– Story and recipes by Ellie Shortt Photography by Don Denton
The world is opening up again. After a two-year slumber, we are rubbing weary eyes and opening them to bright and sparkling merriments filled with family, friends and food. We are once again embracing loved ones at jubilant gatherings and clinking glasses at long-awaited celebrations.
Birthdays, baby showers, engagement parties and weddings are finally finding space in our social calendars. You may, in fact, as the benefactor of one of these festivities, be feeling a wee bit rusty following such a lengthy hosting hiatus. What to wear? How to decorate? How to have natural-feeling and normal-sounding conversations with fellow humans again?
While I can’t help you with any of those quandaries, I do have some suggestions on my personal favourite part of a party—the food!
Depending on the venue, vibe, guest list and goals, you might be considering a sit-down dinner or a more casual cocktail-style soiree. Today I’m here to make a case for the latter. If planned optimally and prepped appropriately, a finger-food affair can offer greater ease for the host, and a more manageable mix-and-mingle environment for the guests.
You can take many of your most loved dishes and craftily convert them to bite-sized offerings, which will rest beautifully on a platter, waiting dutifully for guests to help themselves. A stack of napkins and perhaps a few aesthetically pleasing buckets in which to discard used vessels are all you really need by their side, and after all your hard work in the days prior, you—dare I say it— can actually enjoy the party yourself (gasp!). Make as much as you can ahead of time and save any necessary last-minute assembly for day-of duties. If it doesn’t feel too fussy (or confusing for guests), I may even suggest labelling your discard buckets if you’re wanting faster cleanup and easier sorting of food scraps, recyclables and dishware.
Speaking of dishware: I find when serving appies, it can be frustrating for guests if the dishes are too messy. No one wants to scoop up some slop with the palm of their hand, frantically slurp it up, dumping dribble all down their silk dress or nice white shirt. No one! And yes, I speak from embarrassing experience. Instead, a neat, tidy and inventive vessel can not only provide a safe serving option, but an aesthetically pleasing!
Put it in a bun
Everything tastes better wrapped in carbs. Fact. And a fluffy little bun is no exception! Slider buns are easy enough to find, but if you’re feeling particularly unstoppable you can make your own. Personally, when hosting an event I want to minimize the busy work (you have enough to do already) and recommend sourcing slider buns from your grocery store, or even contacting your favourite local baker to see what they have on offer. Either way, you’ll want something light and soft (think brioche texture) for maximum eating ease.
Some of my favourite things to serve in a bun include pulled pork sliders with creamy crunchy coleslaw, crispy fried chicken sliders with homemade spicy pickles, or even just classic beef burgers with aged cheddar and bacon jam.
Put it on a stick
One of my favourite party tricks is taking my most beloved salad-du-jour and putting it on a skewer. Pear, brie and baby kale on a skewer is always a crowd pleaser; fig, prosciutto and arugula is an elegant and eye-catching choice; or simply go with the ultimate classic of cherry tomatoes, bocconcini and basil for a deconstructed caprese. All of which, I might add, go wonderfully with a balsamic reduction drizzle.
Put it in a cup
Take some soup. Put it in a very small mug. Place something bready across the rim. I promise your guests will thank you. It’s cute, Pinterest-able and Insta-worthy, but also just really delicious and satisfying. I mean, who doesn’t love a warming shot of soup and a hearty something to dip in it?
And of course, if you’re hosting a party in the summer months, you can easily do this with a chilled soup like zucchini gazpacho with some focaccia. For something a bit more fall and winter appropriate, I suggest a classic butternut squash soup with some rustic sourdough or a soul-soothing tomato soup with a grilled cheese sandwich slice.
Put it in a spoon
Something meaty or hearty on something saucy or creamy. It’s a good starting point for constructing your stuff-on-spoon creation. Think Greek-style lamb meatballs on tzatziki, pan-seared scallops on minty smashed peas or crispy roast cauliflower on baba ganoush. Then give it some a colourful zip with a garnish of fresh herbs or microgreens.
Put it in a tart shell
Everything and anything can go in a tart shell and taste delicious. Sweet, savoury, rustic or elegant, there’s nowhere you can’t go (and no one you can’t please) with stuff in a flaky crust. Most of all, it can be completely and entirely make-ahead friendly, whereby all you really need to do is warm it (if need be), plate it, add garnish and serve. No mess. No fuss. No extra dishes to wash. Just bite-sized brilliance!
And don’t overthink it. A micro quiche with caramelized onion and goat cheese is always a winner, as is a classic herb and mushroom tartlet. Even beloved pies like pumpkin or apple lend well to the mini-tart-shell option.
Of course these are simply a few of many suggestions. Jars, cones (both paper and edible), wraps and even shot glasses all lend well to a mix, mingle, nibble and nosh sort of do. When in doubt, think of some favourite foods and imagine how you could make them mini, bite-sized, finger-friendly or hand-held and hopefully not too messy. And if guests leave with sauced dribbled down their chins and onto their outfits? Well, like wine spills on a tablecloth, I say it’s a sign of a good time.
