Most hosts agonise over what to serve as cocktail snacks. The trick is to try and do at least one or two dishes that show a little flair and suggest a degree of effort...
Ask most people about organising a dinner party and you’d be surprised by the thing that traumatises them the most. Nobody’s that worried about food, these days. Most people are willing to experiment with different cuisines and you can always order in. Even alcohol is less of a problem than it used to be. Most drinks are now easily available, Indian wine is quite drinkable and the standards of what we call IMFL have also improved.
The problem is with what we would call cocktail snacks. It is now widely accepted that even with the most honourable motives, you can never really serve dinner at a reasonable time at an Indian dinner party. First of all, the guests will all arrive later than they had said they would come. And secondly, even after they’ve arrived, they will stubbornly refuse to gravitate towards the dinner table saying things like “Just one more drink, yaar.”
So what do you serve? There are two schools of thought on this one. You could take the line that as dinner will be served late, it is unfair to keep your guests hungry. Far better therefore, to give them something reasonably substantial to eat in the hours while they wait for dinner. That way, not only will they not starve but they also won’t get too drunk because they won’t be consuming your alcohol on empty stomachs.
This is a reasonable point of view for reasonable people. But as I am nothing if not unreasonable about things like dinner times, I have no patience with people who arrive at 11 pm and say things like “Give me a break, yaar, I’ve only just arrived. Let me have a drink before dinner.” As it is unlikely that they have come straight from office, the chances are that they have come from another party and there’s no earthly reason why those of your guests who decided to come directly to your house without touring Delhi’s party precincts should be made to suffer because of these social climbers.
My view therefore is that drinks should be served till a reasonable time, that dinner should then be put on the table and guests should be encouraged to either switch to wine with their meals or to continue drinking. Only in India do we take the bizarre view that once dinner is served, the bar has to be closed. There’s no reason why people can’t drink with dinner and no reason at all why they can’t drink after they’ve eaten (brandy, liqueurs or even, more wine).
Given that I incline towards the school of thought that has no patience with late dinners, party-hopping social climbers and the “just one more Scotch, yaar” brigade, I’m of the view that cocktail snacks should never be so substantial that they fill your guests up before they’ve had a chance to even get to the dinner table.
It may seem lavish to treat your guests to platter after platter of kababs, samosas, fried wontons and God alone knows what else. But once you do that, there is virtually no chance that anybody is going to bother with dinner. And, you’ve invited your guests for dinner, not for cocktails.
On the other hand, it makes you seem like a total cheapskate if guests are restricted to one plate of Lay’s potato chips shared between 12 people or a couple of bowls of monkey nuts.
So the trick is to find snacks that are not so substantial that they fill your guests up but which suggest that you’ve taken more trouble than the simple act of opening a packet of potato chips would require.
One answer is to do a mix of things. By all means, serve potato chips and nuts if you want to but don’t let them be the only snacks available. Try and do at least one or two dishes that show a little flair and suggest a degree of effort. Remember that there will always be at least one guest who will be hungrier than the rest and your snack options should allow him to last out till dinner is served.
I find that the key to good cocktail snacks lies in imagination. Do not, for a start, do that stupid thing which so-called sophisticated people always seem to favour: serve crudites with a dip. I have little patience with hosts who circulate a platter of freshly sliced cucumber and carrot and then claim that they’re doing this because they know you want to be healthy while simultaneously plying you with enough alcohol to drown your liver. My principal objection, however, is one of convenience. How many times have I seen somebody pick up a baton of carrot, dunk it in the dip (usually some nonsensical flavoured yoghurt preparation) and then watch with horror as the yoghurt flies off during the journey to their mouth and comes to rest in their cleavage.
Remember that finger food should – above all – be easy to eat. It should not require you to keep dabbing at a napkin (which is what happens when people serve greasy shami kababs) or run the risk of creating a new design on your shirt.
One easy solution is to resort to cold meat. Don’t just open a packet of salami but show some imagination. Mix one or two interesting salamis with a plate of good ham, cut into bite-sized pieces. Then, because this may seem too cold, cook some flavourful frankfurters or unusual sausages and slice them so that each piece fits neatly on a cocktail fork. You’ll find that this is often the first snack platter to need replenishment.
Even if you are doing the standard nuts-and-chips routine, it is possible to use your imagination. Do not buy those disgusting Lay’s chips. Either buy freshly made wafers from one of the many chip shops that you find all over Bombay (it’s a little more difficult in Delhi, I concede) or buy a packet of Kettle chips, now easily available all over India. Once you’ve got used to Kettle chips, you’ll never be able to eat ordinary chips again.
Similarly, do not imagine that the alternative to peanuts consists of more expensive nuts of the pista-badam variety. Pistas are a nuisance to open and the shells will take up residence in every nook and cranny of your living room. Almonds simply do not go with drinks unless they’re salted or flavoured.
Much easier to get something with a little oomph to it. About 20 years ago they started selling peanuts with a light masala crust all over Bombay and now you get them in other cities too. No snack goes better with beer than those peanuts. If you think of yourself as being more sophisticated, then buy wasabi peas or wasabi-flavoured nuts which are now available at many big city grocers.
Guests will at once notice that you’ve taken a little trouble if your chips are Kettle cooked and your nuts bring their own flavour with them.
The recurrent problem with all dinner parties is: what do we feed the vegetarians? I find that a cheese platter complements a salami plate perfectly. We don’t need to bother with those toothpicks of Amul cheese and Kissan pineapple chunks any longer; good cheese is easy to find. Ideally, your platter should have a mix of one Camembert or Brie type cheese, one Cheddar or Gouda kind of ordinary cheese and perhaps, a little Boursin or some flavoured cream cheese. You can serve crackers, or melba toast (which you can now buy readymade) with the cheese. And on the side, place small cocktail onions (you can buy them by the bottle) and seedless grapes.
The other snack that’s designed for vegetarians is the olive. Do not just open a jar of Fragata olives and decant them into a bowl. Look around a little and try and find olives that are a little more special. You can buy large Kalamata olives quite easily and it is also simple to buy olives that are stuffed with jalapenos, peppers etc. Ideally, you should serve two or three different kinds of olives to give people a choice. Because most olives are bottled in brine, be sure to wash them in cold water before bringing them to the table.
If you are determined to serve a canapé of some description, then stick with crostini. All you need to do is to buy some good bread, cut each slice into squares and toast it till it is crisp. Then you can spoon one of three kinds of topping on the bread. I like mushrooms on toast. This is easy to make. Chop the mushrooms into thin slices or chop finely, sauté with onion and lots of garlic and then, if you want an extra oomph of flavour, add a little pickle to the pan. The finished dish will taste of mushroom and wonderful achar spices. Put a little on each piece of bread and watch it fly off the plate.
More conventional options consist of homemade olive paste and my Boursin and olive mix, both of which have been the subject of previous columns but I’ve reproduced the recipes again this week because you’ve no doubt forgotten.
If you serve Kettle chips, masala peanuts, two kinds of olives, a platter of salami, and a mixed plate of crostini (mushroom, olive and Boursin), you will impress your guests without having to take too much trouble yourself. Plus, they will still have room for dinner. And always keep the cheese plate in reserve. If the snacks begin to run out, serve cheese. If they don’t, serve the cheese after dinner – it will go just as well.
Given that all this will have taken ten minutes to make, you can forget about the snacks and concentrate on dinner. Because that’s what a dinner party is about, after all.