'90s Forget fancy: Appetizers go low-fat, low-fuss

FINGER FOODS FOR THE

September 20, 1992|By Deborah S. Hartz | Deborah S. Hartz,Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

In the '50s, those of us trying to emulate June Cleaver wer wrapping up pigs in blankets to serve with martinis at cocktail hour.

In the '60s, we went a little more "gourmet" by shaping Swedish meatballs.

The '70s had us worshiping nouvelle cuisine, French chefs, salmon mousse and miniature quiches.

In the '80s, we munched our way through regional/ethnic tidbits such as sushi, blackened chicken, empanadas and quesadillas.

Hors d'oeuvres. Over the years, our thinking about these tasty tidbits clearly has changed. So what's ahead for those of us who want to continue licking our fingers through the '90s?

The answer is "less": Less heavy, less expensive and less intricate foods served at less formal occasions. Even the nomenclature has changed -- from "hors d'oeuvres" to "finger foods" -- reflecting the changing role these foods play in our lives.

The reasons for the change are many. For both health and safety reasons, people are drinking less alcohol in the '90s. And when people drink less, they eat less, says cookbook author Julee Rosso.

"When you drink Scotch on the rocks, it calls for a buttery, pastry-wrapped thing in keeping with the drink. But when you drink white wine or water, you want something light," she says in a telephone interview from her home in Saugatuck, Mich.

It was Ms. Rosso and Sheila Lukins who helped Americans become more creative in the kitchen and try new combinations of ingredients with publication of "The Silver Palate Cookbook" (Workman) 10 years ago.

As finger foods become lighter and simpler, they are being served more casually.

"In the '50s and '60s, a cocktail party with hors d'oeuvres was a formal affair," says Barbara Grunes, who wrote "Appetizers on the Grill" (Chicago Review Press, 1992), in a telephone interview from her home in Glencoe, Ill. "But today, people are dropping by for an afternoon, or we entertain by the pool."

At that traditional cocktail party of the '50s, help hired for the evening served drinks and crackers topped with everything from anchovies to chicken giblets served on silver trays.

"But the days of 17 different canapes on a platter are long gone," Ms. Rosso says.

Instead, Ms. Rosso says to give guests something to dip into as they help themselves to drinks.

"It loosens them up and makes them feel at home," she says. "It gives them a chance to collect themselves before moving on to the next conversation or gives them a chance to avoid one."

Betty Rosbottom, a Columbus, Ohio, cooking teacher who wrote "First Impressions" (Morrow, 1992), a book of appetizer recipes, agrees. "In the '60s, people cooked for three days to eat for four hours," she says. "We don't have time to do that anymore, so people are doing grazing parties or tapas samplings instead of full meals." (Tapas are Spanish appetizers.)

There is an added benefit to all this. As entertaining in the '90s becomes more informal and the foods we serve simpler, party-giving becomes less expensive.

"The '80s were a time of conspicuous consumption," says Tom Rittenhouse, a sous chef at Cafe Max in Pompano Beach, Fla., and partner in California Catering. "But now there's a throwback to old values. We are going back to what's affordable and comforting, but we learned a lot about freshness, so all ingredients have to be of top quality."

And today, top-quality ingredients mean clean, clear, intense flavors. Nothing subtle, nothing "muddy," Ms. Rosso says.

People also are looking for well-developed flavors, Ms. Rosbottom says.

"The word is 'assertive,' " she says. "You want flavors that stay with you. Not bland things that satisfy your hunger but not your culinary spirit."

Take cilantro, which has a sharp, perky flavor. Chef Gerhard Grommer of the Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is so partial to it he throws "a big handful" into his marinade for scallops, which he later skewers, grills and serves as finger food.

Chef Jean-Philippe Gaudree, of Brook's Restaurant in Deerfield Beach, Fla., also likes cilantro. He uses it in a tempura batter for deep-fried shrimp.

Frying tends to be the exception, however, rather than the rule for finger foods today. Most are grilled instead. Consider Mr. Grommer's scallops. Or, the chicken skewers of chef Mennen Tekeli of Max's Grille in Boca Raton, Fla. He marinates the chicken in a combination of oil and sumac, a slightly sour Middle Eastern flavoring, before threading the meat on skewers and grilling it. He serves the chicken with a light -- virtually fat-free -- dipping sauce made from orange juice and a heady dose of jalapeno.

Ms. Grunes particularly favors grilled vegetables. "It lets them go upscale," she says.

Stuffed mushrooms, for instance, have a different taste when they are done over charcoal, she says.

Ms. Rosso, too, favors vegetables, but she serves hers in an updated version of '70s crudites.

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