It's easy to have romantic visions of the holidays — all your friends gathered to celebrate, marveling at your culinary prowess.
But let's be honest, parties take work. But if you do it right, the cooking can be the least of your worries. In fact, you can sometimes get away with no cooking at all. With just a few simple ingredients and minimal effort you really can throw an elegant affair that meets the culinary mark.
So here are easy-to-execute party bites from cookbook authors and chefs to get you off to a good start.
Jose Garces (Philadelphia chef and author of The Latin Road Home)
• Smoky almonds
Dust roasted marcona almonds with smoked paprika and Maldon sea salt.
• Spoon snack
Combine good-quality canned Spanish tuna, quartered cherry tomatoes, sliced green Spanish olives like arbequina or manzanilla, chopped chives, a splash of sherry vinegar and a bit of olive oil. Serve on miso spoons for an impressive one-bite snack.
Tom Douglas (Seattle chef)
• Salty-sweet spread
Puree equal amounts of dried figs and pitted Kalamata olives for a delicious smear for pita.
• Wide-awake shrimp cocktail
Turn shrimp cocktail into a "red eye" by spiking 1 cup of cocktail sauce with 5 finely ground espresso beans.
• Lox and cukes
Top cucumber slices with lox (smoked salmon) for a healthy, crunchy appetizer or finger snack.
Michael Romano (James Beard award-winning New York chef)
• Mediterranean dip
Drain a jar of prepared baby artichokes and toss with good quality canned tuna (packed in olive oil). Add a squeeze of lemon, chopped black olives, Aleppo pepper and chopped parsley. Serve with crackers.
• Crunchy caviar
Slice celery into very thin strips, then lightly salt them. Top with grated bottarga caviar and drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil.
• Peppers and toast
Toast focaccia or garlic bread slices and top with good quality prepared roasted peppers.
Kevin Gillespie (executive chef of Atlanta's Woodfire Grill and author of Fire in my Belly)
• Smoky sweet apples
Wrap thick apple wedges in smoked bacon and sprinkle with brown sugar. Broil until bacon is crisp.
• Baked brie, 2012
Spread store-bought puff pastry or croissant dough into an "X." Put a wheel of brie or camembert in the center and cover in truffle honey. Tuck a few toasted walnuts inside for crunch, if you like. Pull up the sides of the dough like you're wrapping a present. Bake until golden brown.
• Smoked fish dip
Buy hot-smoked salmon or trout. Blend in food processor with room-temp cream cheese, onion powder, garlic powder and fresh chives. Use as a dip for crackers or spread onto slices of toasted baguette.
• Fruit and cheese bites
Buy brioche and punch out bite-sized rounds or cut into squares. Top with sliced pears, cooked smoked bacon and sharp cheddar cheese. Put on baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees until the cheese melts.
Seamus Mullen (chef, New York's Tertulia, and author of Hero Food)
• White Beans and sardines
Puree canned cannellini beans with roasted garlic, canned artichokes, olive oil and lemon juice for a white bean spread to serve with smoked sardines on toast.
• Tuna and avocado toasts
Fork mash avocado with olive oil and lemon juice. Grill some flatbread, spread with the avocado mash, and top with grapefruit segments, good canned tuna and coarse sea salt.
• Shrimp and squash skewers
Skewer some small shrimp with lightly blanched winter squash and grill. Serve with a simple salsa verde of minced herbs, olive oil, garlic and lemon juice.
David Burke (chef of several New York restaurants)
• Parmesan pops
Line a baking sheet with waxed paper. Place wooden skewers about 4 inches apart on the paper. Sprinkle shredded Parmesan cheese in a circle on top of one end of the skewer, creating a cheese lollipop. Bake at 350 degrees for 2 to 3 minutes, or until golden brown. Let cool, spray lightly with oil and sprinkle fine herbs.
• Goat cheese lollies
Roll goat cheese into balls the size of a golf ball. Puree pistachios and roll the goat cheese balls through the nuts to encrust the cheese. Put a lollipop stick in the balls.
• Black olive toasts
Puree black olives. Toast baguette slices and spread with ricotta cheese. Top with a dollop of olive puree.
Walter Abrams (chef at Philadelphia's Le Bec Fin)
• Cucumber and Boursin tea sandwiches
Cut the crusts off good-quality white sandwich bread. Make a sandwich using Boursin garlic and herb cheese and thinly sliced cucumber. Cut into attractive diamonds. Finish with a sprig of fresh chervil.
• Caviar and quick chive cakes
Grab a box of pancake mix, add chopped chives and prepare according to the box instructions (omitting sugar, if called for). Griddle the cakes and top with a dollop of sour cream and your favorite caviar.
• Bacony popcorn
Pop a bag of your favorite popcorn. While it's popping, saute chopped bacon and sprinkle the top with brown sugar. And a dash of red-wine vinegar. Add toasted cashews and the popcorn and serve hot.
Bart Pickens (chef at The Loveless Cafe in Nashville, Tenn.)
• Easy smoked-fish dip
Blend 2 parts smoked white fish, smoked oysters or smoked mussels with 1 part mayonnaise and 1 part cream cheese. Season with salt and pepper and use as a spread on French bread toast points, fresh vegetables or gourmet crackers.
• Balsamic raisins
An excellent accompaniment for a cheese platter. Plump jumbo raisins in balsamic vinegar by simmering over low heat for 10 minutes.
• Cheese crisps
Blend 1 cup each of flour and grated cheddar cheese in a food processor with 1 teaspoon of salt, 1 egg and 1/2 stick of butter. On a piece of waxed or parchment paper, roll out into a 1/4-inch-thick disc. Cut into crackers (use holiday cookie cutters for more fun). Place the crackers on a baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes.
• Cream cheese and pepper jelly
A true Southern favorite, just two simple ingredients make for one delicious combination. Unwrap the cream cheese and place in the center of a platter before topping with a jar of hot pepper jelly.
J.M. Hirsch (AP food editor)
• Brie with bourbon-balsamic glaze
Gently simmer 1 cup of bourbon and 1 cup of balsamic vinegar until syrupy and reduced to 1/4 cup, about 20 minutes. Season with black pepper. Drizzle while warm over a round of brie that has come to room temperature. Serve with slices of baguette.
• Spring pea guacamole
In a food processor, combine the flesh of 2 avocados, a 15-ounce can of peas (drained), 1/4 cup packed fresh cilantro, juice of 1 lime and a splash of hot sauce. Process until smooth, then season with salt and pepper. Serve at room temperature with crackers.