The most highly caloric event in history was not the wedding of some medieval king, but the marriage of the cocktail with the snack. Never before or since have so many different foods been invited to a single table. Ordinary culinary boundaries are ignored and routine dietary considerations forgotten in celebration of the cocktail hour.
The definition of cocktail food, after all, is anything that tastes good with strong drink. And, of course, anything tastes good with strong drink (some might argue against chocolate mousse pie, but we'd wager you could find somebody who can't settle down to his evening martini without a slice of chocolate mousse pie to accompany it).
Cocktail food can be eaten with a fork or fingers, or sipped as in hot bouillon with a shot of whiskey (in which case the cocktail becomes the food). It can be dipped, spread or speared. It can be sandwiches -- open, closed, stacked or rolled. It can be elaborate doughs filled and formed into cunning shapes, from Chinese steamed dumplings to Argentine baked empanadas.
The only requirement for cocktail food is that it must be possible to eat it in very small portions -- and endlessly, without noticing that you are actually eating. In other words, cocktail food is expected to be silent calories which, unlike whipped cream cakes that scream their extravagance, slide down with just a little crunch or piquancy that couldn't possibly spoil one's appetite or wreck one's diet.
Cocktail food has supported the mayonnaise industry and the melba toast business. Deviled ham producers might have starved if not for little cocktail pinwheels and spreads. And white bread might as well have quit after lunch, were it not for the cocktail party. Velveeta oozed into glory once it met the jalapeno pepper. And how many Americans would ever eat beans if they weren't mashed and peppered and scooped up by tortilla chips? Then there is dried onion soup mix; if it has gone on to wider success in the pot roast and vegetable casserole realms, it certainly owes its solid start to the cocktail party.
One could mark the years by their cocktail food fads. Irma's Onion Sandwiches -- paper-thin rounds of onion with mayonnaise between two rounds of bread (homemade if you traveled in certain Manhattan circles) and rolled in chopped parsley -- were perhaps the first high-fashion, mass-media, cocktail party classic. And quiche squares have had a long run. When nobody had time anymore to roll bread into little pinwheels or pile it into checkerboard loaves, the cheese ball took over. And when dietary guilt became popular, the crudites-with-dip answered its whine. One year crabmeat baked with cream cheese marched across the buffet tables of America, another year egg salad frosted with a layer of lumpfish caviar. The cold spinach-mayonnaise dip made a strong showing, at least until the hot mayonnaise-parmesan-marinated artichoke dip edged it aside -- reminding anybody who had been around long enough to remember broiled canapes of mayonnaise and parmesan that there is nothing new under the sunset.
Only on Capitol Hill, and only very unofficially, do people admit that cocktail food is dinner. Maybe that's why the shrimp goes first; it does taste wholesome and basic and viable as a main course. While certainly one would have had enough food after an hour or two of nibbling brie and crackers or munching pigs in blankets, admitting that's dinner makes one feel apologetic to one's hard-working digestive system. Jogging the next morning seems less a compensation than an expiation.
Yet what is a cocktail array if not salty and buttery and spicy and crunchy? Perhaps the best compromise is to offer some balance. Not just dolefully nutritious-looking and uninspired carrot sticks, but some light and fresh vegetable -- perhaps canapes with cucumber or zucchini as a base rather than bread -- and some alternatives that are low in fat and low in salt to complement the more unrestrained delicacies. In other words, something to nibble with the Perrier and lime.
Here are some recipes for light bites, along with plenty of temptations for those who face butter and cream unafraid.
SUZANNE'S PIEROJI (Makes about 30)
For the filling: 3 pounds mushrooms, coarsely chopped 10 to 12 tablespoons butter 2 to 3 medium onions, finely chopped 6 teaspoons dill, minced 1/4 teaspoon each tarragon and marjoram Salt and pepper to taste 6 to 8 tablespoons sour cream
For the crust: 3 cups butter 1 1/2 pounds cream cheese 7 cups flour 2 teaspoons salt 2 eggs, beaten with 2 teaspoons water
Cook mushrooms in half the butter until they release their liquid. Drain. Saute' onion in remaining butter. Combine onions, mushrooms, spices and sour cream. Set aside while making crust.
Cream butter with cream cheese. Add flour and salt, then form into a ball. Roll out to 1/8-inch thickness. Cut into 3 1/2-inch squares. Put about 1 1/2 tablespoons filling in center of square. Fold the four corners together to meet in the center. Moisten edges with egg mixture and seal. Place on a cookie sheet, and bake at 375 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes.
