Read on for dozens of easy, elegant, chef-approved ideas for your next do.
By Cinda Chavich
When party season rolls around, it’s time to pull out the stops and celebrate. But beyond the bubbly and batch cocktails, guests need finger food, and that’s where chefs shine. So we asked some of our favourites to share some secrets for how they feed friends and family when they entertain at home.
Shop, Don’t Cook
The key to successful party food is clever shopping and curation. Look for jars and tins of pâté, seafood and condiments from your favourite artisan butchers, cheesemongers and delis, then mix and match.
And when you want to keep it simple yet sublime, start with a luxury ingredient like foie gras, fine cheeses, sweet spot prawns, lox or caviar.
My own perfect party hack starts with cold-smoked albacore tuna from Finest At Sea. A slice of the silky cured fish perched on a Japanese rice cracker (preferably seaweed flavour) along with a dab of wasabi-infused mayo is always a huge hit.
Chef Corbin Mathany of Ugly Duckling Dining & Provisions serves seared foie gras on toasted brioche, topped with seasonal “sweet and sour” fruit compotes and a dusting of Chinese five-spice powder.
“It’s become a staple on our menu,” says Mathany. “The fruit element changes with the seasons — perhaps Asian pear and five-spice in the winter, or Okanagan peach and Korean chili in the summer — but the spirit of the dish remains.”
And you don’t need to bake brioche or make fruit preserves from scratch. “We have a number of great artisanal producers in our region, and simply purchasing these products from them makes this dish a breeze,” he says.
Meanwhile, chef Max Durand of Eva Schnitzelhaus and Nourish Kitchen heads to The Market Garden for the best selection of top-quality tinned fish (known as “conservas”), then adds “some sour cream, finely chopped green onions, dill if you have it,” and pickled red onions or shallots for his perfect Euro-inspired bite.
“I really like herring or sardines on rye bread or rye crackers — in the ideal world, multi-grain bread from Fol Epi,” he says.
> Here are some more quick ideas for your shopping list:
• Ripe French cheese or aged Canadian cheddar. Pop it on toasted bread or crostini and add a dab of quince paste.
• Fresh goat cheese, with local honey and thyme for drizzling.
• Cold-smoked salmon. Serve it with crème fraîche, capers and snipped chives on a sturdy kettle-cooked potato chip. (A tiny dab of Canadian caviar takes it over the top.)
• Plump prawns. Quickly steam then chill them for an elegant appie served with cocktail sauce or Peruvian green sauce for dipping.
• Seasoned salmon or tuna poke from the fish counter.
• Luxe Spanish canned seafood such as white anchovies or sardines. Offer it on toasted sourdough spread with cold butter.
• Duck confit from Farm + Field Butchers; The Whole Beast’s chicken liver parfait; or any of the pâtés and terrines from Pickles Pantry, whether pork and fig with pistachio or chicken, bacon and mushroom.
• Foie gras. Slater’s First Class Meats can supply fresh foie for searing, or you may opt for a foie gras terrine (like the widely available products from Rougie in Quebec). Partner them with a jam or chutney from Saltspring Kitchen Co.
Make it Bite-Sized
The perfect party nosh should be compact enough that you can pick it up easily and consume it in one bite, maybe two. That’s where canapés and hors d’oeuvres come into play.
The classic canapé, by definition, is something set on a small piece of toasted bread, pancake or pastry. You can use oven-roasted sweet potato slices as a base for your canapés, or underripe plantain cut on the diagonal and fried into golden chips. An exquisite artisan cracker can also be a solid supporting member of the canapé cast.
I asked Jenny Payne of Jenny Marie’s Cracker Company how she would serve some of her favourite flavours. She led with vegan Spread ’Em garlic chive cashew cheeze spread on her Simply Sea Salt crackers, strawberry jam on her Pepper & Sea Salt crackers (maybe with a piece of creamy Camembert), and Lime & Pepper crackers with guacamole.
“The pairings are endless and limitless,” she says, noting all of her crackers are made with vegan ingredients, the “cheese” flavour created with nutritional yeast.
Mat Clarke, the creative chef who leads the team at end dive, says he’d serve guests a sourdough cracker (made by the restaurant’s crack baker Kara Martyn) with “honey-fermented white beets from Sweet Beans farm, or poached quince from our old Italian friend and some Tiger Blue cheese from Poplar Grove in Penticton.”
> Beyond bread, crackers and chips, pancakes make a beautiful base for canapés. Think:
• Tiny buckwheat blinis with crème fraîche and caviar.
• Bannock with cranberry sauce and smoked turkey.
• Zucchini fritters or little potato latkes with lox and capers.
