I’d bomb on Jeopardy. I am a ball and chain at trivia night. My brain does not retain facts or names unrelated to Wham songs. I cry when I land sports in Trivial Pursuit. I watch Wheel of Fortune, mouth agog, unable to complete a phrase missing only a Q. But I’ve always thought that I could excel on The Price is Right. How much is this car? OK, fuck if I know. But ask me about groceries and we’re golden.
I read recipes and immediately translate them into dollar signs. I’m not cheap, although I’d be proud to be. I’ve always prided myself on being able to cater food to my friends that looked and felt expensive, while knowing it was not. Sure, “expensive” is a relative term, and my privilege allows me to be generous with it, so instead let’s just say that these tricks can help you serve food that punches above its price point, while keeping your hors d’oeuvres game A+.
Potatoes are a perfect food troll. They are somehow French fries and potato chips and scalloped potatoes but still a vegetable? You can gloss one up to look like they flew in from Gourmet magazine, but it’s still just a 30-cent tuber root.
I believe deeply in giving party people a base of carbs for boozing. I also believe that party food should only require one hand. Potatoes excel in both arenas.
First, obtain your teeny tiny potatoes. I like to grab the mixed bag of fingerlings that most stores offer, but baby red potatoes, baby Yukons, etc., will all work. A bag will usually run you three or four bucks.
Slice them in half longwise. Lay the halves on a cookie sheet, season with salt and pepper, and bake at 375℉ until they’re golden brown and easily pierced with a knife. If you feel like this situation needs olive oil, stop, and remember these are hand held hors d’oeuvres, so we’re going to skip the oil to avoid greasy fingertips.
Now, you have two options. If the spuds are truly dainty, I like to leave them as-is, since they’ll have a nice fluffy inside. If they’re a little chonkier, you can scoop out the innards, leaving the skins intact, mash the insides with cream and butter, then refill the skins.
In any case, the toppings are what make the scene here. Think of it like a caviar topped blini. Now caviar—that’s really expensive, right? Not necessarily. Remember, you’re using very little, and you can pick up an ounce of trout roe or salmon roe for $10. The rest of the accompaniments—chopped hard boiled egg, chives, sour cream, and shallots—are all quite inexpensive, but they make for a highly colorful, easy-to-eat mouth-popper.
If you’d like to dress it down, you can always treat them like baked potato skins, and fill them with sour cream, cheese, tomatoes, etc. But I beg of you—in the name of women with plentiful chests everywhere—do not put chili or salsa or anything else that will drip off any of your hors d’oeuvres.
Shots (of the soup persuasion)
Bowls of soup are a less-than-ideal option for a cocktail event, but that’s why soup shots are a hit. Fill shot glasses or Asian soup spoons with just enough soup for a hearty sip. (Consider a silky cauliflower cream soup or a single tortellini in a flavorful and rich broth.) Soup shouts are simple and inexpensive, yet filling, and a great way to get in a vegetable option. Plus, just imagine a tray of perfectly filled shot glasses, topped with a small garnish dusting of herbs. Ooh la fucking la.
Cauliflower cream soup is a dream—like an actual cloud—and takes 20 minutes to make. Rough chop cauliflower, then simmer with enough stock to cover. I combine the Garlic and Vegetable Better than Bouillon with a little white wine to make a decent stock here, all to taste. Simmer until the cauliflower is fork tender, then blitz until it is super smooth. Add cream to taste (usually half as much cream as stock) and blend again. Serve with chives on top.
For the tortellini, pick up a package of refrigerated fresh tortellini for five bucks at the grocery store. A mushroom filling would work great here. Next, make a stock with a lot of flavor and even a little spice. Again, garlic and vegetable stock combined with a little chili oil and a tiny bit of rice wine vinegar makes a nice and punchy combination. The tortellini will float for extra effect.
Spending $10 here on a small cut of beef has a huge payoff. The greatest meal hack ever—and the only justification you need to purchase a sous vide machine—is to take less than prime cuts of meat, like chuck roast, and turn them into perfectly rosy, tender roast beef. The cost is dramatically less than buying deli roast beef, and you can cook it to your preferred level of doneness with ease. Claire Lower has a great recipe for doing so here.
Next, you’ll make a platform for that roast beef, like latkes or potato pancakes or even store-bought hash-brown cakes. Layer it with some thinly sliced roast beef, along with some pickled onions and a dot of horseradish sauce on top. If you’re too tired to deal with latkes because 2021, grab a loaf of dark rye bread or pumpernickel, cut it into un-toasted 2-inch by 2-inch squares, and use those instead.
Some additional ideas
I know that Hollywood has sold us the idea of a shrimp cocktail station being luxe, but it’s also bonkers expensive. We can satisfy our inner Eleanors by serving a single shrimp on top of a cucumber round shmeared with that same horseradish sauce. A pound of medium-sized shrimp can be had at the counter for around eight bucks, but don’t be afraid to hit the frozen section—the frozen stuff is almost always the freshest.
By the same token, tuna tartare on a potato chip is a spectacular idea because lots of seafood counters now sell great tuna suitable for tartare, and you don’t need much. Grab half of a pound of very red tuna without any bloodline. At home, chop it into small cubes, and then toss with sesame oil, soy sauce and a little bit of sriracha to taste. Spoon a teaspoon full onto a hefty potato chip and serve on a tray.
Radishes with butter and fleur de sel is another simple and beautiful bite. Slice radishes in half the long way, use a knife to artfully streak it with good butter, then sprinkle on some dill and and a pinch of chunky salt. Perfection.
A baked brie is great, but messy and hard to navigate. Consider the brie bite. Buy $5-worth of frozen puff pastry and a $10 wheel of brie. Cut the wheel into slices, wrap them in puff pastry, and bake. You can also get a little fancy by making tiny obnoxious pizza bites. Use gruyere instead of brie, along with prosciutto and sundried tomatoes. To further cut costs, you can buy some cherry tomatoes, slice them in half, and dehydrate them in your oven on a low setting. Instead of buying an expensive pre-sliced package of prosciutto, walk yourself up to the deli and ask for ¼ pound of it, as thinly sliced as they’ll allow. It’s less expensive ounce for ounce at the counter and, because it’s sliced paper thin, a little goes a long way.
Remember: No one comes to your house to judge how much you spent on the food. These days, we’re all too damn thrilled to have a reason to celebrate to worry about such ridiculousness. When in doubt, serve food that makes you happy, and save a few bucks if you can.