HUNGARIAN HAM ROLLS
These fiery and creamy ham rolls have long been a staple in the restaurants of Budapest. It just shows that Tex-Mex doesn't have a corner on the hot-food market. (30 pieces) 1 pound cooked ham, thinly sliced 1 cup heavy cream, whipped 4 to 5 tablespoons prepared horseradish, or more to taste (freshly grated horseradish would be even better, if available) Minced parsley, for garnish
Cut ham into rectangles 2-by-4-inches. Fold horseradish into stiffly whipped cream, adjusting amount of horseradish to taste. It should be very strong; some brave cooks have recommended as much as 1 cup freshly grated horseradish, but probably only Hungarians could handle that. Put a dollop of horseradish whipped cream on each ham rectangle and roll up ham, starting at the short end and being careful to roll tightly enough to distribute the cream along the ham but not to squeeze the cream out of the ends. Sprinkle the cream at the ends with minced parsley. Arrange seam side down on a serving plate and serve as soon as possible.
MARGARETE TORNELL'S COCKTAIL ALMONDS
Faintly sweet and very crunchy, these almonds are served with before-dinner drinks in Sweden. (Makes 1 cup) 1 cup almonds 3/4 cup sugar 1/3 cup water
Have a metal baking sheet ready by the stove. In a skillet stir almonds, sugar and water over high heat until the sugar dissolves and comes to a boil. Lower heat and let simmer for a few minutes until the almonds turn shiny and the sugar begins to turn light brown. Immediately pour onto the metal pan and separate the almonds from each other before they cool.
CAROL MASON'S HERBED GOUGERE
Caterer Carol Mason recommends this recipe as "a sturdy and versatile little workhorse." She makes these seasoned puffs with gruy ere or stilton, serves them alone for cocktail snacks, as a bread with ham and perhaps brie on the side, fills individual gougeres as cocktail puffs or uses them as the hot bread for brunch. (Makes about 14 2-inch puffs) 1 cup water 1/2 cup butter 1 teaspoon salt 1 3/4 cups unbleached flour 5 eggs 1 tablespoon dijon-style mustard 1 1/2 cups gruyere cheese, grated Salt, pepper and cayenne to taste 1/4 cup scallions, chopped 1/4 cup parsley, chopped 2 tablespoons fresh dill, chopped
Heat water, butter and salt together over medium heat until butter has totally melted, then increase heat to high and bring mixture to a full boil. Add flour all at once. Reduce heat and stir briskly until it is well blended, smooth and pulls away from the sides of the pan. Turn into the bowl of a mixer and allow to cool slightly. Begin beating the mixture to cool and, then start adding the eggs, one at a time, beating thoroughly between each addition. Add mustard, cheese, scallions, parsley, dill and more salt if necessary, along with pepper and cayenne. Form into 2-inch puffs and space 2 inches apart on ungreased baking sheets. Or they can be formed in 2 oiled 9-inch pie tins, making sure the puffs are touching each other, so that they bake into a ring. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes, then reduce heat to 375 degrees and bake another 20 minutes or until browned and dry. Serve immediately or allow to cool on racks and store in an airtight container. They can be rewarmed in a 350-degree oven for 5 minutes.
QUADRUPLE-CREAM CHEESE SPREAD
This cheese spread is the German answer to low-fat cheese: bah! (Makes about 1 cup) 1/4 pound soft cheese, brie or camembert, diced 1/4 pound soft butter, diced 1 teaspoon finely minced onion 1/2 teaspoon paprika Black bread for serving
Lightly combine cheese, butter, onion and paprika; mixture should remain lumpy and the cheese only roughly mixed with the butter. Pack into a small crock and refrigerate. Remove from refrigerator 1/2 hour before serving to allow to soften. Serve with black bread; spread the cheese mixture on the bread thinly, for it is very rich.
ROGER VERGE'S ANCHOVY DIP (8 servings) 2 2-ounce tins anchovy fillets packed in oil, drained 1 cup olive oil 2 to 3 cloves garlic, chopped 2 teaspoons fresh thyme flowers or leaves (substitute 1 teaspoon dried thyme) 3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil (substitute 1 tablespoon dried) 1 tablespoon dijon-style mustard 1 tablespoon wine vinegar 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
For a blender: Put all ingredients together and pure'e. Scrape into a bowl and serve with vegetables.
For a food mill: In a small casserole, barely warm the anchovies in 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, stirring with a wooden spoon until they are slightly dissolved. Then turn them out into a food mill, set over a large bowl. Add the garlic, thyme and basil and as you turn the mill, rinse the ingredients with olive oil. When all of the substance has passed through, scrape the underside of the grate with a rubber spatula in order to recapture every bit of the pure'e. With a wire whisk beat in the mustard, vinegar, freshly ground pepper and the remainder of the olive oil. Continue to beat the mixture vigorously until homogenously blended. Serve from the bowl in which it was prepared.
