Professional Chefs Share Their Favorite Appetizers for Summer Gatherings
Take the experts' advice for your next warm-weather menu.
Whether your summer menu requires appetizers to hold off hungry guests until the main meal or you're planning a small bite-only cocktail party, it's important to choose the perfect hors d'oeuvres. Thankfully, you can, thanks to the following tips from chefs Garnett Livingston of La Maison Dining and Jennifer Hill Booker.
Summer cooking offers opportunities for sourcing local, seasonal ingredients that are harder to find during the rest of the year. "Some of my favorite summer ingredients are tomatoes, basil, corn, cucumbers, tarragon, squashes, lettuces, peppers, avocados, and seafood," says Livingston, who builds his recipes around the seasonal ingredients he finds at farmers' markets and healthful grocery stores. "Summer appetizers should be fresh and colorful with good acidity and lots of fresh herbs." Booker likes to rely on classic flavor pairings—"sweet and salty, briny and citrus, spicy and cool"—to give traditional warm-weather fare a modern upgrade. "Go for summer classics like watermelon and mint, fresh grilled veggies, and poached seafood," she says. "Make sure that you pick ingredients that will hold well in hot weather. Definitely pick items that are cool and refreshing—nothing too heavy or fried."
If you're contributing an appetizer to a party, you may have time to make several pounds of ricotta-stuffed strawberries—but if you're hosting, keep it simple. "Small plates and individually-wrapped items or stuffed items, like cheese-stuffed grape tomatoes, sound cute until you have to make several dozen of them," says Booker. Instead, prepare dishes you can serve on platters or in bowls—like antipasto trays, skewered grilled vegetables, or mixed berries. When Livingston has to cater a party that requires hundreds of identical bites, he prepares as much as possible in advance. "I prefer to serve items that can be made ahead, and require little to no additional preparation the day of the event," says Livingston. "Typically items that can be served cold or room temperature work great in the summer because there is no need for use of an oven." (Bonus tip, says Booker: "If you're serving a cold item and want to make sure it lasts, chill the bowl or platter that you plan to serve it on.")
Not sure what's right for your group? Consider the foolproof recipes these chefs turn to repeatedly. "One of my favorite passed appetizers are little corn cakes served with either a chilled black-eyed pea salad or a smoky pimento cheese—all of the components can be made ahead and quickly assembled right before service," says Booker. Another go-to: pimento cheese-stuffed deviled eggs. "I have no shame in purchasing hard-boiled eggs," says Booker. "For this dish, it can actually be made the day before and garnished right before service with pieces of crispy bacon and fresh scallion." When hot appetizers are appropriate, Booker turns to chicken skewers or easy grilled pizzas. "You can add your pizza dough directly to your grill and top with summer favorites like pesto, fresh tomatoes, bell pepper, and, of course, lots of gooey cheese," says Booker.
At larger parties, Livingston likes to serve one-bite appetizers that are easy for guests to nibble while mingling: heirloom tomato gazpacho in demitasse cups, mini smoked salmon and gruyere sandwiches, tuna tartare on endive, goat cheese mousse on toasted pumpernickel with cherry jam, petite Maine lobster rolls, and beef tenderloin carpaccio rolled onto bamboo toothpicks.
While you have plenty of flexibility for choosing summer appetizers, Booker and Livingston do have some foods you should avoid. "Prepared sandwiches or wraps, deep-fried items, and dishes with lots of mayonnaise tend to become soggy and greasy when served as a summer appetizer," says Booker. "I would also caution against serving anything that sweats, like cheese; although the flavor is not usually altered, it's not a very appetizing presentation." For Livingston, a successful appetizer is one you can prepare with ease. "I would caution against serving appetizers that require last minute searing or grilling," he says. "Avoid warm soups in the summer, and keep things on the lighter side with ingredients. Stick with serving things you are familiar with—this is not the time to try out that new Iron Chef technique—and consider what you are drinking to choose foods that will complement the wines or cocktails."
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