When it comes to party foods, remember, little things mean a lot

December 29, 1993|By Felicia Gressette | Felicia Gressette,Knight-Ridder News Service

These days, even confirmed stay-at-homes are out and about.

It's party time, so we've compiled hints and recipes that you can adapt to your own celebrating style, whether you're throwing a a year-end, dressed-to-the-hilt celebration with best friends or a gather-'round-the- tube-for-the-bowl-games fest.

While dinner parties with candles and fine wine are undeniably elegant and all that, a few hours of drinks and delicious tidbits are more manageable for most of us -- whether we're the host or the guest.

With that in mind, we've rounded up a party's worth of food, both bought and homemade, that delivers maximum flavor for minimum effort. The point, after all, is to enjoy being around people you love and to have a good time. This is not the season for competitive entertaining.

Our favorite party foods are things that: Can be made ahead, even frozen. Don't need a lot of last-minute fussing when you're all dressed up. Look good. Taste good. Won't bankrupt you.

That's why we love walking-around food, nibbles that require only a toothpick or a napkin.

No matter what kind of gathering you're planning, keep a few principles in mind as you set the menu. Aim for variety -- different colors, textures, tastes. People like the surprise of curry in a dip or spread, the faint heat of cumin. Contrast the cool smoothness of a sour cream-based dunk with crisp and crunchy raw vegetables.

And even though many of us do splurge on richer goodies than usual during the holidays, be sure to offer low-fat choices as well. Ditto for nonalcoholic drinks.

Walk through your house, imagining it filled with people, and decide where to put the bar and the food stations; don't put everything in one corner or you'll create a traffic jam. Consider putting the bar on the patio; it's a good way to get people circulating and let in a little fresh air.

Don't exhaust yourself trying to do it all. Make the foods yoenjoy cooking, then buy or order the rest. Check out offerings at your favorite supermarket deli, (shrimp, vegetable, cheese and fruit platters can be customized), the warehouse stores (lots of frozen restaurant-style appetizers there), your favorite gourmet-to-go place or bakery.

Finally, line up someone to give you a hand during the party, replenishing trays and so forth.

Probably the bulk of your party nibbles will be cool; most of us have neither the oven space nor the patience to stand by the stove and turn out tray after tray of hot food. Here are some new ideas and old favorites:

* Tortellini: Buy frozen cheese-filled tortellini, cook in abundant boiling water as directed, drain and toss with a tiny bit of oil to prevent sticking. Refrigerate. To serve, stick each tortellini with a long skewer (this looks much more stylish than a toothpick), arrange on a platter with skewers sticking up and serve with a creamy pesto dip. (Mix purchased pesto with sour cream to taste).

* Bocconcini: These bite-size balls of fresh mozzarella are sold in 3-pound containers at warehouse stores and in some Italian markets. You can also make them with a melon baller, using fresh mozzarella cheese. They're delicious in a marinade of olive oil, fresh herbs and hot red pepper flakes. If the balls are too big for one bite, halve or quarter them. Serve with toothpicks or skewers.

* Crudite: The old faithful raw vegetable platter remains a favorite. Give it oomph by arranging vegetables by color, in lavish amounts, in shallow wicker baskets. Make it easy on yourself by opting for already washed and trimmed veggies, available in 5-pound packs at the warehouse stores. Or, order a vegetable tray from the supermarket deli. Provide a choice of dips, maybe served in a hollowed-out red cabbage or other vegetable container.

* Cheese logs or balls: You can buy these at many a market, but they're easy to make at home.

* Something from the sea: Boiled shrimp are great party food, but buying enough for a big gathering can require a second mortgage. Instead, make a shrimp mold and serve it with crackers.

* Stuff it: Make or buy your favorite spread, then stuff it into a hollowed-out baguette of French bread. (Cut off ends, then use fingers or fork to pull out middle of bread; leave a 1/2 -inch shell.) Wrap well, refrigerate, then slice and arrange little breads and assorted mustards for sandwiches. Pork tenderloins marinated in mojo and cooked on the grill are good served this way, too.

Most of us love hot hors d'oeuvres, but they're hard on a do-it-yourself hostess. Here are some ways to cope without getting stuck in the kitchen for your entire party. (If you can hire a teen-age helper or enlist a friend, you're ahead of the game.)

* Cocktail meatballs: They are a culinary cliche, but that's because people love 'em. We like to buy the 5-pound bags of frozen meatballs (you get about 160 1/2 -ounce, fully cooked morsels for about $8) at the warehouse stores and concentrate on making great sauces for them.

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