The doorbell rings, and they start to stream in. Hungry. Yes, there will be dinner, platters overflowing with the inevitable, and desserts galore.
But not immediately. I’ll need another 30 minutes, maybe a little more, as we wait for the frantic, traffic-fouled latecomers.
It’s a challenge a host often faces: how to bridge the gap so that guests, having picked up the scent of roasted poultry and autumn spices as soon as they arrive, do not head for the kitchen and start nipping at the pan of turkey stuffing or sneaking chunks of roasted root vegetables.
At the same time, you do not want to be trapped fussing with pretty canapés when you may be having a gravy crisis. And with a waiting list for oven space, forget defrosting pigs in blankets or warming homemade gougères.
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The situation calls for something savory, easy and at room temperature that won’t lay waste to appetites. In many households, a copious bowl of shrimp is the default answer. A wooden board with cheeses and crackers, dishes of nuts here and there, or a dip, even guacamole, with chips or vegetables trimmed in advance can be put out with something to drink. Later in the night, they will contribute very little to the final reckoning at the dishwasher.
But if surprise and delight (as well as a preference for simplicity and efficiency) drive your menu choices, there are other options.
Last year, I bought a couple of platters of vegan sushi – a stained-glass array of fresh, tasty, bite-size rolls and pinwheels from a New York company called Beyond Sushi – and set them out with great success. (They are sold only locally, but your community may have a comparable resource, or consider fresh vegetable maki rolls from a reliable Japanese restaurant.)
Buy packages of plump smoked bay scallops online, simply pierce them with toothpicks on a plate and add a bowl of tartar sauce or horseradish mayo alongside. Or splurge on D’Artagnan’s luxury finger food called French Kisses, prunes stuffed with foie gras.
Several days in advance, you might whip up your own smoked-trout spread to pack in a bowl and offer with bagel chips or squares of pumpernickel.
Or you could serve soup. No, I have not gone around the bend. I often accompany drinks with a velvety vegetable soup that’s about the consistency of tomato juice and lightly chilled for guests to sip. Pour small portions into disposable plastic shot glasses arranged on a tray to set out on a table or sideboard, perhaps with cheese straws alongside.
Normally, using plastic glasses makes me shudder, but under these circumstances, they offer a pragmatic shortcut. The finest caterers deploy them. You can, too.
Yield: About 8 servings; total time: 10 minutes
6 ounces skinned, boned smoked trout, about 2 fillets
2 tablespoons minced chives
1 tablespoon lemon juice
4 tablespoons plain Greek yogurt
Ground black pepper
Break up trout into food processor, add chives and grind until finely minced. Pulse in lemon juice and yogurt. Season with pepper.
Transfer to a small serving bowl. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.
Yield: 2 cups, 12 small servings; total time: 30 minutes
2 cucumbers, peeled, seeded, chopped
1/2 ripe avocado, chopped
Juice of 1 lime
1 tablespoon avocado oil
1. Purée cucumbers, avocado and lime juice in a food processor or blender. Transfer to a bowl. If you used a food processor, strain the mixture first. Stir in 1 cup cold water. Mixture should be pouring consistency. Season with salt.
2. Transfer to a container or pitcher and refrigerate until ready to serve. Pour into small cups or shot glasses. Drizzle a few drops of avocado oil on top of each. Set cups or glasses on a tray to serve.