip or a cheesy warm fondue in a little pot with Belgian endive to scoop it up. Right now, the big trend is to make bagna cauda, a warm garlic- and anchovy-based dip, which is wonderful with vegetables such as radishes, asparagus spears, lightly steamed cauliflower or broccoli. The best one I have had was at the restaurant Savio Volpe in Vancouver. It was cooked very slowly for hours until everything was melted together. Served with seasonal vegetables, it was decadent and a good match for spicy cocktails.
Other good hors d'oeuvres choices include:
Mixed nuts and olives – a classic and tasty nibble. Warm the olives with some rosemary, chili and garlic.
Light crackers, seaweed sheets, thinly sliced cucumber, Belgian endive, sliced radishes, even vegetable chips. Bread is too heavy. These are all easy on the diet and make colourful, flavourful bases as dippers. I once used potato chips with a little smoked trout mixture for a play on fish and chips.
Smoked trout on apple slices.
Parmesan chips with creamed anchovies
Remember that hors d'oeuvres are just a prelude to the main meal, so keep them light, tasty and pretty. If you do want to serve heavier bites, skip the first course. It does make having the party easier.
(And here's the recipe for the Home James: Put some ice in a cocktail shaker then add 1 1/2 ounces Plymouth gin, 1/2 ounce dry white vermouth and 1 ounce freshly squeezed grapefruit juice. Shake or stir until well chilled and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a long twist of orange zest. Bottled or canned grapefruit juice is not acceptable.)