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Homemade Appetizers: The Basics

by Jane Wangersky | January 2nd, 2015 | Cooking Basics
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appetizers (400x400)In spite of their name, to my mind appetizers are not so much to help you work up an appetite as to keep your appetite from getting too worked up while you’re waiting for dinner. This can get especially important if you’re at a restaurant, or at someone else’s house for dinner, and it can be even more important if you’re the one hosting the dinner and it’s not ready when you thought it would be.

Appetizers aren’t usually something you make for your family regularly — unless you’re like the Bedloes in Anne Tyler’s novel Saint Maybe, whose traditional Thanksgiving dinner consists of turkey and appetizers, and even they only do this once a year. But if you’re giving a party, you’ll probably want to serve them, and they’re also handy to take to a potluck.

Though you may love the appetizers you get at restaurants and bars, remember many of them are designed to make people order more drinks. Presumably you don’t have the same motive, so there’s no need to come up with anything as salty/spicy as you’d get while eating out.

What do you need for an appetizer?

First, it should be small — one or two bites. Think chips, mini quiches, crackers, single shrimp. And, also like all these tidbits, it should be finger food. Once it used to be assumed you’d be eating appetizers while holding a cocktail and a cigarette; though that’s no longer true, it’s a good idea to serve something that’ll leave everyone a hand free.

In theory, appetizers can be hot, cold, or any temperature in between. In real life, I’m biased toward those that are fine at room temperature. It’s better not to have to run to the oven at the last minute, or try to keep a bed of ice from melting.

Finally, they should be just a little bit special, at the very least. Touches like sliced olive, smoked salmon, and sprigs of fresh herbs help raise appetizers out of the cheese-and-cracker category.

Okay, it’s time to get specific. What are some good, easy, room-temperature homemade appetizers?

  • Pinwheels made by spreading tortillas thinly with a savory filling — flavored cream cheese or a mayonnaise-based sandwich filling — and rolling them up tightly. These can be easier to slice if you chill them first. Don’t be afraid to stick a toothpick in each slice to hold it together, though. For a holiday version that’s good all year, try these.
  • Deviled eggs, especially when they’re made with something like chipotle mayonnaise. Remember to finish them off with a sprinkling of paprika or a sprig of parsley.
  • Celery stuffed with flavored cream cheese or commercial chip dip.
  • Bagels cut into very thin top-to-bottom slices, then buttered, sprinkled with seasoned salt, and toasted in a low oven till crisp.
  • Marinated cream cheese on crackers — check out yesterday’s recipe to see how easy this is.
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