Sometimes you just need a little extra something for your guests to nibble on. And sometimes you don't have any extra time. That's when you grab for the bag, pry open the tin, and thank the heavens above that the expiration date on cream cheese seems never to come. That's when you're happy to have a stash of crackers on hand. We're also partial to tidbits that won't spoil, so you can keep them on hand for emergencies. You somehow burned the Pesto Pizza with Tomatoes? If you've got these other options, it's not such a catastrophe. Here are some of our trusted bail-out bites:
- Assorted olives: Buy them in jars, then mix and match. Or, some groceries and delicatessens have olive bars where you can just scoop out the varieties you want.
- Fancy nuts: Ever watched guests grab for the cashews? Smoked almonds and sugared or honey-roasted peanuts are equally popular. Trail mix works, too. Several companies offer nut mixes of only the gourmet stuff minus the ordinary peanuts. Pistachios in the shell? Yes! It's amazing, but people will stand around at parties and shell their own. Maybe they like the fact that it gives them something to do. Just be sure to provide small bowls for the shells.
- Vegetable chips: A bowl of plain potato chips is fine for a cook-out, but we'd hesitate to dish them up any other time. Vegetable chips are a different matter entirely. These crispy curls of sweet potato and other unexpected vegetables, such as taro, parsnip, and yuca, are colorful and offer intense flavor, plus they're downright fascinating. Poured in a glass bowl, they look like flower petals. "They're not chips, they're art," one guest commented.
- Japanese cracker mixes: A close cousin to vegetable chips, again these are colorful and novel, plus they come in a variety of flavors, such as hot and spicy.
- Smoked fish: Smoked Nova Scotia salmon is readily available in supermarket delis, though sometimes it's kept alongside the hot dogs. No time to make dip? Cut the slices into bite-size pieces (we're talking three quick whacks with the knife) and serve them with toothpicks or crackers. Tins of smoked oysters, mussels, or clams do have to be drained, but the sophisticated result is worthwhile. Again, spear them with toothpicks.
- Cream cheese: We've never served it plain, but there are zillions of things that come in bottles that you can simply pour on top of a block of cream cheese for an instant cracker spread. Combinations of sweet and spicy or sweet and sour flavors seem to be the key to success. Our favorites include Indian chutney; the Jamaican sauce sold under the brand name Pickapeppa (or substitute A.1. sauce); hot pepper jelly; and bottled cocktail sauce mixed with a can of shrimp (drained first) or use thawed frozen cocktail shrimp. Pour a saucy topper over the cream cheese and let it pool down the sides onto a plate. Present this masterpiece with assorted crackers and don't forget a small cocktail knife for serving. You can use light cream cheese as well.
- Marinated artichokes: Drain away the marinade, cut the artichokes in half lengthwise, and spear them with toothpicks.
- Pates: Tins of assorted pates can be found in the supermarket with the imported foods or specialty foods. The brand names tend to vary from grocery to grocery, so you may have to experiment to find your favorite. We've tried a vegetarian variety that's super. Just open the tin, and depending on the consistency, transfer the pate to a plate, crock, or small dish and serve with crackers and a knife for spreading or slicing.
- Cheese straws: Alone on a tray these delicate cheese crackers make an impressive statement. They're available in specialty stores and some supermarkets.