Food for Fun

The best party fare is the simplest

Urban Renewal

by Gay Lyons

I love party food. Done well, it's fun, fresh and festive. And you get to have little bits of lots of things. My friend Leslie says I must have some Scandinavian blood because of my enthusiastic embrace of the smörgåsbord concept.

I do appreciate the range of a proper party spread. I'm not a fan of the groaning â“all you can eatâ” buffet. Here's the formula: Take the amount you paid and divide by the amount of stuff you can unappetizingly pile on your plate. The quotient? Quantity trumps all else. It's not very good, but the price is right, and there's a lot of it. That's not party food; that's a hog trough.

What I love is healthy, aesthetically presented, bite-sized food served in a convivial atmosphere. Appearance is as important as taste. The best party food whispers (or in some cases, exclaims): â“Pick me up; try me; you won't be sorry.â”

Portion size is important. Large chunks of things on skewers look dramatic on a buffet, but good party fare should be easy to eat in a social milieu. Eating it should require only a brief and simple commitmentâ"the better for simultaneously noshing, standing, balancing a drink, and conversing.

Simplicity is important for the cook as well. I don't mind fussing for my friends, but the best party food is quick and easy to prepare. It's no fun if you're exhausted before the first guest arrives. Save labor-intensive dishes for small groups. I'll make stuffed mushrooms for 20 guests but probably not for 50.

It's great if all or most of the work can be done ahead of time instead of during the last hour or so. Dishes that sit well are good choices for parties. The best are those with flavors that improve at room temperature.

These two party foods add color and flavor to a table: One requires almost no effort and can be made partly ahead of time; the other requires a little more effort but can be made a day or more head of time. To wit:

â“Capresi on a pickâ” is a variation of the lovely Italian favorite â“insalata capresi.â”

Slice cherry tomatoes in half lengthwise. Slice mozzarella cheese into bite-sized cubes. Slice fresh basil into narrow pieces about an inch long. These three steps can be done and refrigerated the day before serving, but it's best if you wait to slice the basil until just before assembling. To assemble, thread one tomato, one sliver of basil and one cube of cheese onto a toothpick. These can be refrigerated for a few hours before serving. They look beautiful on a white platter by themselves or along with other cheeses.

â“Blue cheese rouladeâ” gets easier every time you make it. The trick is in properly unrolling the parchment paper.   

Beat 8 ounces of softened cream cheese and 4 ounces of softened blue cheese at medium speed with an electric mixer until smooth. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Spread and shape cheese mixture into an 11- by 8-inch rectangle. I use my hands initially and then use a spatula to create straight edges. Cover with plastic wrap and chill until hardened. An hour is enough, but I prefer to refrigerate overnight. Process one cup fresh spinach leaves, three-fourths cup fresh Italian parsley, one-fourth cup fresh basil leaves, one garlic clove and three to four tablespoons olive oil. Stir in one cup grated Parmesan, one-fourth cup chopped walnuts and one-fourth cup chopped sun-dried tomatoes. Spread spinach mixture on top of cheese mixture. Using the parchment paper as a guide, roll up the cheese, jelly roll fashion. Don't remove the paper too early; it's better to roll the cheese and the paper and slip the paper out after each revolution. Wrap seam-side down in plastic wrap, sealing the ends, and refrigerate for several hours or longer. Remove plastic wrap, garnish with flat leaf parsley, sprigs of basil or edible flowers and serve with crackers or toasted bread.


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