It is often said that people attend functions for the food. Rarely, is it for the entree, as most large-batch caterers have trouble perfecting even the simplest of meals. However, when it comes to hors d’oeuvres, or appetizers, much can be done to entice even the most discerning palate.
Granted, many parties focus on the tailgate favorites such as chicken wings, spring rolls, and those little pastry puffs, but for elegant engagements, hors d’oeuvres can play an integral role in turning the event from drab to fab.
Hors d’oeuvres aren’t exclusive to large gatherings either. In my home we often do what our children refer to as “appie nights” where in lieu of a traditional sit-down dinner, we prepare a variety of “finger foods” and enjoy them in the comfort of our family room as we watch a family movie or play board games.
On special occasions such as Valentine’s Day, my wife and I will often choose to stay in over fighting the crowds at our favorite restaurants. Rather than spending time in the kitchen intensely cooking, I will opt for fine hors d’oeuvres that are easily prepared in advance and can be picked upon in a variety of settings. This year, we had oysters, caviar, pâté, and a small variety of soft cheeses with these wonderful New York style bagel bites we buy at the grocery store down the street.
Hors d’oeuvres could very well be described as one of my favorite cuisines – if you would be so gutsy as to classify them as one of their own. If you haven’t tried an elevated level of appetizers, I assure you, you will not be disappointed.
What Are Hors D’oeuvres?
The word ‘hors-d’oeuvres’ quite literally translates to ‘apart from the work’. This French word, in essence, describes a course served prior to the main courses of the meal and are, in most cases, small bite sized finger foods capable of being eaten by hand while standing or sitting in a more informal room than while seated at the dining room table.
The time to traditionally serve hors d’oeuvres is during the cocktail hour of a party. Often served with various apéritifs, they aren’t intended to fill you up, but to prepare your palate for the meal, or hold you over until the meal is served.
As mentioned, often hors d’oeuvres are served in place of a meal in which case the items will sometimes differ and more will be served in an effort to fill you.
Technically, any item served prior to the meal is considered an hors d’oeuvres, however, over the past centuries, it’s taken on a meaning that’s slightly more refined. As an example, caviar served on a blini is absolutely an hors d’oeuvres, whereas most people would not consider a bowl of nuts or potato chips to be one.
The Finer Things in Life
Fine hors d’oeuvres are often considered delicacies and are an ideal choice for formal receptions and parties. However, they are also suitable in lieu of less formal appetizers for small engagements such as birthday parties, wine tastings or intimate dinner parties with a few close friends.
Let’s examine some of the more popular hors d’oeuvres:
Caviar is one of those rare delicacies that can cost just a few dollars or a few thousand dollars depending on what type you choose. Like most things, you get what you pay for and the quality of it differs dramatically based on what style you purchase.
Caviar is basically just a fancy word for fish eggs. Also called “roe” when it’s used to describe less expensive variants, it’s the fish roe that you find on sushi – those tiny crunchy orange balls.
What’s important to note, is that caviar can be used to describe any type of fish roe, but traditionally should only be used to describe Beluga, Osetra and Sevruga caviars from the Caspian and Black Sea. Despite this, many people still refer to salmon, steelhead, trout, lumpfish and whitefish roe as caviar.
The actual term for Caviar is protected by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, which defines caviar as fish roe from fish belonging to the Acipenseriformes species whereas any fish from outside that species is simply a substitute for caviar. This definition has also been adopted by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, the World Wide Fund for Nature, the United States Customs Service and France.
The three types of caviar I personally recommend are Beluga, Osetra (also spelled Ossetra) and Sevruga. Any other style is generally accepted to be inferior.
Beluga caviar is without question the most expensive caviar and the rarest. Often described as the caviar of royalty, it does not come from the Beluga whale as many expect, but from the Beluga Sturgeon, the largest of the sturgeon family. Unfortunately, due to aggressive fishing techniques, the fish is exceptionally rare and therefore, it’s prized eggs are equally difficult to find. Beluga caviar is the largest of any caviar and has finer skin than other caviars and roe. The actual eggs range in color from a light ash grey to a luminescent midnight black. One thing worth noting is that the color of the caviar from the Beluga sturgeon has no effect on the flavor profile, however, the lightest grey colored caviar are considered the most prized.
