No matter your dietary needs, it's easy to enjoy holiday parties, one tiny bite at a time.
All kinds of sweet and savory tidbits will be offered at family gatherings and other get-togethers throughout the season, whether you call them appetizers, hors d'oeurves or finger food.
These bite-sized morsels can take the place of a formal sit-down dinner. For the host, there's no multi-course meal to fix or table settings to worry about, cleanup is often easier and it can be more affordable. You also can invite more people.
And guests get a greater variety of food in a fun, relaxed atmosphere. People can move around, mingle, serve themselves, sample whatever they want and eat at their own pace. You don't need utensils.
“It's a fun way to entertain. It's a more casual way to entertain,” said Patricia Regan, owner of Patricia Catering in Bellevue. Many of her clients choose an appetizers-only menu for their parties and events, she said.
But hosts should keep a few things in mind when serving an assortment of petite eats.
Make sure there's enough food to go around and plenty of variety with hot and cold and sweet and savory appetizers. You'll also want to consider any food allergies or eating restrictions. Nuts, gluten, carbs, meat, dairy and soy are some of the main culprits.
“What you serve greatly depends on who you're serving,” said Gene Cammarota, chef-instructor in the culinary arts program at Iowa Western Community College in Council Bluffs.
So you're prepared for vegetarians, low-carb dieters or gluten-free eaters, it's a good idea to find out if anyone on your invitation list has a dietary restriction. To help ensure safe snacking, Cammarota said, it's best to prepare appetizers with fresh rather than processed ingredients so you know exactly what's in them.
Pleasing your vegetarian and gluten-free friends without disappointing the carnivores or carb-counters at your party doesn't have to mean more work for you. There are a number of delicious, stress-free appetizers you can quickly make ahead of time.
While it's convenient to buy ready-made items at the grocery store, gluten tends to show up in many pre-packaged and processed foods. Many popular party foods, though, including hummus and guacamole, are naturally gluten-free and easy to make from scratch.
For vegetarians, the choices can include crudités, cheese, fresh fruit, olives, crackers, spinach artichoke dip, salsa, deviled eggs, stuffed mushrooms or jalapeño poppers. Nut-free nibbles range from prosciutto-wrapped cantaloupe to bite-size finger sandwiches with sliced cucumber, smoked salmon, cream cheese and other fillings. Sugar cookies, too, usually are a safe bet for people with nut allergies.
For pescetarians (those who avoid meat but do eat fish and seafood), consider making mini crab cakes or serving a small scoop of salmon or shrimp salad on endive leaves for an elegant hand-held appetizer. Shrimp cocktail is another good choice since it can be made ahead of time and kept cold in the fridge until it's time to serve. It's also a hit with most partygoers.
“The thing with shrimp, no matter how many you serve, people are going to eat them all,” Cammarota said.
Omaha resident Debbie Bloomer's go-to appetizer for parties and family gatherings is crab-stuffed snow pea pods. Friends and relatives make special requests for them, Bloomer said. She recently made a batch of two dozen to bring to a friend's Christmas party, and they were quickly devoured.
For the filling, Bloomer mixes mock crab, reduced-fat cream cheese, cocktail sauce, lemon juice, horseradish, minced scallion and low-fat sour cream in a food processor. With a small, sharp knife, she trims the ends and removes the string along the length of each pea pod. She blanches them in boiling water for about 30 seconds, puts them in an ice bath, then dries them on a towel. She uses a pastry bag with a star tip to pipe the filling inside the snow peas.
“They're low-calorie, they're crispy and really full of flavor. ” she said. “I don't know anyone who doesn't like them.”
Anything with bacon usually will please meat eaters. Wrap figs, water chestnuts or dates in bacon, skewer them with toothpicks, then bake until the bacon is crispy. You also can make chicken or beef skewers or set out a platter of sliced beef or pork tenderloin, a basket of dinner rolls and a dish of horseradish sauce so guests can assemble their own mini sandwiches. Mini meatballs, salami, prosciutto or other cured meats satisfy both carb-counters and carnivores.
Accommodating vegan guests who avoid meat, eggs, dairy products, honey and gelatin is a little trickier since so many foods are off limits, but a number of vegan-friendly appetizers don't take a lot of time to make, Cammarota said.
One easy vegan dish that can be made in advance — and also is gluten-free — is grilled or roasted vegetables (zucchini, asparagus, bell peppers, eggplant, etc.) marinated with fresh herbs and olive oil. Other vegan-friendly options include nuts, fresh fruit and vegetables, hummus, tomato and basil bruschetta, white bean dip, salsas, olives, pickles, baked sweet potato fries and grilled tofu skewers.
Appetizer-only menus are ideal not just for holiday entertaining but for events throughout the year, including potlucks, baby showers, receptions and family reunions.
“No matter what the occasion,” Cammarota said, “bite-size is so much easier to manage than plated food.”
And, since portions are tiny, appetizers are less likely to bore your taste buds. With any food, it's usually the first few bites that bring the most enjoyment, said Amanda Jochum, a registered dietitian at Hy-Vee at 156th and West Maple Road.
There are several easy ways to whip up nutritious yet satisfying snacks. Jochum suggests using whole-wheat flour for cookies; replacing oil with applesauce in cakes and brownies; and making tortilla pinwheels with whole wheat tortillas, reduced-fat cream cheese and vegetables.
One of her favorite healthy appetizer recipes calls for mini phyllo tart shells filled with lime curd, topped with fresh raspberries. The festive red and green color combination is prefect for the holidays, she said.