Like the best little nibbles, food writer Tori Ritchie's new book, Party Appetizers: Small Bites, Big Flavors (Chronicle Books, 2004, $14.95), is small, pretty and mouthwatering. With gorgeous photographs and Ritchie's chatty style, I could practically hear the laughter and clinking glassware as I opened the swanky purple cover.
But I was suspicious.
I have been burned before by such cookbooks, whose glamorous recipes come out gloppy and crooked in my not-so-glossy kitchen. I've been stilted by broken promises of entertaining with ease, of parties made simple.
This little book, I thought, with its bubble-gum pink title pages, might lead to more heartache.
But once I started to read, I found Ritchie's work deliciously practical - something that can't be underrated when it comes to party food.
"The most important thing to remember is that if you're not having a good time, no one will," Ritchie wrote in her introduction. "That's why the simplest parties are best."
Ritchie, it seemed, understood. As if taking the nervous hostess by the hand, she outlined her "make-ahead strategy," tips for "choosing the menu" and ideas about presentation. (Vegetable sculptures out; decorative herbs in.)
She even outlined "a few things nobody mentions" - such as the perils of garlic and exploding cherry tomatoes.
But anyone can be the belle of a cocktail party. Was there any substance behind Ritchie's charm? I read on.
Ritchie organizes her 50 or so recipes as "Large Platters and Small Bites," "Warm Finger Foods," "Cool Finger Foods" and "Something Sweet." A chart shows what can be made ahead, what has to be prepared last-minute.
I decided to try the Tomato-Gruyere Tart Squares, which looked beautiful in the rustic photo. And, true to Ritchie's word, the puff-pastry, tomato and cheese concoction sent happy scents from the oven.
Cooked and sliced into squares, the tart was a winner. But then again, how hard is it to melt cheese on tomatoes? I turned to the Merguez Meatballs With Yogurt Sauce.
Party meatballs can be dangerous, turning out too dry or flavorless, crumbly or slippery. But the bite-sized meatballs were more than tasty, with a subtle spiciness offset by the cool, creamy yogurt sauce and the fresh smell of cilantro.
I was nearly converted, when the Cornmeal Blini With Smoked Salmon pushed me into true fanaticism.
Too many pancake disasters have made me dubious of most batter operations. But as I followed Ritchie's step-by-step guide to sauteing the corn-flour-buttermilk mixture, I felt my confidence growing.
Soon, I had a plate filled with golden-brown little blinis, ready for the dollop of creme fraiche and slice of smoked salmon. I sprinkled green chives over my petite creations and then grabbed one to sample.
It was melt-in-your-mouth delicious, a true string quartet of flavors.
I couldn't wait to have a party. The house would be clean, I'd be relaxed. The well-heeled guests would gather around the platter of blinis, oohing and aahing.
And, of course, the photographs would be beautiful.
Cornmeal Blini With Smoked Salmon
Makes 8 to 10 servings
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup masa harina (corn flour)
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup white corn kernels (from about 1/2 ear)
1 cup buttermilk
1 large egg
2 tablespoons melted butter, plus additional melted butter for cooking blini
1/2 cup creme fraiche
smoked salmon (about 1/2 pound) or caviar to taste (1 or 2 ounces)
1 bunch fresh chives, finely snipped
To make the blini: Stir the flour, masa harina, sugar, baking powder and salt together in a large bowl. Put the corn kernels in a blender and puree until pulpy. Add the buttermilk, egg and 2 tablespoons melted butter and pulse just to blend. Pour the buttermilk mixture into the dry ingredients and stir to combine.
Place a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Brush the pan lightly with melted butter, then make small pancakes with the batter, using about 1 tablespoon batter per cake.
Cook until the tops of the cakes start to look dry and the bottoms are golden-brown, then flip them over and cook until they are golden-brown on the other side, about 3 minutes total. Transfer the cooked blini to an ovenproof plate and store it in a low (250 degrees) oven while you cook the remaining cakes.
Blini can be made ahead, cooled, stored airtight in plastic bags and refrigerated for up to one day or frozen for up to one month. Reheat in low oven (thawed if frozen) until warm.
To serve, top each blini with some creme fraiche and salmon or caviar and sprinkle with the chives.
Per serving (based on 8 servings with salmon): 177 calories; 9 grams protein; 9 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 16 grams carbohydrate; 1 gram fiber; 48 milligrams cholesterol; 850 milligrams sodium