I must be running with the wrong crowd. Every cocktail party I go to seems to involve hors d’oeuvres that require three hands: one to hold a drink, and two to wrestle the food off a tiny plate and onto a fork.
At a book party recently, waiters were doling out braised pork belly and steamed mushroom dumplings. At a restaurant party, it was seared sliced steak and shrimp over grits. At a chef’s house, it was butterfish on a knot of spicy noodles.
On the plus side, all this fork-dependent food could be a leading esoteric indicator that party fare is getting more ambitious, more amuse bouche than chip and dip. On the downside, it just makes drinking more dangerous. Who has a fourth hand to wield a napkin when the sauce goes dribbling?
As much as I appreciate great advances in appetizers, with caviar served on Chinese soup spoons and foie gras on skewers, I will always believe in the great tradition of comfort over fashion. The very best party food should need no utensil, not even a toothpick. Especially in summertime, the eating should be easy.
Largely because I hate to wash silverware and have no dishwasher (by choice), I have been erring on the side of dainty for many years. I also like nothing better than making a whole meal out of finger food with a little (or a lot) of wine. But I’ve learned the hard way that hors d’oeuvres have to be eminently edible or guests will take the easy way out and skip the food, then blame you for hangovers on under-filled stomachs.
Even with forks out of the picture, though, I want the same payback professionals do from hors d’oeuvres: a lot of flavor in a bite or two. I’ve built up a whole range of reliables over the years, whether gougeres enriched with wild mushrooms, miniature corn pancakes topped with smoked fish, one-bite crab cakes, filo triangles, Lilliputian frittatas, or no end of crostini. But I keep adding new ones, knowing just about any dish can be downsized.
Meatballs are undervalued on the social circuit, mostly because they are usually dull and swim in a messy sauce. At a friend’s restaurant specializing in small plates, though, I tasted some that were so assertively flavored they needed no sauce and fried so crisp they could be picked up without even a toothpick. I tried them at home with beef blended with chipotle chile for heat, scallions for color and Cheddar cheese for ooziness, all in a panko coating. The flavors were great, even at room temperature. But the secret was cooking them not in a deep fryer but in a very hot oven, so they were both crusty and juicy.
I swiped another idea from a relatively old restaurant whose chef had foisted fork food on me at his new place. One of his signature dishes is a blue corn pancake filled with hot braised duck and finger-painted with three spicy sauces, and I realized that the crepe-like tortillas could work with something cold too. Crab meat with mango, jalapenos, cilantro and lime juice tucked inside makes a two-bite sensation.
The same little crepes could enfold any number of other fillings: guacamole, black bean salad, shredded duck confit; you could even saute the meatball mixture and tuck it into the pancakes. Always, the filling should be drained well so that no napkins take the annoying place of the missing forks. And the same filling could also be mounded on tortilla chips.
Summer rolls are even easier to turn into pass-around food, especially when you start with duck confit in the filling. You just have to heat it long enough to bring it back to life, shred it, then layer it with herbs (in this case mint, but you could also use basil) and vegetables (pea shoots and julienned cucumber, but arugula or carrot would also work well) and fold it up like a little burrito. Just before serving you can slice one roll into four bites. It may be heresy, but I put chutney into the mix as well, and serve the rolls with an optional dip of rice wine vinegar seasoned with garlic and sugar, Chiu Chow style.
The stretchy rice paper used as wrappers for the rolls is as forgiving as filo, but instead of patching it with butter you just lay it out and roll it up; even the torn parts will cling together because it’s so pliable after it’s soaked. You can buy it at any Asian market (or many specialty shops).
Tempura is another eminently adaptable idea for a party. A light batter of egg, flour and salt can coat any vegetable, but especially asparagus, before it goes into the deep-fryer. Usually cold water is part of the batter, but club soda adds an effervescence. The combination of crust, oil and vegetable is terrific on its own, but you can ramp it up with dry mustard or sesame seeds or curry powder in the batter. Again, these can be dipped, in tamari or ponzu sauce, but are best appreciated solo.
Finally, brandade has been one of my party staples since I discovered the best way to make it, in a cookbook by the late chef Felipe Rojas-Lombardi. He had the cooking time down so that the salt cod does not turn fibrous, and the seasoning is balanced with cream steeped with a fascinating blend of spices -- bay leaves, juniper berries, allspice -- along with lots of the essential garlic.
In the past I’ve always just made a bowlful and set it out with toasted slices of baguette, but I knew there had to be a one-handed way to make it better. And so I baked it onto shiitake mushroom caps.
As with all the best fork-free food, these hors d’oeuvres take a little more work upfront. But the cleanup is a snap: Everyone eats the evidence and keeps on drinking.