If you were to ask a group of chefs to name their favorite appetizers, their answers would include a staggering array of ingredients and preparation methods. However, if you were to ask that same group what makes for a good appetizer, you'd find a remarkable consensus. An appetizer is a portion of very flavorful food, designed to stimulate the diner's appetite without satisfying it. The best appetizers, then, are intensely flavored but small in portion. Many can be made quickly for your next dinner party, and will please the kids as well as the adults in the crowd.
It's important to provide enough appetizers to create an impression of abundance, without tempting an unwary guest to overindulge. There should be just enough to take the edge from his hunger, leaving him able to properly savor the meal. Be sparing with rich ingredients such as cheese or pate, which can be very filling. Your appetizers should be visually appealing, strongly flavored and include a variety of colors and textures. Be aware of the meal to follow. Chili peppers stuffed with cream cheese flavored with a zingy Southwestern seasoning mix are appropriate before a Mexican meal, but not an elegant, delicate French fish dish.
Among the easiest appetizers to make are marinated vegetables. Trimmed button mushrooms "a la Grecque," simmered and chilled in olive oil, lemon juice, water and herbs, can be made up to a week in advance. Delicate vegetables, such as cauliflower florets and asparagus tips, can be treated the same way. Green or black olives, marinated overnight or for days ahead, are a much-loved appetizer in the Mediterranean. So are sweet roasted bell peppers in a variety of colors. Combine them all to make a colorful platter, and have slices of crusty fresh bread and creamy dip available to accompany them.
Tartlets and Pastries
Miniature tarts and pastries are among the most versatile of appetizers. Keep a few frozen tart shells and puff pastry patty shells, or vol-au-vent, in your freezer for emergencies. They can be baked quickly and filled with anything you have on hand, so you can react gracefully to unexpected guests. Fill tart shells or patty shells with leftover cold meats, fish, canned shrimp, cooked vegetables or anything else tasty that you have in the refrigerator. Cover them with a mixture of eggs and cream beaten with a dash of seasoning mix, and garnish with cheese or fresh herbs. Bake them until set and golden, and serve warm.
Cold Meats and Seafood
The deli case at your supermarket is a lot more sophisticated than it used to be. Make a quick visit to load up on dried and cured meats for easy appetizers. Thinly shaved serrano hams or prosciutto, breseola or other air-dried beef and good-quality dried sausages are all excellent for quick appetizers. Prosciutto and melon is a classic combination, but they can be paired with most fresh or dried fruits equally well. Wrap them around roasted bell peppers or marinated asparagus spears. Smoked salmon is similarly versatile on toast or crackers, or with capers or cucumbers.
Crostini or Canapes
One of the simplest appetizers of all is simply rounds of toast, with a spread and a topping. These are often known by the Italian name "crostini" or the French "canapes." Cut thin rounds from a baguette, bagels or other small bread and toast them. Spread whipped butter or cream cheese on the rounds to prevent the toppings from making them soggy, and top them with something tasty. That could be crab salad or strong cheese, fresh cucumbers or roasted peppers, thin-sliced chorizo, ranch dip or a spoonful of liverwurst. Garnish with fresh herbs, colorful vegetables or curls of citrus zest.