> Meanwhile, hors d’oeuvres are little standalone savouries that can range from meatballs and satay chicken skewers to stuffed cherry tomatoes and dates filled with blue cheese. They can also include:
• Deviled eggs — try making them with quail eggs, adding a bit of white miso to the mashed yolk filling, then sprinkling with Japanese furikake.
• A tiny steamed or roasted potato that’s halved (with a sliver sliced from the base to keep it steady) and topped perogy-style with melted cheddar and fried onions or Indian-flavoured with curried cauliflower and garam masala.
• Cherry tomatoes, hollowed out and filled with herbed cream cheese, for lovely little gluten-free bites.
• Cucumber slices (or cups made with a melon baller) topped with soy-seasoned tuna poke.
• Mushrooms baked with cheesy fillings, for a classic vegetarian-based bite.
• Endive leaves, baby butter lettuce leaves or hearts of romaine lettuce filled with shrimp cocktail, ginger chicken or lemony lentils.
Preparation is key to a smooth cocktail party. The best plan for a party that doesn’t have you trapped in the kitchen involves make-ahead platters and bowls of snacks, with a few things to pass at one-hour intervals.
Chef Andrea Duncan of Niche Grocerant says she keeps heating to a minimum and avoids cooking appies “to order.” “I like to do 90 per cent of it the day before,” she says. “I like to have a couple items out before guests even arrive, so there’s no pressure to get the canapés out right away. This can be fancy popcorn or crudités.”
As for how much to serve: Caterers calculate party food based on number of guests and length of event.
A cocktail party of two to three hours means six to eight small bites per person, especially if it’s early with a time limit in the afternoon or 5 to 7 p.m. If the event is later or you’ve invited people to stay longer, serve more substantial food.
Plan to share your special treats (like foie gras, caviar or freshly shucked oysters) early, and offer eight dishes, max, to keep things manageable.
> Some other tips:
• Choose a variety of flavours and textures (fresh, crunchy, hot, rich, salty, sweet), keeping gluten-sensitive and vegan guests in mind.
• Sweet and savoury are happy partners for appetizers, whether you pair cheese with chutney or terrines with tart jellies. Include something sweet on the cheese and charcuterie board (dried apricots, cranberries, grapes), with nuts for texture and crunch.
• Presentation is everything when it comes to beautiful bites. You want them not only to look good, but to be easy to eat. That’s why caterers serve one-bite wonders with toothpicks or on tiny skewers, on Asian soup spoons or in mini shot glasses, which are ideal for sipping savoury cold soups like gazpacho.
• Set up a central food buffet, with plates and napkins, and spread other platters around the rooms. Picks and sticks always make noshing easier, especially at a stand-up schmooze.
And remember: The best party food is simple, the kind of lovely noshes that are easy to eat while you catch up with friends and family. Enjoy our easy ideas and enjoy your holidays!
The perfect party nosh should be compact enough that you can pick it up easily and consume it in one bite, maybe two.
TIP: A cocktail party of two to three hours means six to eight small bites per person.
At Niche Grocerant, chef Andrea Duncan reaches into the grocery side of the restaurant for B.C.’s Northern Divine caviar or other fresh fish roe from Finest At Sea to top little potatoes for an elegant, easy nosh.
• 24 golf-ball-sized potatoes
• 1 Tbsp salt
• 1/3 cup sour cream or crème fraîche
• 1 (30 g) tin of caviar (may substitute salmon or trout roe)
• Fresh chives to taste
In a saucepan, cover potatoes with cold water and add the tablespoon of salt. Simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, or until tender. Drain and cool.
Cut potatoes in half and, using a teaspoon or melon baller, scoop out centre of the potatoes, leaving a sturdy shell.
Mash scooped-out potato with the sour cream or crème fraîche. Spoon that mixture back into the potatoes.
Top each potato with the caviar or fish roe and sprinkle with freshly snipped chives.
Note: The potatoes can be prepared a day ahead; add the toppings right before you serve them. When plating, give the potatoes a wee squish so they aren’t roly-poly on the plate.
Endive with Duck, Beet and Orange
Chef Oliver Kienast of Wild Mountain Food + Drink in Sooke offers this idea for a tasty bite featuring fresh endive cups. He recommends buying prepared duck confit from a good butcher such as Farm + Field or Village Butcher. Use your own homemade beet pickles or take the chef’s recommendation and get a jar of pickled beets from Deadbeetz Burgers. For non-meat eaters, Kienast suggests replacing the duck with a flavourful cheese, such as the semi-soft, washed-rind Romelia from Salt Spring Island Cheese.
• 20 Belgian endive leaves
• 1 duck confit leg, skin removed, meat chopped
• 1 or 2 pickled beets, cut into small cubes
• 1 large orange, cut into supremes (see note) and choppedif large
• Fresh thyme sprigs, leaves removed
Place the endive in a bowl of ice water to crisp the leaves and make them sturdier. Drain well.
