With all of the work we put into getting ready for holiday entertaining - whether it's our family meal or a cocktail party for friends and colleagues - creating a special hors d'oeuvre menu may seem like a daunting task.
The good news is that it doesn't have to be. Of course, the easiest route to take is to purchase pre-made frozen appetizers and pop them in the oven before your guests arrive. Folks go gaga over familiar standbys. Who doesn't enjoy piping hot franks-in-the blanket dipped in grainy mustard, assorted mini quiches, and Greek spanakopita, those yummy little spinach-and-feta-filled phyllo triangles? Even more effortless is to simply pick up the phone and call a caterer who will take care of everything from set-up, cooking and serving to the final clean up.
Although it can be somewhat time consuming, preparing hors d'oeuvres from scratch provides immense satisfaction, and it's certainly worth the extra effort it takes to make unique holiday tidbits that will wow your guests.
Lisa Savage, chef and owner of Sage Restaurant (formerly Savaradio) and Lisa's Pizza & Catering in Ventnor, says it starts with being organized.
"Put together a daily planner," Savage recommends. "Begin with your menu and include a shopping list and a prep schedule. Many items can be done several days ahead of time." This undoubtedly helps to keep the stress level down.
How does one figure out proper quantities? Savage says there are several factors that determine how much people will eat. It depends on the time of day and the type of event you are hosting. As a precursor to lunch or dinner, she advises allotting three each of three types of hors d'oeuvres per person. For a first course, it's five each of three to four types per person. For a cocktail and hors d'oeuvres party, plan on twelve pieces per person from a selection of 8-10.
Savage fashions her contemporary cuisine on methods she learned while studying with noted chefs in Torino, Italy, after graduating with honors from Atlantic Cape Academy of Culinary Arts in Mays Landing. That was about 20 years ago. Since then, she has been delighting customers with dishes that reflect the farm-to-table style of cooking that has always been prevalent in European countries and has recently made its way to American soil.
A few of Savage's favorite holiday recipes that make wonderful hors d'oeuvres are hand-rolled mini veal meatballs with marinara sauce; zesty fried olives stuffed with sausage; and lightly breaded mushroom arancini (risotto balls) made with crimini, shitake, oyster and porcini mushrooms and filled with truffled goat cheese. Her Italian crudo combines thinly sliced yellowtail with oranges and fresh fennel sprinkled with extra virgin olive oil and gray sea salt. Salmon bresaola seasoned with cloves and allspice is Savage's twist on a traditional Italian cured beef dish. Whipped salt cod with potato on toasted polenta and paper-thin parmesan cracker bread are both delicate and delicious.
"Out of all of these," Savage says, "the arancini takes the most time to prepare. The rest are easy!"
Andrea Palladino, chef and owner of A Touch of Italy in Egg Harbor Township, bases his hors d'oeuvre recipes on family dinners he had growing up in Queens, N.Y. His parents emigrated from Italy to the United States when they were twenty-seven years old. As far back as he can remember their lives revolved around cooking. "Every day was a feast!" Palladino exclaims as he reminisces about the meals they had together.
Palladino started working in restaurants when he was a young teenager. Years later he came to New Jersey when his brother, Joe, opened A Touch of Italy in 1981. He has been at the helm of the kitchen ever since.
For the holidays, Palladino suggests home-spun specialties such as fried, freshly cleaned and cut calamari (he uses domestic calamari from Rhode Island or from New Jersey when it's available) and fried smelts with lemon and marinara. Broccoli arancini, eggplant rollantini, steamed broccoli rabe with sausage, and baked clams oreganato are winners, as well.
"I also like to serve salads as appetizers," says Palladino. "I make a dynamite seafood salad with calamari, scungilli and shrimp. My grilled octopus salad is tossed with extra virgin olive oil, garlic, salt, black pepper, a pinch of red pepper flakes and a drop of balsamic vinegar."
He says he is fondest of his family's beet salad: roasted, sliced beets served warm with olive oil, salt and pepper and a balsamic drizzle. Straightforward and scrumptious!
"As a first course for a seated dinner," he says, "there's nothing better than a small plate of pasta like linguini with seafood or filetto di pomodoro, which is our signature sauce made with imported Italian plum tomatoes, prosciutto, onions and a lot of basil."
According to A Touch of Italy's bar manager, Leslie Disharoon, festive cocktails add flare to any gathering. Martinis are especially popular now. As a matter of fact, Disharoon's martini repertoire includes about 200 varieties out of which 75 at a time are offered on the bar menu depending on the season.
"Holiday martinis tend to be on the sweet side," she says. "The prettiest of them all is the chocolate mint martini. You start with chocolate vodka, add a splash of white crème de menthe, a splash of white crème de cocoa and top it with whipped cream and a drizzle of green crème de menthe. It tastes like a peppermint patty."
With names like crème brulee, sugar cookie, tiramisu, lemon biscotti, and rumchata - a drink reminiscent of cinnamon rice pudding - you might think you were perusing a dessert menu, but these are just a few of the fanciful creations that Disharoon and her fellow bartenders have amassed over the years.
Whether you try your hand at veal meatballs, baked clams oreganato or lemon biscotti martinis, you don't have to be an Italian chef to cook like one.