A party for forty with nary a fork or spoon in sight. That was the plan: a finger food smorgasbord. And, no, I don't mean finger food of this sort, but platters of pretty edibles, to be plucked up by hand and relished in a bite or two. Practicality, environmentalism and aesthetics came together in this regard. I don't own forty sets of silver ware; plastic utensils manage to look both tacky to the aesthete and extravagant to the greenie; and I've always thought the best parties those whose guests are unencumbered by plates and utensils, hands free to hold glasses of wine, cigarettes, or shake other hands.
In hopes of boosting the RSVPs, I sent out the following list of finger foods with the invitations:
Tomato Water with Basil Oil
Chilled Cumin Carrot Soup
Homemade Parmesan-Rosemary Crackers
Homemade Blue Cheese-Pecan Crackers
Mixed Olives with Caper Berries
Tartlets with Ricotta and Oven Roasted Tomato
Phyllo Cups of Mango-Curry Shrimp
Honey Glazed Goat Cheese Tartlets with Pecans and Rosemary
Hoisin and Honey Pork Riblets
Spinach Tortellini Skewers with Sun Dried Tomato and Mozzarella
Dill-Cured Pork Crostini, topped with Mustard and Chutney
Broiled Fig and Gorgonzola Crostini with Balsamic Drizzle
Chocolate Covered Nuts and Fruits
The guest list was comprised almost exclusively of scholarly types, each with more than a passing interest in philosophy. This was a party in honor of C.D.C. Reeve, a scholar of Plato and love, but not necessarily in that order. I wasn't sure such shameless food bait would attract these consumers of p's and q's. I knew, though, having fed and feted a number of philosophers, arguments and objections sound better among nibbles and sips of good foodstuffs.
Throwing a party is a lot easier than documenting a party. It's awkward enough to wave a camera in the faces of your guests, but it's just weird to point a camera at the food in their hands. The technical challenges of photography by candlelight pose inconveniences of their own. There might not have been finger food photos to post had Patrick not set up an impromptu picture studio in one corner of the dining room. Disregarding the quizzical looks of philosophers and plenty of blushing and eye-rolling from me, he prudently set about securing fodder for the hostess' blog.
The photo shoot complete, the partying commenced. The verdict: Not a single guest asked for a fork. And, it's more than possible to chew over Plato and Freud between morsels of cheese and olives.
The party menu was not just a study in small bites, but in advanced preparation. Just about everything I served was at least partially prepared days, and sometimes weeks, before the party date. In the following recipes, I've tried to note what can be done in advance.
Hoisin and Honey Pork Riblets
Makes about 50 hor d'oeuvres. From Gourmet, June 1992.
These ribs were so popular among the philosophy crowd that I must testify to their goodness based only on hearsay. They were gone before I had a chance to chew into one. As these ribs are boiled, and then marinated overnight, they require little more than five minutes under the broiler to emerge crispy around the edges. Not only are they great party food, they go upscale once they're resting on a platter of nasturtium leaves and flowers.
3 1/2 pounds pork of spareribs, halved crosswise, preferably by a butcher, and cut into individual ribs
1/3 cup honey
1/4 cup soy sauce
2 large garlic cloves, minced and mashed to a paste with 1/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup hoisin sauce
1/2 teaspoon English-style dry mustard
1/4 cup distilled white vinegar
1. In a kettle of boiling salted water simmer the ribs, covered, for 30 minutes and drain them well. In a large bowl whisk together the honey, the soy sauce, the garlic paste, the hoisin sauce, the mustard, the vinegar, and black pepper to taste, add the ribs, and toss the mixture well, coating the ribs thoroughly. Let the ribs marinate, chilled, for at least 2 hours or overnight.
2. Remove the ribs from the marinade, arrange them in one layer on the oiled rack of a foil-lined broiler pan, and broil them under a preheated broiler about 4 inches from the heat, basting them with the marinade, for 3 minutes. Turn the ribs with tongs and broil them, basting them with the marinade, for 2 to 3 minutes more, or until they are browned well and glazed. Discard the marinade.
Makes about 50. Adapted from Bon Appetit, June 2003.
These crostini are like mini open-faced pork sandwiches. The curing method is like the one used to make gravlax, substituting pork tenderloin for the salmon. And then, of course, you cook the pork. A deep pink color and perfumed with dill, the tenderloin tastes more like pate than pork. I love this recipe, not only for its taste, but for its ease. The pork can be cured, roasted, and cooled in the refrigerator in advance. Crostini won't suffer for being stored a few days in an airtight container. When it's party time, you need only a dab of mustard and a dill frond, and that's if you like your pork fancy. I should say that the pork becomes quite salty from the curing process...not at all a bad thing, but it is best served in thin slices. Should you want to double the recipe (100 crostini!), don't double the salt.
1/4 cup coarse kosher salt
3 tablespoons plus 1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
2 18-ounce pork tenderloins
2 large garlic cloves, minced
3/4 cup chopped plus several branches fresh dill
country style mustard
1-2 sourdough baguettes, cut into 1/4-inch-thick rounds (at least 50)
salt and pepper
1. Mix salt, 3 tablespoons sugar, and pepper in small bowl to blend. Place each pork tenderloin atop sheet of plastic wrap. Rub garlic all over pork tenderloins. Pat all of salt mixture over pork, coating generously. Sprinkle with 3/4 cup dill, patting to adhere. Wrap pork with 2 layers of plastic. Place in baking dish. Chill 6 hours or overnight.
