First-rate nibbles for your holiday guests feasible, affordable

A holiday open house, whether for Christmas or New Year’s Eve, often means open season on the host’s resources. Whether you use a caterer or prepare the food yourself, it’s possible to offer guests a feast for their senses without a feast on your nerves.

One secret to simple sophistication: “One-bite wonders,” said Elaina Vazquez, owner and executive chef of Chicago catering company Boutique Bites. “They’re not messy and there’s not a lot involved.”

Guests appreciate smaller hors d’oeuvres over four- or five-bite appetizers. “You pop it in your mouth and it’s done,” she said. No fumbling with crumbling foundations or talking with your mouth full.

Restaurant-quality nibbles, not standard chips and salsa, are feasible and affordable even for the do-it-yourselfer. Vazquez advises starting with inexpensive, versatile and hearty ingredients such as polenta, chorizo and pasta. A sauce adds instant zing. Plus, most sauces can be made the day before, then heated in the microwave the day of. “I don’t even dirty a saucepan,” Vazquez said.

Polenta cakes with tomato jam and goat cheese, and dates with chorizo are elegant but easy.

“People don’t think about polenta. But there’s so much you can do to it. You can add different herbs. Chopped tarragon. Saffron. Every single time, at our tasting events, clients always choose it.”

Focus on complementary bites. “I always incorporate one spicy and one or two comfort ones, and then I usually like to have one upscale one, like a blini with smoked salmon and creme fraiche.”

As a ballpark estimate, for an hors d’oeuvres and cocktail party, she recommends planning 10 to 12 bites per guest per hour and a half. A rough budget for a DIY host would be about $7 to $10 a person; for catered bites, $15 to $20.

“The only thing I like to do the day of is assembly and garnish and reheating,” she said. “The last thing you want on the day of is to be stressed out. If I can, I set the table the day before. The more you can do the day before, it really frees you up to enjoy the party.”

Party tips

Three to avoid:--A one-dimensional table. Place platters and bowls on risers of different heights to make the table more inviting.--Chips and salsa. Guests standing at the bowl can create a blockade.--Olives with pits.

Three to remember:--Sufficient glassware. “You don’t really want to be washing and drying to replenish,” says caterer Elaina Vazquez. “You don’t have to go out and buy it, you can rent it — or there are nice options in disposables.”--A shot glass or other vessel for disposal of toothpicks/skewers. (Place on the side of the platter and stick one pick in it, so guests know what it’s for.)--Cocktail napkins and disposable towels for the bathroom.

Three to trade--Table cloths: “I always like the look of just the table, even if it’s distressed wood,” Vazquez says. “Then I use different serving pieces and garnishes to make the table pop.”--Flowers. In winter, consider potted herbs, flowering artichokes or kale, or branches in a simple cylinder. “Branches are great because they have such height,” Vazquez says.--New platters. Disguise humble serving trays with banana leaves cut to the size of the plate. They also hide residual juice from foods such as skewered meatballs. They can be found in the freezer section at some produce stores.

Bacon-Wrapped Dates With Chorizo and Red Pepper Sauce

Have wooden picks handy for guests to spear the dates.

12 dates, pits removed

6 oz. Mexican chorizo, removed from casing

6 slices bacon, cut in half horizontally

1 teaspoon sweet Spanish paprika

1 jar (7 oz.) roasted red peppers, liquid drained, diced

1/4 cup tomato sauce

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Stuff each date with about 1/2 teaspoon of the chorizo. Wrap each with 1/2 strip of bacon. Arrange dates on a baking pan; bake in the oven until bacon is crispy, about 22 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat a skillet over medium heat; add paprika. Cook just until fragrant, 30 seconds. Add peppers and tomato sauce; cook, stirring occasionally, 5 minutes. Add to a food processor or blender; pulse until almost smooth. Keep warm. Remove dates from oven; dab with paper towels. Pour the warm sauce on a platter. Top with dates. Makes 1 dozen.

Nutrition information: Per serving: 336 calories, 55 percent of calories from fat, 21 g fat, 8 g saturated fat, 48 mg cholesterol, 23 g carbohydrates, 15 g protein, 1,006 mg sodium, 3 g fiber

-- The Wichita Eagle—12/22/10

Polenta Cakes With Tomato Jam and Goat Cheese

You could make the polenta cakes a day ahead, including the frying. When ready to serve, top with tomato sauce and goat cheese and heat in the oven.

5 cups water

1 pint (2 cups) whipping cream

1/4cup grated Parmesan cheese

2 cups instant polenta

2 tablespoons plus 1/4 teaspoon coarse salt

1 can (12 oz.) diced tomatoes in sauce

1 teaspoon tomato paste

1/4 teaspoon sugar

1 tablespoon olive oil

3 oz. goat cheese, crumbled

Heat water and cream to a simmer in a large, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in Parmesan and 2 tablespoons of the salt. Whisk in polenta in a steady stream, until thick and smooth, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a greased 17-by-12-inch rimmed baking pan. Cover polenta with parchment paper; refrigerate until firm, about 6 hours.

Heat diced tomatoes in sauce to a simmer in a saucepan over medium heat. Add tomato paste; cook 5 minutes. Add sugar and 1/4 teaspoon of the salt. Transfer to a food processor or blender; pulse until slightly chunky. Keep warm.

Cut 1 1/2-inch shapes out of the polenta (squares, circles, diamonds). Heat olive oil in a medium skillet; add polenta shapes in batches. Cook until golden brown on both sides, about 16 minutes. Transfer to a paper-towel lined plate.

Dab with more paper towels. Place polenta on serving platter; top each with a little of the tomato jam and goat cheese. Serve warm. Makes about 80 cakes.

Nutrition information: Per serving: 182 calories, 61 percent of calories from fat, 12 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 38 mg cholesterol, 14 g carbohydrates, 4 g protein, 905 mg sodium, 1 g fiber

-- The Wichita Eagle—12/22/10

Shrimp Bruschetta

6 tablespoons mayonnaise

2 teaspoons prepared mustard

2 tablespoons ketchup

16 ( 1/2-inch-thick) diagonal slices baguette, toasted

16 cooked large shrimp, shelled and deveined

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

Combine the mayonnaise, mustard and ketchup. Spread a portion of mayonnaise mixture on each piece of toast. Top with a shrimp. Sprinkle with parsley. Makes 16 toasts.

-- The Wichita Eagle—12/22/10