The aroma of the Beluga caviar can be described as being similar to that of an earthy mushroom with hints of the ocean. The flavor is biscuity and perfectly balanced with a perfect blend of saltiness and brine. It’s an exceptionally creamy caviar bursting with flavor and a delicate smoothness that can’t easily be described. It’s complex and refined and works beautifully as a spread or a garnish. The cost is as exceptional as the taste and you can expect to pay approximately $1500 to serve 3-5 guests.
Osetra caviar is a less expensive variant and the one I usually buy. It too is intensely delicious and widely considered the next best thing to Beluga caviar. The taste is more nutty than Beluga with strong notes of walnut and a hint of brioche. You’re looking at approximately $600 to serve 3-5 people. However, I don’t spend that much and instead focus on other, less costly hors d’oeuvres to supplement the caviar. In fact, in the spirit of honesty, I can’t say I’ve ever spent that much as the only time I’ve purchased it has been for my wife and I to share. In my opinion, it tastes far better when you’re eating it at someone else’s party.
Caviar is typically served as a garnish or a spread using a mother-of-pearl caviar spoon as it doesn’t alter the flavor profile of the caviar the same as a traditional spoon does. If you don’t own an actual caviar spoon, you can also use a plastic spoon but I would serve it as a garnish rather than a spread in that case.
The most traditional way is to serve it on top of a small dollop of crème fraîche sitting on a blini. However, I have also had it a number of other ways, my favorite being on smoked salmon or fresh sashimi grade salmon.
I would encourage you not to buy the less expensive roe eggs if you plan to consume them like caviar. When served by the spoonful, they can be quite pungent, salty and overpowering.
Click here to buy caviar online
Foie gras is another delicacy that is often served in the form of a mousse, pâté or parfait, but can also be served alongside the main meal as an accompaniment to such entrees like steak.
Unfortunately, foie gras is a very controversial food as it’s made by force-feeding geese or ducks with a feeding tube and is widely considered cruel by animal rights activists. The actual part of the goose or duck used for foie gras is the fattened liver which is sold whole or pre-processed into a mousse or pâté. Despite the controversy, it is a very delicious item that’s actually been around since 2500 BC.
There are three styles of foie gras which range in price. The most expensive is the foie gras entier which is made of the whole liver lobe. Next to that is foie gras which is made of parts of liver lobes reassembled together and the least expensive is bloc de foie gras which is a fully-cooked mould consisting of 98% foie gras which can be a mix of at least 50% foie gras pieces for goose, and 30% for duck. The prices vary considerably but for a full, fresh lobe you’re usually looking at about $100 – $150.
As mentioned, pâté can be made of foie gras, but is often made of other liver such as chicken livers.
Pâté is basically a mixture of cooked ground meat that’s blended with minced fat into a spread or paste which is often moulded and can be served hot or cold with crostini, crackers or other breads. I do, however, recommend chilling it for a few days and serving it cold as it tends to have bolder flavors.
Often, the pâté is mixed with various spices and vegetables for a more complex flavor profile. I personally enjoy adding cognac or armagnac into my pâté. It’s relatively simple to make and recipes can easily be found online, or it can be purchased pre-made at most grocery or specialty food stores. Depending on what type of meat the pâté is made from, it can be very inexpensive or cost in excess of a few hundred dollars.
For some reason, there is a selection of people with an aversion to the idea of eating snails. My wife is one of these people. Regardless of how it’s prepared, the idea of putting a snail in her mouth is enough to make her cringe. In fact, I regularly make escargot for myself as a snack, but have to do so either at night when she’s asleep or when she isn’t home since the smell alone will trigger her gag reflex. I fail to understand this, but as a supportive husband I have to accept it.
Escargot is one of those hors d’oeuvres often served at the table as it does require the use of silverware and is generally served in it’s own special dish.