2. Preheat oven to 400°F. Scrape off most of dill coating from tenderloins. Pat pork dry with paper towels. Place pork on heavy large baking sheet covered with aluminum foil. Roast until meat thermometer registers 150°F when inserted into center of pork, turning after 10 minutes, 20-25 minutes total. Cool pork completely. Cover and chill until cold, at least 6 hours.
3. Make crostini: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Arrange bread slices in one layer on baking sheets. Brush bread slices on both sides with extra virgin olive oil. Sprinkle with a bit of salt and pepper. Bake for about 15 minutes, until golden brown. Rub toasts with a garlic clove, and allow to cool.4. Assemble: Slice pork tenderloins into 1/4-inch slices. Top each crostini with 1-2 pork slices. Dollop a bit of mango chutney or mustard on top, and garnish with a small piece of dill.
Mixed Olives with Caper Berries
Makes 2 1/2 cups, from Ms. Stewart's Hors D'Oeuvres Handbook.
I let these olives sit for two days in the fridge before serving, which allowed the roasted garlic to permeate the olive flesh. Use large, stem-on caper berries, if you can find them. They're sort of exotic looking, and much easier to pick up than the smaller type.
2 cups assorted olives such as nicoise, kalamata, picholine, and cerignola
1/2 cup large caper berries
1 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
1 head roasted garlic, cloves peeled and left intact
1 sprig fresh thyme, picked
1 sprig fresh rosemary, picked
In a large bowl, combine olives, caper berries, red pepper flakes, and garlic, thyme, and rosemary. Cover and refrigerate for a few hours or up to a day. Transfer to a serving bowl, and allow to come to room temperature.
Rosemary-Parmesan Ice Box Crackers
I've made these crackers from Ms. Stewart's Hors D'Oeuvres Handbook once before. I sliced them thinner this time, and liked them better. The dough for these can be made and frozen in advance, which makes them convenient, at least within the realm of homemade cracker making. They're about a zillion times better than any cracker you can buy in the grocery aisle, and make such nice nibbles with a glass of red wine that you'll rethink the ubiquitous cheese and cracker pairing. With these, the cheese is in the cracker.
From Ms. Stewart's Hors D'Oeuvres Handbook, makes about 2 dozen 2 1/2-inch round tartlets.
For the savory tartlets, I cut out rounds of rolled out pastry dough with a biscuit cutter, parbaked them, and froze them. Before the guests arrived, I crowned them with a few of my favorite crostini toppings, and then warmed them in the oven for a few minutes before setting them out. The dough is easy to work with and can also be frozen for weeks in advance.
[For rosemary tartlet dough, add 2 tablespoons finely chopped rosemary to the flour and salt.]
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small pieces
1/3 cup ice water
1. Place flour and salt in bowl of a food processor, and pulse to combine. Add the cold butter and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Slowly add ice water, pulsing to combine, until dough comes together. Transfer dough to a sheet of plastic wrap and form into a flat disk. Chill in the refrigerator for 1 hour or overnight. [Dough can be wrapped in a double layer of plastic wrap and frozen for up to three weeks. Allow to thaw in fridge overnight before rolling out.]
2. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or non-stick liners. Transfer dough to a lightly floured surface, and cut it into two equal pieces. Wrap one piece in plastic wrap and return it to the refrigerator. Roll out the other half to 1/8-inch thickness. Using a 2 1/2-inch diameter biscuit butter, cut out as many rounds as you can. Roll out the remaining dough and repeat. Arrange the cut rounds of dough on prepared baking sheets. Prick each round several times with the tines of a fork. Cover the sheet pans with plastic wrap and chill until firm, about 15 minutes.
3. Bake tartlets until set and dry (but not yet brown), 12-14 minutes, rotating pans halfway through for even cooking. Transfer tarlets to a wire rack to cool. [Baked tartlet crusts can be stored, arranged in single layers separated by wax paper in a rigid container for up to 1 week or in the freezer for up to 1 month.]
For Honey Glazed Goat Cheese Tartlets with Pecans and Rosemary, arrange baked rosemary tartlet crusts on a baking sheet. Top each tartlet with a slice of goat cheese. Heat tarlets in an oven warmed to 350 degrees F. until cheese is soft. Drizzle with honey, sprinkle with toasted pecans and finely chopped rosemary.
For Tartlets with Ricotta and Oven Roasted Tomato, arrange baked tartlet crusts on a baking sheet. Heat over to 350 degrees F. In a small bowl, mix a container of good ricotta cheese with a tablespoon of finely grated orange zest, a tablespoon of olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Top each tartlet with ricotta mixture, and a few oven-roasted tomatoes. Garnish with a mint leaf.
Phyllo Cups of Mango-Curry Shrimp
Makes 45 bite-size cups. Adapted from Bon Appetit, November 2001.
45 frozen phyllo dough cups
16 ounces peeled cooked medium shrimp, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
2 tablespoons chopped chives
5 teaspoons fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon mango chutney
2 tablespoons Thai green curry paste
1 teaspoon hot sauce
kosher salt and pepper
1-inch pieces of chopped chives for garnish
Preheat oven to 325°F. Place phyllo cups on baking sheet(s) and bake until crispy, 5-7 minutes. Allow to cool.
Whisk lime juice, cilantro, chives, chutney, and curry paste in medium bowl to blend. Stir in shrimp. Season salad to taste with salt and pepper. (Salad can be prepared up to 1 day ahead. Cover and refrigerate.)
Spoon 1 teaspoon shrimp salad into each cup. Garnish with chives.