Party Food Takes Time

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My favorite dinner is a cocktail party with passed hors d’oeuvres — and Champagne. Caterer Peter Callahan‘s new book, Bite by Bite: 100 Stylish Little Plates You Can Make for Any Party” (Clarkson Potter, 2011), offers dish after tiny dish for just such a meal. I’ve never been invited to a party put on by his New York- and Philadelphia-based company, Callahan Catering, but apparently celebrities love him — names like Conan O’Brien, the Rockefellers, Tom Petty and Tony Bennett — are dropped throughout the book.

As I flipped through its glossy pages and stylized photos, I realized this isn’t a collection of easy variations on crostini toppings or do-ahead dips. Callahan and co-writer Raquel Pelzel’s recipes are for fancy Lilliputian snacks such as baby Lobster Rolls, Tuna Tartare in Plantain Cones and meat-filled “Fortune Cookies,” complete with fortunes, homemade Chinese take-out boxes and a side of cherry sake. These are the kind of creative and crafty suggestions fans expect from Callahan, a former contributor to Martha Stewarts Weddings magazines. (Stewart writes the book’s forward.) His enthusiasm is remarkable, but I wonder whether regular people really make this kind of party food at home.

Diversity is the message

Nothing’s more depressing than a cocktail party short on variety in the food department — here comes the chicken saté … again. Callahan seems to agree. In his Themes and Menus section, he suggests having five or six different types of hors d’oeuvres for an hour-long party. But who has an hour-long cocktail party? For a more realistic gathering of two hours, he recommends 10 different dishes.

The book suggests the following menu for an engagement cocktail party: Fish Tacos and Margaritas in mini Patrón bottles; Vegetable Spring Rolls; Tuna Tartare Plaintain Cones; Caviar Spoons and Vodka; Lobster-Potato Petit Fours; Mango-Shrimp Lollipops; Chicken Noodle Soup; Spicy Chicken “Fortune Cookies”; Fried Clams and Bloody Marys; and Short Rib Burgers.

Labor and time-intensive recipes

The fish taco recipe calls for cutting out 24 2-inch rounds of flour tortillas, wrapping them around a ½-inch cannoli tube, sliding that inside a 1-inch cannoli tube, then frying. Next, marinate and roast the cod to fill the shells, make an avocado mash and, finally, prepare 24 limes to serve as cradles for the tiny tacos.

Here’s how to prepare those limes: “Slice a thin piece off one long side of each lime, so it doesn’t wobble. Rest the lime on the cut side. Using a paring knife, cut a ¼-inch-deep, 1-inch-wide V-shaped notch into the top of the lime.” It looks cute in the photo, but I calculate that that recipe would take the average home cook at least three hours to make. (Before the filling of 24 mini Patrón bottles with margaritas …) Only nine more recipes to go. Most of them are just as time-consuming — if not more so. What home cook is up for the task?

Better to eat than to prepare

I wouldn’t hold back on any of the hors d’oeuvres in this book if they were passed my way at a party (with the exception of the Bubblegum-tini), but I can’t imagine going to the bother of making them myself. Callahan offers time-saving tips, but they seem to defeat the purpose. Serving that fish taco on flat, premade tortilla chips just isn’t that interesting.

And I couldn’t justify buying all the special equipment and miniature serving pieces required. If I did spend days preparing for a two-hour cocktail party, I’d have to hire staff to help me serve and clean up the zillions of little plates and tiny glasses that would be left after each bite or sip was taken.

Callahan, in the end, makes a good case for splurging on the professional caterer. The cost, we realize, is justified.


Zester Daily contributor Christy Hobart is a food and shelter writer in Los Angeles.

Top photo composite: Peter Callahan and book jacket, courtesy Clarkson Potter.


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