Let’s talk about food at cocktail parties.
I am always thinking about food when I invite people over for any occasion, even if it’s just a plan for ordering out. I really like to eat, so I assume most others do too. In that vein, I’ve never understood bars without even a light menu. I daresay I don’t trust them, which might be irrational and likely a discussion for another time.
Regardless, I think few would disagree that food is essential when gathering with friends. I don’t necessarily mean a full meal though. When hosting a cocktail party, lots of snacks and finger foods (homemade and store-bought) are perfectly fine as an accompaniment to the copious amounts of booze that will likely be on offer. Going off of my last post on cocktails, as a light menu for the current series – A Roaring Retro New Year’s Eve (or any other cocktail party, really) – there are a lot of options for simple snack foods popular in and reminiscent of the Prohibition-Era. The key takeaway is that you want enough to soak up that liquor and keep individuals satiated as the night goes on. Below I will detail some savory examples, as well as provide a recipe for something I’ve been eager to share with you – Blue Cheese Stuffed Medjool Dates Wrapped in Prosciutto.
A Collection of Simple Small Plates
In creating a spread for this theme, you have a lot of low-maintenance choices. When I first started looking into the culinary trends of the 1920’s and 1930’s a while back, I was surprised to find that many of what we consider traditional appetizers today were just coming into vogue at this time. This means your inspired-by-but-not-necessary-historical selection will be classy while still being comforting and familiar to your guests. Here is a selection of simple small plates that fit well to the theme:
Shrimp Cocktail with Horseradish Sauce
Pre-cooked frozen shrimp is an option, but it’s also easy enough to buy fresh, raw shrimp from your local seafood counter and cook them up in the oven yourself if you have the time. You’ll just need to chill them before guests arrive. I usually compare prices and go with whichever option is more favorable at the time. This article over on The Kitchn provides a great step-by-step: How To Roast Shrimp In The Oven.
For horseradish sauce (or “cocktail sauce” as it’s usually dubbed), I’ve tried a number of homemade recipe variations, but to be honest my favorite recipe is the one I grew up with. All you need is some Heinz ketchup, a jar of prepared horseradish (the kind in a glass bottle that needs to be kept cold – Gold is one brand), and a bit of lemon juice. I know, that’s not really a recipe – I just fill a bowl with as much ketchup as I think I need as dip for the number of shrimp I’m serving, then add the horseradish to taste. I like it really spicy, so I add a lot of the horseradish, but I suggest adding a little bit and tasting as you go. Add some drops of lemon juice to balance the flavor. You’re done, and with a much better sauce than anything you’ll find pre-made in the supermarket.
Bowls of Popcorn
It’s easy, it’s theme-appropriate, and you can either invest time into making it from scratch on the stove and seasoning it in an interesting way, or you can just buy bags of it at the store. I’d like to tell you I make it on the stove, but honestly I always have pre-made bags in the house. I like the kinds that are just lightly seasoned with sea salt. Fill up little bowls throughout your entertaining space, and people will have something to snack on all night.
Cheese and Meat Platter
This one can be a bit more involved, depending on your ambition. My friends and I have gotten pretty good at constructing spreads of cheeses and cured meats after years of practice, and selections of good cheeses and carved soppressata are one of my favorite dinner (or lunch) alternatives. Pulling one together is not as intimidating as you might think, and you can easily make a spread at home that is leagues better than any you’d pay far too much for in a fancy restaurant. As a template, a good spread has at least three types of cheese, one or two meats, something sweet, something salty, and a carb to put it all on. For the cheese, try to have a variety: something soft and mild (for instance, brie, triple crème, or goat cheese); something semi-soft (like cheddar, Jarlsberg Swiss, or smoked Gouda), and something harder (aged Pecorino Romano or aged Gruyere, for instance.). And if you really want to make it special, add something new, interesting, or downright strange. This is where you throw in a funky cheese not everyone might like, such as a creamy Blue Cheese, or something crusted with herbs, or mixed with wine or berries. If you know about cheese, go with your gut. If you don’t, see if you have an artisan cheese shop in the area and ask the person behind the counter – Professionals are usually your friend at times like these.
