The Best Appetizer Menu

Hemera Technologies/ Images

Whether you are hostessing a PTA planning meeting, a girls' night in, or a gathering for your favorite couples, offering an array of appetizers is a sure way to please a number of palates. A menu full of noshes and finger foods also allows you to spend less time toiling in the kitchen and more time enjoying the company of your guests.

Seasonality and Sales

The easiest and most economical way to pull together an admirable array of nibbles is to build your menu around items that are in season or on sale. If your gathering is at the peak of summer, take advantage of the bumper crop of fruits and vegetables to build your menu --- cucumber finger sandwiches, garden salads served in martini glasses, roasted asparagus drizzled with a tangy dressing, or an array of crisp, cold vegetables with a zesty dip. A layered berry trifle becomes the piece de resistance. If it's the dead of winter and summer fruits and veggies are pricy and not as flavorful, try building a menu around what is abundant: apple slaw served in clear votive holders, black-eyed pea dip with corn chips, and a carpaccio of beef topped with a thinly sliced tomato and brown mustard. A pear tart satisfies those with a sweet tooth.

Make Ahead

Start preparing your menu several days in advance, so you can enjoy the day of your gathering without having to rush hither and yon before your guests arrive. Start your prep-work two to three days before your party. Pipe cream cheese spiced with your favorite seasonings or dip into pepperoncini or jalapenos. Whip up a mayonnaise dip flavored with crispy bits of bacon and hollow out cherry tomatoes, then on the day of your party, quickly stuff the tomatoes before you plate them. Prepare all dips and sauces in advance, as they'll taste better once the flavors have time to blend in the refrigerator. Slice cheeses and meats the day before your gathering, and cook small meatballs up to two days before. About 30 to 45 minutes before your party, place the cold meatballs in a chafing dish and top them with a savory sauce to warm.

Variety is the Spice of Life

Remember that a variety of options is key to any gathering. Offer a combination of healthy choices, including vegetables, fruit and lean meats for your health-conscious guests or those with specific dietary needs. A few indulgences such as a cheesy fondue with bread, apple, and steak skewers, or baked beef dip served with sourdough toasts, are crowd pleasers that fill stomachs as they expand them. In other words, you'll need a little something for everyone.

Hot and Cold

Remember to offer a selection of cold and hot offerings, particularly if your gathering is during the standard cocktail hours, which may coincide with some guests' dinnertime. Warm crab cakes topped with a zesty dressing are paired perfectly with deviled eggs, and baked pimento cheese dip served with buttery round crackers is the perfect foil for bleu-cheese stuffed figs wrapped in prosciutto. Mix tried-and-true favorites along with an adventurous new recipe or two.