Escargot can be purchased either canned or fresh and is usually sold separately from its shell and is placed into the shell before cooking or nestled into a mushroom cap.
The traditional way of preparing escargot is to simply cook it in olive oil or butter with some salt and pepper. However, there are a wide range of ways to prepare it, one of my personal favorites being with heavy cream and parmigiano-reggiano cheese grated into the sauce. Often the escargot will be baked in the oven, but it can also be made in a pan on the stove or even grilled on the barbecue.
It’s a relatively inexpensive hors d’oeuvres and is a great way to elevate a simple Sunday dinner such as a roast chicken or prime rib.
A traditional Italian appetizer, carpaccio is a dish comprised of thinly sliced raw meats such as beef, veal or venison, or, in some cases, fish such as tuna or salmon. A more elegant take on the British beef tartare, it’s a wonderful addition to any meal provided you can safely enjoy uncooked meats. Of course, like any raw meat, there is a health risk and therefore you should take any and all reasonable precautions to ensure that you’re not serving or consuming tainted meats. For more information on the health risks associated with eating raw meat and fish, contact your local health department as laws and risks vary region to region.
A thick, baseless, glass container that’s used to serve food rather than a beverage, the traditional verrines consists of three layers, the lowest being an acidulous preparation intended to trigger salvation and prepare the taste buds. The middle layer is usually a thicker layer that composes the primary flavor profile and the upper layer is a smooth or silky preparation that’s intended to coat the taste buds and provide a luscious mouthfeel with a full-bodied finish.
There are many styles and types of verrines from savory to sweet using a wide range of ingredients. Traditionally an hors d’oeuvres due to it’s preparatory intentions, in recent years many chefs have been preparing verrines for dessert.
A Charcuterie platter is a selection of meats, often smoked, cured or prepared that is served on a wooden charcuterie board that is, in most cases, accompanied by fine mustards or pickled vegetables and crackers or crostinis. Meats used can include sausages, pâtés, terrines. The charcuterie platter is a staple in most French restaurants and is often shared amongst friends rather than served to one individual.
Love them or hate them, raw oysters are a very traditional hors d’oeuvres considered to be elegant, but in reality is rather grotesque to watch someone eat.
The oyster is actually a blanket name for a number of families of saltwater clams. They can be cooked or raw and served in such dishes including Oysters Rockefeller. Despite being consumed in formal settings, oysters are also very common on the east coast where they’re eaten in very informal settings. True oysters are always from the Ostreidae family of clams, although there are other styles that are consumed in the same fashion.
The process of opening the oyster is called shucking and can be quite difficult for the novice, but with practice becomes easier. In fact, there are even oyster shucking competitions which are taken very seriously by chefs from around the world.
The one benefit to eating oysters is that the only tool or apparatus required is an oyster knife. There is no need to prepare the oysters and they can simply be served raw on ice. While they do take some effort to prepare, they are well worth the wait and a proven aphrodisiac. Click here to buy an oyster knife.
If I could only eat one food for the rest of my life it would probably be cheese. Granted, serving cheddar on Ritz crackers isn’t exactly fine dining, there are many cheeses that can be considered an elegant hors d’oeuvres. From Brie and Camembert to stuffed goat cheese or Cambozola, there are a wide range of beautiful soft, semi-soft and hard cheeses that can elevate your dinner party on their own or prepared into a beautiful appetizer. One of my favorite ways to eat cheese is a brie bake which can be prepared in many different ways from savory to sweet. Click here to purchase a brie baker or here to purchase a variety of wonderful cheeses.
There are so many wonderful appetizers that can be used for a variety of formal and informal events. Even simple spring rolls or puff pastries, when prepared with care can elevate a meal. The aforementioned hors d’oeuvres are simply a small selection of some of my personal favorites, but a quick Google search can yield pages of great and inspiring recipes for you and your guests to enjoy. What’s your favorite hors d’oeuvres? Do you have a special appetizer you consider a staple at dinner parties?