I'm guessing Ben Franklin wasn't an avid cook (he had a cockamamie idea about cooking turkey via electrocution). But his quote about preparedness is worth a needlepoint pot holder:
"By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail."
The fancy guys on the Food Network are always talking about mise en place. Yes, it's good to have all your recipe ingredients prepped and chopped, preferably in little glamorous ramekins. (Glammekins?) But for holiday entertaining, you want the whole shebang completely finito, awaiting only a little bit of heat and a garnish if your guests merit. For New Year's Eve in particular, even if you're hosting, you want to be at the party. No apron covering up your little black dress, no sweating over the grill while your guests kibbitz inside.
The rest of the year your freezer may be where bad ideas go to die. But for the holidays it can be your ally. I stock mine with four or five different oven-ready hors d'oeuvres. This way I'm ready for unexpected drop-ins, and even if I'm having a large gathering it gets the heavy lifting out of the way.
The big question is which kinds of hors d'oeuvres freeze well. To answer this, go to the freezer aisle in the grocery story and do recon: cheesy things, pastry (phyllo, puff pastry, etc.), meatballs, egg rolls or Asian dumplings and fried nibbles like latkes, crab cakes or arancini. My cast of characters usually includes a vegan, a vegetarian, a pescatarian and a gluten-free-er, so I find that casting a wide net internationally gives me a range of flavors and allows me to accommodate dietary restrictions.
There are some basic guidelines for how to get the best results.
Some recipes call for cooking a sheet of hors d'oeuvres all the way to completion and then reheating, others to freeze them raw and bake directly from a frozen state. Each method has its nuances.
Cooked food should be cooled completely on baking sheets, then frozen uncovered until firm and stacked in zip-top bags. (Identify and date with a Sharpie, and for extra credit jot down the cooking instructions: "20 min at 350.") Never put warm or hot food directly in the freezer. It will spend too much time in the temperature "danger zone" and is likely to collect condensation, which will make hors d'oeuvres squidgy.
For things that will be frozen raw, parchment paper or a Silpat silicone sheet are good ideas, and that goes double if the hors d'oeuvres are given an egg wash or gloss of melted butter (both of which can cement that nibble to the baking sheet once frozen). Once frozen solid, the parchment can be peeled back carefully from the bottom of each item and the goodies can be safely stacked in zip-tops. For especially delicate items like phyllo cups, cookie tins or Tupperware are better for storage, with layers separated by waxed paper or parchment.
To prevent freezer burn, press all the air out of your zip-top bags, and double bag if you are worried about flavors transferring to or from your frozen hors d'oeuvres (nothing like crab cake-flavored ice cream). And then there's the question of how long items can be frozen. If you don't open and close the freezer door all the time so that the space maintains a fairly constant temp, most hors d'oeuvres will keep nicely for up to six weeks.
If you are only going to bake off a few at a time for drop-in holiday guests, take them out and quickly return the rest to the freezer. You don't want to partially thaw the remainder — this affects the texture, flavor and even the safety of the finished product.
The truth about most single-bite hors d'oeuvres is that they are light brown crunchy orbs, cubes or blobs. They may all taste different, but there's a homogeneity of shape and color that you have to work against on the back end. This means garnishes, sauces or even fancy-topped decorative toothpicks. A little chopped dill, basil or cilantro can give nibbles a visual boost, but think about whipping up a quick flavored mayo as a sauce (as in the wasabi mayo on the Asian crab cakes below) or an herbed vinaigrette, mustard or cocktail sauce as a dunker.
And then you're going to want to serve them on different styles of tray to maximize visual appeal. (If any of the treats are greasy, let them blot on a paper-towel-lined baking sheet before lining them up on a tray.) Some trays you can array on a buffet table, but passing hot hors d'oeuvres always has the magical ability to make you the most popular person at the party. Not a bad ego boost going into the new year.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.