Quick Guide to Cocktail Appetizers

Quick Guide to Cocktail Appetizers

Send out those e-vites and deck the halls: It’s time to host that holiday cocktail party you’ve been dreaming of. We’ll help you with the details.

An appetizers-and-drinks-only party is not just a delicious way to bring family and friends together to celebrate the season; it’s also a simpler option than other types of parties because there’s no meal to prepare. Plus, you don’t need to be a gourmet cook or even hire a caterer to pull off a successful event. You need just a little ingenuity and a few fresh ideas to get your party started.

Count it out. How on earth do pro caterers figure out how many finger foods a party full of folks will actually eat? Turns out it’s not a mystery but a formula: Figure on 12 “bites” of food per person, multiplied by the number of guests, divided by the number of different items or appetizers you’ll serve. Expand or contract based on the timing of your party (add more if it’s near a mealtime; serve less if it’s later in the evening and you can assume many guests will have eaten dinner already) and the makeup of your guest list (nibblers versus hungrier types). And be sure you have a balance between hot/warm and cold/room-temperature offerings; you don’t want every app vying for space in the oven at the same time.

Make it pretty. You don’t need a theme for a cocktail party, but it’s nice to tie together the food and drink you serve with the decor. “If we are using rosemary in our signature cocktail, we look for ways to incorporate fresh sprigs into our decor,” say Seri Kertzner and Michelle Bachman of the party styling company Little Miss Party Planner. Fill crystal vases or glass jars with fresh herbs, cranberries, or whole citrus fruits and place them on the buffet table or bar. Or use those colorful food “props” to decorate your serving platters. For example, serve hot appetizers on a bed of rosemary, or use fresh cranberries in the bottom of a bowl to anchor skewers of grilled shrimp.

Pace yourself. Have a few room-temperature items ready to serve as guests arrive. Cheese platters, crudités, bruschetta, and individual shrimp cocktails (place a spoonful of cocktail sauce in a shot glass—disposable ones are available at most party stores—and hang one or two jumbo shrimp over the edge) are all easy starters. Follow up with hot food in stages. “It’s easy to refill your food table if you stagger items, giving guests a chance to mingle and chat between dishes,” Bachman says.

Try semiscratch. Who says you have to make every single item yourself? With a little know-how, store-bought and frozen items can easily go from bah humbug to brilliant. Here are a few tips for inspiration.

  • Fancy up frozen cocktail franks by serving them with a variety of gourmet mustards. Spoon four to five mustards into small bowls and let your guests choose their favorite. “Add even more variety with warm soft pretzels,” Kertzner says.
  • Dress up frozen fries with a sprinkle of garlic powder, grated Parmesan, and sea salt. Garnish with finely chopped fresh parsley and serve the fries standing up in a shot glass filled with a spoonful of ketchup.
  • Serve store-bought fresh mozzarella balls (found in the deli or cheese section of most grocery stores) on skewers with cherry tomatoes and fresh basil. Line up the skewers on a long rectangular dish and drizzle them with a balsamic glaze. “You can do the same thing with tortellini, pieces of yellow bell peppers, and whole sugar snap peas drizzled with a dill dressing,” Kertzner suggests.
  • Buy frozen phyllo cups from the grocery store, fill them with Brie and strawberry jam (or spinach and cheese), and bake according to the package directions.
  • Buy a few fresh baguettes from your local Panera Bread® bakery-cafe and slice the loaves. Top each slice with a cucumber round and a piece of smoked salmon; or spread the slices with herbed cheese.
  • Skewer marshmallows, dip them in melted chocolate, and roll them in graham cracker crumbs for a sweet party ender. You can also dunk long pretzel rods in melted chocolate (leaving an undipped edge for holding!) and roll them in sprinkles, Kertzner says. Serve the rods standing up in a glass jar filled with sprinkles.