Arrange the crisped endive leaves on a platter. Top each
with a few slivers of duck confit, some cubes of pickled beet and orange segments. Sprinkle with thyme leaves. Makes
Note: To supreme the orange, use a sharp knife to cut both ends off the fruit, then cut down, top to bottom, to remove the thick peel and pith, leaving the flesh exposed. Cut between the membranes to remove the orange flesh supremes.
Basque-Style Burnt Cheesecake
Zambri’s chef Matias Sallaberry grew up in Argentina, and loves to cook over open fire. Here’s his easy recipe for Basque-style burnt cheesecake, with his own twist on strawberry sauce to serve alongside.
• 1 whole egg
• ¾ cup goat milk (or cow)
• ¾ cup heavy cream
• 1 ¼ cups sugar
• 3 cups (680 g) cream cheese
• ¼ cup (60 g) Camembert
• 2 tsp (10 g) blue cheese
• 1 Tbsp cornstarch
Preheat oven to 350°F. Line an 8-inch round or square pan with high sides, such as a springform pan, with parchment and fold down over the edge of the pan to encourage browning on top.
In a blender, combine cheesecake ingredients and blend until smooth. Pour the cheesecake batter into the prepared pan.
Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until the top is a deep golden brown and cheesecake is set though still a little jiggly. (If you want it extra dark on top, you can run it under the broiler for a minute, but be extremely cautious and take care not to let the parchment catch fire.)
Remove from oven, cool to room temperature then refrigerate to chill completely.
For the sauce, char the pepper over an open flame, peel, remove stem and seeds, and blend with the strawberries and lemon juice until fairly smooth. Sweeten to your liking. Cut cheesecake into thin slivers or small squares and serve with sauce on mini dessert plates. Serves 12 to 24.
• 1 red bell pepper
• 1 pint (2 cups) strawberries, hulled
• Splash of lemon juice
• 3 Tbsp fine sugar or honey (optional)
White Bean Spread on Thyme & Sea Salt Crackers
Jenny Payne of Jenny Marie’s Cracker Company shares this recipe for a simple vegan spread, a favourite that she makes at home to serve on her own Thyme & Sea Salt crackers.
• 1 can (410 mL /13.8 oz) cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
• 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
• 1/3 cup nutritional yeast
• 3 to 4 cloves garlic (add more or less to taste)
• 2 Tbsp water (add more for desired smoothness)
• Thyme & Sea Salt crackers, purchased or homemade, as needed (see note)
Put all ingredients (except crackers) in the bowl of a food processor and blend until puréed and ingredients are well combined. If you want a smoother consistency, add more water by the tablespoon. Serve with crackers and crudités. Makes about 2 cups.
Note: An easy way to make your own seasoned crackers is to start with store-bought pitas. Use kitchen shears to cut around the edge of each pita and separate it into two rounds. Lightly brush the rough interior side with a little olive oil, cut or tear it into large pieces and dust with your favourite spices (salt, paprika, garlic powder, oregano or a spice mixture like za’atar or ras el hanout). Bake in a hot (400°F) oven until starting to brown.
Last-Minute Mini Mouthfuls
This is a killer combination — and nothing could be easier
• 20 fresh dates, pitted
• 1 ½ cups mild, creamy goat cheese, herbed
• Boursin cream cheese or soft Cambozola blue
• Finely chopped Italian parsley to taste
Spoon a teaspoon of soft goat cheese or Boursin into the cavity of each pitted date and smooth. Sprinkle with parsley and serve. Makes 20 little bites.
Note: For a meaty variation, wrap each filled date in a strip of prosciutto to serve cold, or roast in a 425°F oven for 10 minutes.
To make crostini toasts, slice a skinny baguette into rounds or on a slight diagonal, brush both sides with olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt and bake at 375°F until crisp, about 8 to 10 minutes. Rub with halved garlic cloves for extra flavour. Then top crostini with these classic and creative combinations.
• Fresh mozzarella (bocconcini), cherry tomato, basil, reduced balsamic
• Mushrooms sautéed in butter with garlic and thyme
• Brie, sliced pear and chopped thyme or rosemary
• Butter, sliced radish, sea salt
• Cream cheese, cold-smoked salmon, capers and dill
• Creamy goat cheese drizzled with honey, toasted chopped walnuts, thyme
• Pesto and chopped olive or sundried tomato tapenade, shaved Parmesan
• Caponata, Italian parsley
• Avocado and chilled prawn salad, cilantro
• Cream cheese with horseradish, sliced rare beef, arugula
• White bean hummus with rosemary, olive oil
• Young French cheeses with quince jelly
• Ham, cheddar, chutney
• Mashed avocado, fleur de sel
• Ricotta, roasted grape, balsamic reduction
• Candied salmon, goat cheese
• Fig, gorgonzola, prosciutto
• Foie gras or chicken liver mousse with wine jelly
Cherry Tomato Tonnato
Tonnato is an Italian tuna and mayonnaise sauce you can whirl up to fill cherry tomatoes or serve with crudités.
