Upscale restaurants have gone the convenience food stores one better, by making their own nibbles for sophisticates. Ideal for cool summer entertaining around the pool, these homemade bites are simple but loaded with impact.
Popcorn, for example, is the blank slate of snack foods, changing with the addition of everything from fresh chopped herbs to sriracha hot sauce and kosher salt. Nuts take a variety of spices well. And deviled eggs can go Asian with wasabi and soy in the yolks or Tex-Mex with chilies.
"It's old school with a new twist," says John Sheely, chef/owner of Mockingbird Bistro in Houston, who sprinkles pickle juice on his popcorn and chiles into his deviled eggs. "It's offering something different."
Different but familiar engages partygoers more than caviar on crackers, says New York caterer Justin Jones of Urban Events.
"Everyone can relate to snacks and it starts them talking. Food becomes the icebreaker itself."
Skeptics may question the value of cooking something common to 7-Elevens everywhere. But fans say there's no comparison in terms of flavor and the care that something homemade communicates to guests.
"It's creative and it's easy for anyone to do," says chef Ryan Poli of Butter restaurant in Chicago. "It's important when you're entertaining to make an effort, rather than opening a bag of something."
Munchies make ideal openers for a pool party. They are casual but impressive and largely shelf stable for several hours (except the eggs, which must be kept very cool).
Beer and sodas are natural go-withs, but don't be afraid to pop the bubbly - either champagne or sparkling cider. Give it a tropical twist with a dash of something colorful (try creme de casis or cranberry juice), a garnish of pineapple and a sprig of mint. "I love champagne with salty foods," says iconoclast chef Poli. "It feels special."
While snacks aren't necessarily health foods, they can be improved by preparing them at home. "Homemade snacks are better because you can control what goes into them," says Jenny Lass, co-author of Grain-Free Gourmet: Delicious Recipes for Healthy Living (Whitecap Books, 2005), who often makes her own spiced nut mix.
"Most prepackaged foods are high in sugar, fat or salt and low in nutrients because they're over-processed. Making snacks from whole foods ensures that you're not eating empty calories and you can more easily control portion sizes," Lass says.
Elaine Glusac wrote this article for Tribune Media Services.
Serves 6 to 8
Chef Ryan Poli of Butter restaurant in Chicago offers diners this upscale munchie.
3 tablespoons corn oil
1 cup (7 ounces) unpopped popcorn kernels
1 teaspoon white truffle oil
1 teaspoon minced chives, or to taste
salt and freshly ground pepper
In a large, heavy pot, heat corn oil. Add popcorn kernels, cover and cook over moderate heat until they start popping. Cook, shaking the pot continuously, until popping has almost stopped.
Carefully pour popcorn into a very large bowl. Add truffle oil and toss well. Season to taste with chives, salt and pepper and serve immediately.
Per serving (based on 8 servings): 142 calories, 3 grams protein, 7 grams fat, 1 gram saturated fat, 18 grams carbohydrate, 4 grams fiber, 0 milligrams cholesterol, 0 milligrams sodium
Spiced Edemame With Hawaiian Sea Salt
Serves 8 to 10
Oliver Beckert, executive chef of Four Seasons Resort Lana'i at Manele Bay in Hawaii, serves these Japanese-style soybeans in the cocktail lounge.
2 pounds frozen edemame
1 teaspoon Italian parsley
1/4 teaspoon hot red-chili flakes
1/4 teaspoon red Hawaiian sea salt or kosher salt
Boil edemame in 1 quart salt water for 60 seconds, drain and toss with parsley, chili flakes and salt. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Per serving (based on 10 servings): 121 calories, 10 grams protein, 4 grams fat, 0 grams saturated fat, 11 grams carbohydrate, 5 grams fiber, 0 milligrams cholesterol, 374 milligrams sodium
Spiced Marcona Almonds
Serves 8 to 10
Maria Hines, chef at Earth and Ocean in Seattle, changes the spices daily on the almonds that greet diners to her tables. This variety uses the tart Middle Eastern spice sumac.
2 cups Marcona almonds
1 tablespoon lemon oil
1 tablespoon sumac
1 tablespoon medium-grain sea salt, or to taste
Place almonds in a single layer on a sheet pan in a preheated 300-degree oven. Stir almonds every 5 minutes until golden brown, about 20 minutes. (Make sure nuts do not burn.)
Toss almonds with lemon oil and sumac in large bowl. Gradually toss with salt to taste. Makes 2 cups.
Per serving (1/5 cup): 179 calories, 6 grams protein, 16 grams fat, 1 gram saturated fat, 6 grams carbohydrate, 4 grams fiber, 0 milligrams cholesterol, 709 milligrams sodium