One of the challenges in throwing a dinner party is the pacing of the food, and one of the easiest places to go wrong is with the appetizers. We want to offer enough food to take the edge off and absorb some of the alcohol from the pre-dinner cocktails but not so much that our guests are full by the time they sit down to the main meal. Read on for a few suggestions on how to keep pre-dinner nibbles delicious, interesting and at the right level.One thing to keep in mind that your guests are likely to arrive very hungry. They're anticipating your marvelous cooking after all, and have made sure that they'll have plenty of room. But no matter how much they're looking forward to your famous cassoulet or fish tacos, they will pounce with enormous gusto on the first thing that is set in front of them. They can't help it. They're human after all, and very hungry ones at that!
So it's important to go lightly with your pre-dinner nibbles, offering just enough to keep hunger at bay but not so much that you over-fill bellies and spoil appetites. Here are a few hints that will help you to keep it light and tasty.
• Save the bread for dinner.
There is nothing more filling than bread, so save the lovely rustic baguette for dinner and offer thin crackers with your appetizers. Avoid bruschetta and other large, bread-based offerings. Try using thin sliced cucumber or zucchini as a vehicle for your spreads.
• Be wary of the cheese plate.
In general, Americans like to offer cheeses before meals, while it's more common in other countries to pass a cheese course after the main meal. A cheese plate is a beautiful thing, but it's tempting to overdo it with too many varieties when serving it pre-dinner. These days I go for one, maybe two, exquisite cheeses served with very thin wafer crackers. That way people don't overindulge and the beautiful cheese is highlighted.
• Fresh fruit.
In the summer especially, putting out some fresh fruit as a part of your offerings is a nice, refreshing touch. The important thing is that it is as low maintenance as possible, so things like grapes, fresh strawberries, sliced peaches are nice. In the fall, go for sliced apples and pears and in the winter, wedges of citrus.
• Olives and nuts.
Two classic but perfect things to serve! Place a few bowls of olives and nuts here and there throughout the room, being sure to offer a small bowl to collect the olive pits. Roast the nuts beforehand to bring out their flavor or offer a favorite spiced nut.
• Dip and spreads.
For some, it would be impossible to not offer your famous guacamole or your mother's crab dip. This is of course perfectly acceptable but keep the portions smaller. And again, if possible, offer thin crackers or fresh vegetable for dipping over hunks of bread.
• Limit the number.
Do you have a favorite appetizer that is delicious, but perhaps a little filling? Go ahead and serve it, but have it be the only thing you offer, or one of two or three other, lighter things.
• Limit the time.
The purpose of pre-dinner drinks is to give people a window of time to arrive and make the transition into party mode. It also helps the cook to time the meal and get some last minute cooking done. That said, keep this period as short as possible to avoid overly stuffed, slightly drunk people sitting down to your dinner table.
The bottom line is to remember that the pre-dinner appetizers are just the prelude to the main meal. You can put a lot of time, money and effort into a bunch of fancy tidbits, but by the time your guests are eating their dessert, they will have been long forgotten. So keep it simple, light and elegant.
Related: The Canapé: A Classic Cocktail Party Nibble
(Image: Emily Ho)