Pan-Seared Scallops with Minty Pea Puree
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 10 minutes
Makes 12 canape spoons
12 medium-sized scallops
¼ to 1⁄3 cup unsalted butter, divided
2 cups water
2 cups frozen peas, defrosted
¼ cup fresh mint leaves (plus extra for garnish)
Sea salt and fresh cracked pepper to taste
3-4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Add the water to a medium pot and bring to a boil. Add the peas, fresh mint and a pinch of salt. Reduce the heat and simmer until the peas are tender, about 5 minutes. Drain the peas and mint in a colander. Transfer to a food processor, add about 3-4 tbsp of butter and purée. Slowly add the olive oil until you’ve reached your desired texture, either chunky or a smooth paste. Add salt and pepper to taste. Set aside, or transfer to an airtight container to store in the fridge for up to one week.
When you’re ready to serve, heat a large pan on high and melt 1-2 tbsp of butter. Turn the heat down to medium and place as many scallops as can fit (you may need to do this in batches), flat side down, allowing for some space between them. Sprinkle with a bit of salt and pepper and flip to the other flat side once one side is just beginning to get golden brown. Sprinkle with a bit more salt and pepper and cook for a couple more minutes until slightly golden brown on both sides and cooked through.
Transfer to a plate to cool. When ready to plate, smear a small amount (1 tbsp) of pea puree into a deep canape spoon. Place a scallop on top, garnish with mint and serve.
Maple Balsamic Bacon Jam
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 1 hour
Makes about 1 cup of bacon jam
250 g thick cut bacon
1 large sweet onion, chopped
¼ cup maple syrup
¼ cup water
¼ cup strong brewed coffee (I used decaf espresso)
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
Cut the bacon into half-inch slices and add to a large frying pan (don’t worry if the bacon pieces stick together; they will come apart as they cook). Sauté on medium-high heat for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently until the bacon is cooked but still chewy (a few crispy bits are okay). Use a slotted spoon to remove the bacon from the pan. Pour out all but 1 tbsp of the bacon drippings. Add the onions to the pan and cook for 5-8 minutes, and then reduce the heat to low. Add the maple syrup and continue to sauté until the onions have caramelized, about 20 minutes.
Add the reserved bacon and coffee and increase the heat to medium. Continue to cook, stirring about every five minutes, until it’s thick and jam-like (about 30 minutes). Remove from the heat and stir in the balsamic. Taste for seasoning and salt, if necessary.
Use immediately or refrigerate for up to a week. Bring back to room temperature before serving (there will be little spots of white fat when you take it out of the fridge, but as the jam comes to room temperature, these will disappear).
*Shown here served in beef sliders made with mini brioche buns, aioli, arugula, and aged cheddar.
Cook time: 15 minutes
1 cup balsamic vinegar
Add the vinegar to a small saucepan and bring to a gentle boil.
Reduce the heat and simmer, stirring often, until thick and reduced, about 15 minutes. The timing will depend on your desired thickness (the balsamic will also thicken as it cools). Store in an airtight container at room temperature until ready to use.
Herb and Mushroom Tartlets
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
Makes about 24 tartlets
2 tbsp unsalted butter
2 large leeks, trimmed/peeled and thinly sliced
1 lb mixed mushrooms, thinly sliced
Sea salt and fresh cracked pepper to taste
1 tbsp fresh rosemary, finely chopped
1 tbsp fresh thyme, finely chopped
½ cup Parmesan, grated
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed as per instructions
Preheat oven to 400 F. In a large pan over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the leeks and cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally until soft. Stir in the mushrooms, add a bit of salt (about 1/4 tsp) and pepper (about 1/8 tsp), and cook together until the mushrooms are soft (5 minutes). Stir in the herbs and cook together until fragrant (2 more minutes). Turn off the heat and set aside.
On a lightly floured surface, roll out the puff pastry until it is about doubled in size. Using a 2- or 3-inch round cookie cutter, cut the pastry into rounds, and fit them gently into a non-stick mini muffin pan. Repeat with a second pan if needed.
In a medium bowl combine the egg, Parmesan and mushroom mixture. Spoon it into the prepared pastry. Bake until golden and bubbly, about 15 minutes. Let cool for a few minutes in the pan and then serve immediately.
*Note: While best served immediately, store tartlets in an airtight container in the fridge and reheat in a 350 F oven for 5-7 minutes.
Roasted Tomato Soup
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 45 minutes
Makes 6-12 mini mugs (depending on their size)
3 pounds tomatoes (e.g. roma or plum), cut in half or quarters
6 cloves garlic, peeled
3 tbsp olive oil
Sea salt and fresh cracked pepper
¼ cup olive oil, divided
1 sweet onion, thinly sliced
½ cup fresh basil leaves
1-2 tbsp fresh oregano (or 1-2 tsp dried)
½ cup broth, depending on how thick you like it
*Note: you can also use cream (e.g. coconut, regular heavy cream) for a richer flavour. I personally like to do half broth, half cream.
Optional garnishes include fresh basil, oregano, grated Parmesan, chili flakes, etc.
Preheat oven to 400 F. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. Place tomatoes and garlic cloves on the baking sheet and drizzle liberally with olive oil (about 2 tbsp). Generously season with salt and pepper. Roast in the oven for 40-45 minutes.
While the tomatoes are roasting, heat a large pan on medium and add 2 tbsp olive oil. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally and checking every few minutes until it is translucent and golden (20 minutes). Once tomatoes and garlic are done roasting, allow them to cool slightly before combining them in a food processor with the basil, oregano, onions and broth/cream. Blend on high until smooth. Transfer back to the pot, turn to medium-low heat and season with salt and pepper to taste. Allow soup to simmer 10 minutes before serving.
To serve, transfer to small cups (like an espresso or cappuccino mug), garnish and place a grilled cheese slice on the edge of the cup.