THE BIG APPEAL OF SMALL BITES Appetizers offer diners new flavors to savor


Tasty little dishes. Bites of food that look spectacular and are intensely flavorful. We call them hors d'oeuvres, which translates roughly as "outside the meal." But in the less-is-more '90s, small, savory appetizers are often the meal itself.

We're eating that way at home -- a bite of this and a bite of that -- because we don't have time to sit down and have a proper meal.

We're entertaining that way because it's more interesting to serve Asian spring rolls and Mediterranean hummus and Italian antipasti than a meat and potatoes sit-down dinner.

And at restaurants we're ordering several appetizers and calling them dinner: first, because they are sometimes the most imaginative food on the menu and second, because we want more variety -- in small amounts and not too costly.

In fact, Art Siemering, publisher of Trend/Wire, a weekly newsletter to the food industry, predicts we'll be seeing a lot more sampler plates and exclusively appetizer menus in restaurants, what he calls "mix 'n' match eating."

Even at Hampton's, one of Baltimore's most formal restaurants, your waiter won't bat an eye if you order two or three first courses instead of an entree.

Executive chef Holly Forbes says customers are also asking the chef of the restaurant Scott Hoyland to send them little tastes of everything in lieu of ordering a meal. "They just ask for the chef's tasting menu," she says. "It's a wonderful way to explore the restaurant's offerings."

"Explore" is the key word. Caterers, restaurateurs and trend analysts agree that people are more interested than ever in trying new foods. Ordering an exotic appetizer is a less risky way of trying something for the first time, because it's likely to cost a third of what an entree would.

"People are more sophisticated than they used to be," says Jerry Edwards of Chef's Expressions caterers. Over the past few years, his clients have gotten away from ham in biscuits, vegetables with dip and scallops wrapped in bacon.

"They love different flavors, especially northern Italian," he says. Tapenades are hugely popular, as are Tuscan grilled vegetables. Asian influences are important, too, like strips of sesame grilled chicken on skewers with Thai dipping sauce.

People are also looking for imaginative starters for sit-down dinners. For Edwards' clients this might be a portobello mushroom torte or fried goat cheese croutons over field greens with hot bacon dressing.

The whole nature of appetizers has changed dramatically. They are no longer just nibbles or one ingredient. They're a little protein, a little salad, a little starch arranged in creative ways. These are often beautifully composed plates, a feast for the eye as well as the mouth. And ethnic dishes are much in demand.

"They reflect a new world tapestry," is how Rozanne Gold, food trend analyst and author of "Little Meals," puts it.

In fact, as Americans have become more aware of the little meals of other cultures -- the Spanish tapas, the Greek meze, the Chinese dim sum -- entertaining with them instead of a sit-down dinner has become more than just acceptable.

These hors d'oeuvres don't have to be elaborate. Zanne Stewart, executive food editor of Gourmet magazine, points out that bruschetta are one of the most popular ones right now. These bite-sized toasts topped with good things like chopped tomatoes are easy and relatively healthy. "And they start with toasted bread. Americans love crispy more than anything else," she says with a laugh.

Stewart makes her little toasts every 10 days or so and keeps them in a tin, so she always has a good vehicle for cheese, chopped vegetables or dressed-up leftovers on hand.

Here's the Gourmet editor's list of other currently popular hors d'oeuvres:

* Herb-flavored, homemade bread sticks that are thinner than pencils and, yes, crispy.

* Variations on spring rolls (deep-fried and crispy) and summer rolls (which aren't fried and are served cold or at room temperature).

* Savory cheesecakes.

* Shrimp anything.

* Smoked meats and fish.

* Stuffed baby vegetables in response to the growing interest in healthier foods. "Although," Stewart says, "it's generally accepted that calories don't count when you eat standing up."

There seem to be two schools of thought about healthy foods when it comes to entertaining. On the one hand, it's a special occasion, so your guests may be willing -- and eager -- to splurge on calories and fat. On the other, hosts are increasingly sensitive to the special needs of their guests.

"From a catering standpoint," says chef Forbes, "We've noticed people want more vegetarian things so as not to offend anyone." They want what one of her clients called "food without a face."

So as you're planning your party, you should probably include some grilled mushrooms or vegetable empanadas or cherry tomatoes stuffed with rice salad. This other cocktail party food advice comes from Ansela Dopkin of Classic Catering People:

* Hors d'oeuvres must truly be bite-sized. Two bites at the most.

* Avoid drippy foods.

* Hors d'oeuvres should have a vegetable or starch base, like a Bremner wafer for a miniature crab cake.

* Be conscious of residue -- a toothpick, a chicken wing bone. Will your guest have to wrap something in a napkin and stick it in her evening bag to get rid of it?

* Avoid dips. Too messy.

* In spite of all the wonderful ethnic foods around, it's hard to beat a well-made canape such as cucumber, radish and watercress on good white bread with sweet butter.

Pub Date: 8/15/96

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