• 24 bite-sized cherry tomatoes
• Chopped Italian parsley or smoked paprika
• ½ cup good mayonnaise
• 5 oz (160 g) can tuna in olive oil
• 1 to 2 anchovy fillets
• 1 Tbsp lemon juice
• 1 Tbsp capers
• 1 clove garlic, minced
• Salt, pepper and cayenne to taste
Cut the tops off the cherry tomatoes and carefully scoop out the seeds using a small spoon. Set the tomatoes, cut side down, on a paper-towel-lined tray to drain.
In a blender or food processor, combine the mayonnaise and remaining ingredients and blend or pulse just enough to create a slightly chunky sauce.
Spoon or pipe the tonnato sauce into the tomatoes. Sprinkle with Italian parsley or dust with paprika.
Tonnato can be made a day in advance and chilled in a covered container. Makes about 24.
Cream Puffs — Savoury and Sweet
The mini cream puff (for savoury gougères or sweet profiteroles) is the go-to bite for chef/baker partners Ross Bowles and Tracie Zahavich of Fox & Monocle restaurant outside Sidney. The chefs offer both sweet and savoury options for filling these choux pastries, to pass at the start of the party, and at the end.
Basic choux pastry:
• 1/3 cup milk
• 1 ½ cups water
• 1 cup butter, cut into cubes
• 1 tsp salt
• 2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
• 8 large eggs
• Fillings (see next page)
Preheat oven to 350°F.
In a saucepan, combine milk, water, butter and salt. Bring just to a boil over medium heat to scald the milk. Reduce heat to low and add flour all at once. Mix vigorously with a wooden spoon for three minutes.
A film will start to form on the bottom of the pan and your mixture will start to look glossy (the mixture should reach 165°F to 175°F).
Transfer mixture into a stand mixer with a paddle attachment. Turn mixer to medium speed and add eggs two at a time. Make sure eggs are fully incorporated before adding the next two. Once eggs have been fully incorporated, mix for 30 seconds on high speed.
Transfer mixture to a piping bag with a ½-inch plain tip (or use a zippered freezer bag and snip off the corner for piping).
Line a cookie tray with parchment paper and pipe choux paste mounds, about the size of a toonie, an inch or two apart, smoothing down any peaks on the tops. You should get about 25 pieces.
Bake for 16 minutes. Do not open the oven while choux buns are baking, or they will collapse.
After 16 minutes, rotate the tray and bake for an additional 4 minutes. The choux buns should be puffed, golden on the outside and tender in the middle. Remove from oven and allow to cool.
To fill pastries, poke a hole into the bottom of each cream puff and fill using a piping bag. Alternatively, split each pastry open or cut off the top of each, fill base and replace top.
Filled pastries may be held in the refrigerator for up to one day — longer and they will be soggy. You can store unfilled pastries in a covered container for a week at room temperature or freeze for up to 3 months. Refresh and crisp in a 350°F oven for 3 minutes before serving. Makes 25.
Note: For savoury gougères, add minced herbs and finely grated Gruyère or Parmesan cheese to the batter before baking.
Savoury Cheese Filling
• 1 cup milk
• 2 tsp salt
• 2 Tbsp butter
• ¼ cup flour
• 1 ½ cups (160 g) grated aged cheddar
• ¾ cup (80 g) grated Parmesan
• 1 tsp Dijon mustard
• 4 medium green onions, minced
Place the milk and salt in a small saucepan and warm over medium heat.
In another saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter and stir in flour to make a roux. Cook, stirring, until golden. Slowly whisk in the hot milk, in a few additions, until it forms a smooth sauce. Boil mixture for 30 seconds and then reduce heat to low.
Rapidly whisk in the cheese and mustard. Right before mixture becomes homogenous, turn off the heat. Continue to mix until smooth and well combined. Cool to room temperature, then mix in the minced onions. Pipe or spoon into puffs to fill. Makes enough to fill 25 puffs.
Sweet Choux filling
• 2 cups whipping cream
• 1 tsp vanilla
• ½ cup raspberry jam
Whip cream with vanilla until stiff peaks form. Place whipped cream in a piping bag. Place raspberry jam in another piping bag.
Make a little hole in the bottoms of your cooled cream puffs.
Pipe a small amount of jam into each puff, then fill with whipped cream to finish. Serve immediately or cover and chill.
Note: You can also split your cream puffs and fill with a spoonful of your favourite ice cream, and freeze.