Surround your cheese with sliced cured meat of your choosing (pepperoni, soppressata, salami, etc.), or perhaps something freshly sliced from the deli, like prosciutto or Serrano ham. For your carb, fresh bread is always a good choice, but you can just as easily go with simple crackers (consider a gluten-free variety depending on your crowd). Add some jam for your something sweet (fig jam is always a crowd-pleaser, especially with soft cheeses), and something pickled (cornichons, perhaps) as your salty, if you feel so inclined. As a note, a really great cheese platter can get a little pricey, especially if you go for large quantities. Rather than purchasing large amounts of mediocre block cheeses, try for smaller amounts of the highest quality ingredients you can afford. This will go a long way to making your platter something memorable. Don’t hesitate to let your cheese shop know your budget if you are lucky enough to have one nearby to work with, either. With these notes in mind, you are sure to have something that will impress.
These party classics are typically known as Pigs in a Blanket, and they are admittedly one of my favorite appetizers at any party. I also love this retro name for the little guys, even if no one knows what I’m talking about. I have a recipe in the works that uses homemade dough and a special cheese sauce, but for now you can do this rather easily, even without buying a box pre-made from the frozen aisle. Take cocktail-sized hot dogs or slice up some pre-cooked sausages, wrap each in strips of puffed pastry (or even Pillsbury Crescent Rolls) and bake at 350°F for 15-20 minutes. Leave some without pastry, in case some guests are gluten-free. Serve with toothpicks and a side of Dijon mustard.
Blue Cheese Stuffed Medjool Dates Wrapped in Prosciutto
For the majority of this post, I wanted to provide easy food solutions for a relaxing day before your party. This last one is the exception with regard to the time it takes, but technique-wise it’s still very simple.
This recipe came about due to a food-craving. As soon as I get a solid craving for a specific dish, very little can deviate my desire for that food until I’ve had exactly what I imagine. This often means I have to make a lot of things myself to be satisfied. A few months back, I saw Stuffed Medjool Dates on the menu of a speakeasy-style gastropub. Then, when I visited the bar, the menu had changed and I couldn’t try them! With a craving started, I knew I had to make the dates I’d conjured up in my head for this menu. The end result is a decadent mix of sweet and savory, requires zero cooking, and makes for a beautiful display. For your own stuffed Medjool Dates, follow the recipe below, or create your own variation!
A Note on Ingredients: As the elements to this dish are few, I recommend using high quality ingredients, particularly when it comes to the blue cheese. I used a milder cave-aged blue cheese from Trader Joe’s, but I think it would be even better with a stronger Stilton Blue (my favorite of the blue cheeses). As long as you enjoy each element when eaten on its own, you will love them coming together in this.
Furthermore, if your family is like mine, buy more rather than less prosciutto. This is for two reasons: first, sometimes some strips come out a bit torn up, and having more on hand means you have more product to work with to make prettier strips around the dates (if that matters to you); second, it allows others (and yourself) enough to snack on as your work. Sam and both our cats were very happy with these circumstances.
Blue Cheese Stuffed Medjool Dates Wrapped in Prosciutto
Makes approximately 24 stuffed dates
- 1 cup blue cheese (Stilton or Roquefort are good choices)
- 1/2 cup mascarpone cheese
- 1/2 pound Prosciutto di Parma, sliced thin
- 24 dried Medjool Dates, whole
Make a small incision along one side of each date, making sure to leave the majority intact so that it can close back up easily. You basically want to leave a large "hinge" to the back of the date. Pull out the small pits inside and discard. Set aside the prepared dates.
With a fork, combine the mascarpone cheese with the crumbled blue cheese in a small bowl. As the intensity of blue cheese varieties can vary, I recommend adding half the blue cheese to the mascarpone to start, and adding a little more at a time, tasting as you go in order to come to your preferred flavor for the filling. When satisfied with the taste, stuff each date with a small spoonful of filling, closing the date around it so that only a little strip of filling can be seen.
Slice or neatly tear the prosciutto slices into long strips about half the width of each date. Wrap each date with the strips of prosciutto, and secure with a toothpick. Add more or less prosciutto to your taste (I personally like more, but I’m also a fiend for the saltiness it adds to each bite). These can be served right away, or stored in the fridge in an airtight container overnight. Serve arranged on a pretty platter.
On Buying Blue Cheese: I do not recommend buying pre-crumbled blue cheese often sold in stores for topping salads, as I've found it can be rather dry. Instead, pick up a nice chunk of 4-6 ounces of soft, high quality blue cheese you can crumble yourself.
I hope that this post has been helpful, and given you some new ideas for snacks at your future cocktail parties. While we’re at it, what is your favorite appetizer? Tell me in the comments!