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Appetizing hors d'oeuvres

Party starters to kick things off, in several languages.

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No matter how you spell it, or even if you can't (I always have to look it up) hors d'oeuvres set the tone and taste buds for a party. They can be as easy and elegant as an endive leaf with a dollop of crème fraîche topped with a dozen beads of salmon caviar, and as bizarre as that 1950s phenomenon Flaming Cabbage Head Weenies (see recipe below). And who could forget California Dip, that epoxy party mix of sour cream and Lipton Onion Soup? That bad boy had more sodium than a salt lick.

Most civilized cultures have their own take on hors d'oeuvres. Russians have their zakuska; the Spanish love tapas and entremeses; Germans nibble on vorspeise. For Swedes, a simple plate of tilltugg – usually just cheeses and hard tack – is enough. Italians pull out all stops with a broad assortment of antipasti: roasted peppers, marinated mushrooms and anchovies, olives, cured and fresh fish and vegetables, and on and on. And just to clarify: Antipasto does not mean "before the pasta," but "before the food." Pasta is from the Latin pastas, meaning food.

My most memorable zakuska experience was in Moscow when I was in my early 20s.

It was our last dinner in the Soviet Union, and, after 10 days of unbelievably horrible food, as a special treat, the waiters brought out individual silver dishes of caviar and small rounds of dark bread. Most members of the group turned up their collective noses at the black sturgeon eggs. I inhaled mine, after which the group slid their silver dishes down to me. I devoured nine open-faced caviar sandwiches. Heaven.

If you're planning a party of just drinks and appetizers, too many may not be enough. Otherwise, the basic rule before a sit-down dinner, is less is more. They are, after all, meant to whet the appetite, not bury it.


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