Now comes that time of year that is best, optimum, I think, for the cocktail party. We have had just enough respite from the rigors of holiday merriment, we have rested our bones, and it is high time once again to venture forth socially.
It is by far the best way to combat the winter doldrums and help each other get through what is sometimes euphemistically called the Serenity Season; that is, the time when nothing happens except that we all get sick of winter.
Cocktail parties are fine events for the Family Cook to throw, because the food can be made in bits and pieces, one batch a day the week before the party, There is no question of trying to cook a fancy dinner, feed the kids and get them to bed all at the same time. The Family Cook can repay a good many social obligations simultaneously instead of making a dinner party a week for 16 weeks. And of course, it is a good way to experiment with new guests that we're not quite sure we want to spend an entire evening with te te-a -te te.
For this, as for all public events, the Family Cook accepts as much offered help as she can get her mitts on. When a guest says "May I bring something?" the hostess enthusiastically shouts "Yes! Yes! Yes!" into the phone, and if she's very lucky, she won't have to do a darned thing but dust the living room.
But that's poor form; it's best to at least put a few noshes of one's own out there just to show one has tried. A recent study of cocktail parties done around the neighborhood shows that the easier something is to eat, the better it sells. If it has to be loaded onto a cracker or vegetable, it won't go as fast as something that can be just picked up with the fingers and tossed down the gullet. Pigs in blankets are a hot item, so are chicken wings (don't forget a bowl for the bones), quichettes and baby pizzas. The harder you work putting these little numbers together, the more they will be appreciated.
The other, more stunning result of this study is that people are now reluctant to eat cheese as cheese. Had I not done the legwork on this, I would have advised you all to make three real hors d'oeuvres and then put three great-looking cheeses on a board next to a basket of crackers and let it go at that.
But the three exotic, expensive cheeses I put out for the test party were just as pristine at party's end as they were when the doorbell first rang. Prudently, I wrapped the gorgeous cheddar laced with sherry and froze it, then brought it out again for another party a week later. That one, too, it survived intact. Cheeses are fine when grated, chopped, melted, and combined, but for some reason, they're not popular in their pure form this year; at least not when pigs in blankets are available. I pass this on as a consumer tip.
The most important thing I got from my study (no, not a hangover) was these wonderful recipes from the friends who brought things. They are all blessedly easy, yummy and fun. The spinach balls, chicken balls and bagel thins can all be made days in advance, and the bagel thins can became a craft project with children. My 4-year-old had a fine time "painting" the bagel thins with garlic butter, and demanded garlic butter toast for breakfast the very next day. And you wonder how these things get started. CHERRY TAYLOR'S ARTICHOKE DIP (Makes 3 cups)
8 1/2-ounce can artichoke hearts packed in water
1 cup grated parmesan
1 cup mayonnaise
Parsley for garnish
Assorted raw vegetables for serving
Drain the artichokes and rinse off the brine. Put in a food processor bowl with cheese and mayonnaise and process until smooth with steel knife. Scrape into a heatproof bowl and heat in a 350-degree oven for 20 minutes just before serving. Garnish with parsley.
Serve this with raw vegetables. The secret to an impressive display of raw vegetables is to use a lot of different kinds and alternate the colors: carrots next to broccoli next to cauliflower next to raw green beans next to cherry tomatoes next to celery next to disks of yellow squash. MOM AND TEDDY'S GARLIC BAGEL THINS (Makes 30 thins or about 15 servings)
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
8 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 bagels, sliced very thinly at the store
Melt butter with garlic over low heat until garlic is soft, about 2 minutes. Add lemon juice and salt to taste. Brush bagel thins on one side with butter and broil on the other side. These will keep for a day in a tightly closed container. CHERYL FOOKS' SPINACH BALLS (12 servings)
10-ounce package frozen spinach, cooked and drained
1 cup of herbed stuffing mix, more if needed
1 small onion, finely chopped
3 eggs, beaten
1/4 cup melted butter
2 tablespoons flour
1/3 cup parmesan
1 teaspoon crushed garlic
1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
1/4 teaspoon thyme
Mix all the ingredients together and form into balls made of 1 teaspoon of mixture each. If the mixture is not solid enough, add more stuffing mix. Set balls out on an ungreased cookie sheet and freeze. (This step is necessary, not optional.) Remove from freezer 1 hour before cooking time, then bake for 20 minutes at 350 degrees. Cheryl usually serves this with ginger sauce cadged in little packets from Chinese restaurants, but they're great on their own, too. MADELEINE DE NEREE TOT BABBERICH'S CAVIAR "PIE" (16 servings)
4 hard-cooked eggs
2 tablespoons sour cream
Dash ground pepper
1 small onion, finely chopped
4-ounce package cream cheese, softened
2-ounce jar caviar, any kind
French bread, thinly sliced and lightly toasted, or any kind of cracker
Chop the eggs finely and mix with the sour cream and pepper. Spread this into the bottom of an individual-sized oval au gratin dish. Cover with a layer of chopped onion. Smooth on a layer of cream cheese about 1/4 inch thick. Top with caviar so the whole surface is black or red with no white peaking through. Serve with bread or crackers. MARGARET COBB'S NUT CANAPES (16 servings)
1/2 cup gorgonzola cheese
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter plus extra for bread
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
4 slices thin rye bread
Blend together the cheese and butter with a fork; add nuts. Trim crust off bread and cut into 1-inch squares. Spread cheese mixture on lightly buttered bread squares.