Notes: This sauce keeps very well in an airtight jar stored in the refrigerator. Let sit at room temperature for 30 minutes before serving.
To serve: The anchoyade can be served with large slices of hot grilled pain de campagne or pain-baguette, accompanied by a salad and black olives, quarters of tomato and hard-cooked eggs. (Pain de campagne is a round loaf of coarse-textured French country bread, and pan-baguette is the long thin loaf of French bread.
A large anchoyade is a true meal in itself. Along with slices of toasted bread, you can serve a basket of raw vegetables, such as cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, celery, radishes, fennel, cucumber, peppers, hearts of lettuce and tiny cooked artichokes, cooked fresh broad beans and lemon wedges, hard-cooked eggs, black olives, and so on.
Above all don't forget to serve plenty of cold wine. And an anchoyade should be served out of doors, under the shade of a majestic tree. From "Cuisines of the South of France"
STUFFED MUSHROOMS WITHOUT CAVIAR
When left to sit awhile, these simple and universally pleasing stuffed mushrooms absorb the moisture and flavors of the egg salad. The name of the dish came from the fact that one day I could not find the jar of caviar (admittedly lumpfish) with which I was to garnish the mushrooms. Searching the house from top to bottom left it still lost. It was years later, when we moved our small daughter's bedroom, that I discovered the jar of caviar in the bottom of some long-stored toy box. (Makes 24 pieces) 24 large mushrooms, stems removed 5 hard-cooked eggs 1/2 small onion, finely minced 6 tablespoons mayonnaise (more if necessary) 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon pepper Lumpfish caviar for garnish (optional)
Remove stems from mushrooms and reserve for another use. Finely chop eggs and combine with onion and enough mayonnaise to make a very moist egg salad. Season to taste and fill mushroom caps with egg mixture. Wrap tightly and refrigerate for several hours. Just before serving, garnish each mushroom with caviar if desired.
STUFFED MUSHROOMS WITH CAVIAR (Makes 2 to 3 dozen pieces) 2 to 3 dozen mushrooms, stems removed 1/2 cup tarama (red carp roe, available in Middle Eastern groceries) 1 slice onion Juice of 2 lemons 3 slices white bread, crusts, removed, soaked in water until soft and squeezed dry 1 1/2 cups olive oil, approximately 1 tablespoon chopped parsley (optional)
Remove stems from mushrooms and reserve for another use. In a blender or food processor combine tarama, onion, lemon juice, bread and 1/4 cup oil. With blender running, slowly trickle in the rest of the oil, adding only enough to thicken the mixture like mayonnaise. This mixture, called taramasalata, can be kept for a long time in the refrigerator and used as a spread or dip. If it is not to be stored long, stir in optional parsley. Fill mushroom caps with mixture and serve.
STEAMED EGG ROLLS Makes 32 pieces)
Skins: 4 eggs 4 teaspoons cornstarch
Filling: 1 pound ground pork 4 scallions, chopped 1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon pepper 1 egg
For sealing the rolls: Paste of cornstarch with water or 1 egg white
For serving: Soy sauce mixed with mustard to taste (optional)
Beat egg with cornstarch. Lightly grease a 9-inch skillet and heat it. Pour 1/4 of the beaten egg into the skillet and swirl so that it covers the bottom entirely. Cook on low heat for just a couple of minutes, until egg is firm. Turn out of pan and cook 3 more skins the same way. Combine filling ingredients and spread 1/4 on each skin, covering entire surface except a 1/3-inch edge. Roll up each skin, moisten edge with a little cornstarch mixed with water or with egg white, and seal. Steam, seam side down, for 15 to 20 minutes. Slice on the diagonal, 8 slices per roll, and arrange on serving tray. Can be served warm or room-temperature. If desired, serve with a dipping suace of soy sauce mixed with mustard to taste.
CHEESE STRAWS (Makes 36 straws) 1 stick butter 2 cups sifted flour 1/2 teaspoon red pepper 1 teaspoon salt 1 pound cheddar cheese, shredded
Cream butter well. Sift dry ingredients together, add to butter, then add cheese. Press through cookie press onto greased tin and bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes.
The dough may be rolled on floured board and cut in strips for cheese straws, or rolled out in rough thin biscuits with a nut in center of each one. From "The Memphis Cook Book," The Junior League of Memphis, Tennessee