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Food & Wine Guests won’t forget your holiday party with these bar-inspired snacks

Food and drinks – particularly those of the sharable sort – are social conduits and natural connectors. As the dining-out experience moves further toward small plates, bar snacks have become an opportunity for chefs to play with their food, and a more accessible way for people to try something different paired with their increasingly sophisticated local brews and craft cocktails.

“Drinking at the bar is more social than it’s ever been,” says Shon Jones-Parry, the general manager of Botanist in Vancouver’s Fairmont Pacific Rim hotel. “We try to design items to be easily sharable – quick and more simple than what they would get in a restaurant.” At Botanist, guests receive a little something to nibble at the bar, like popcorn garnished with the Japanese spice mix togarashi, big green Cerignola olives or roasted hazelnuts. “It’s more of a social experience when a dish is set down in the middle, and everyone’s diving in and scraping off the plate together,” says Jones-Parry. “It’s what keeps people staying for that second cocktail.”

Even at restaurants, bar snacks have become a precursor to appetizers, catering to those who want to graze as they restaurant hop or stop for a drink after work. There isn’t as much pressure compared with a pricier, more substantial main course, which helps guests be more adventurous when it comes to snacks. “People have very specific expectations of what they’re looking for in a meal,” says Jones-Parry. “In the bar, you have more flexibility. The chefs can have some fun and show off a little bit.”

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At Proof, a craft cocktail bar in Calgary, bar snacks make up the bulk of the menu. The small plates, from old-school shrimp cocktails to dumplings to pork belly steam buns, ranging in price from $5 to $7, are designed to pair well with mixed drinks, and help facilitate conviviality. “Shareable snacks encourage people to linger longer,” says co-owner Jeff Jamieson, who says they recently cut larger plates from the menu entirely when they found patrons mostly gravitate toward the bar snacks. “Much like sharing wine and drinks, having people sit down and share food drives the social aspect. It keeps them more engaged.”

Of course, bar snacks are equally enticing at home, and they make a timely addition to your culinary repertoire come holiday entertaining season. Crunchy, salty nibbles have more longevity over the course of an evening, although an added element of sweetness does well when accompanied by a hit of spice.

Simple bites warmed, toasted or otherwise enhanced in your own kitchen are a step up from a bag of Doritos, with a similar impact. They’ll keep your friends fuelled without the pressure to replenish finicky hors d’oeuvres or plan an elaborate charcuterie spread. When you’ve picked up some nice bottles or planned a killer cocktail, a few strategic bar snacks like the bites listed below will get the party started – and keep it going.

CAST-IRON OLIVES

Most snacks are improved upon just by warming them up; give store-bought olives a little lift with a few aromatics – citrus peel and some fennel seeds, perhaps – that turn them into something restaurant-worthy. Alternatively, try the same method with whole Medjool dates, warmed with olive oil, a sprig of rosemary and a clove of garlic.

Cast-iron olives.

Natasha V

1 to 2 cups assorted olives

1 to 2 sprigs fresh rosemary or thyme

Strips of orange or lemon zest

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Pinch of whole coriander or fennel seeds

Extra virgin olive oil

1 shot gin (optional)

Freshly ground black pepper

Set a small cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat and warm the olives along with the rosemary, a few strips of zest, coriander or fennel, a drizzle of olive oil, splash of gin and black pepper until the olives are heated through. If you like, turn the heat to high until the skins blister, but don’t let them cook too long – they could get soft. Serve straight from the skillet.

Serves 6.

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CHARRED SHISHITO PEPPERS

Sweet shishito peppers only need to be grilled, roasted or sautéed to transform them into the perfect bar snack. Serve these blistered beauties in a shallow dish and invite guests to eat them whole, discarding the stem in a small bowl. If you have any flaky flavoured salts in your cupboard, this is a good opportunity to use them, or add a pinch of gochugaru (ground red chilies) for an extra kick.

Charred Shishito peppers.

Natasha V

Olive oil, sesame oil or butter

1 pound fresh Shishito peppers

Flaky salt

Preheat your oven to 450 F, warm up your grill, or set a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. If you’re roasting or grilling, toss the whole peppers in a drizzle of oil or melted butter to coat them well. If you’re sautéing, add a generous drizzle of oil, butter or both to the skillet.

Roast the peppers on a baking sheet, cook them directly on the grill or shake them around in the skillet for about 10 minutes, until they soften and start to blister and char. Remove from the heat and serve in a shallow bowl sprinkled with salt.

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Serves 6.

BEET PICKLED EGGS

Brilliant pink pickled eggs look far more intriguing in a jar on the bar or kitchen counter than the greenish old-school kind. They’re easier to eat sliced into halves or wedges – sprinkle with pepper or chopped chives to elevate the experience.

Beet pickled eggs.

Natasha V

6 eggs

1 cup white or apple cider vinegar

½ cup water

3 tablespoons sugar

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1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 medium beet, coarsely grated

1 tablespoon pickling spice

¼ purple onion, thinly sliced

In a medium saucepan, run enough water over the eggs to cover them by at least an inch. Bring to a boil, remove from the heat, cover and let sit for 12 minutes. Run the eggs under cool water in the sink to stop them from cooking.

Meanwhile, bring the vinegar, water, sugar and salt to a simmer on the stovetop, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Remove from the heat and stir in the beet and pickling spice. Peel the eggs (starting at the large end can help them peel more cleanly) and place them in a large jar along with the onion. Pour the brine overtop. Let the eggs sit for at least 3 hours, or refrigerate overnight. Pickled eggs will keep in the fridge for up to a month.

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Serves 6.

SWEET AND SPICY ROSEMARY NUTS

Spiced nuts are a staple of the holiday season, though this version is less traditionally festive in its flavouring. Feel free to use pecans, cashews, almonds, walnuts or a mix of them all.

Sweet and spicy rosemary nuts.

Natasha V

2 cups nuts (cashews, pecans and/or almonds), raw and unsalted

1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, finely chopped

1 tablespoon butter, melted or olive oil

1 tablespoon packed brown sugar

1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar

¼ teaspoon ground cumin

½ teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper

A few drops of Sriracha or Tabasco sauce

Preheat the oven to 325 F.

In a medium bowl, toss the nuts with the remaining ingredients until they are evenly coated. Spread them out on a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake for 10 to 15 minutes, or until pale golden and fragrant.

Serves 6.

Photography by Natasha V. Food styling by Ashley Denton.

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