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There is no shame in serving frozen hors d'oeuvres (thank goodness)

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Originally published on November 28, 2011.

There was a time, way back in the 1990s, when if you were having a holiday party and wanted to serve fancy hors d'oeuvres, you spent days in the kitchen – or called a caterer.

Today, all you have to do is head to the frozen-food aisle of your local grocery store.

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Frozen appetizers have been eating up a bigger and bigger section of freezer shelves, as retailers do their best to entice time-starved people who still want to entertain in a grand fashion.

Loblaws, for example, now offers 37 different frozen appetizers in its President's Choice brand, ranging from bacon-wrapped scallops and mini salmon and beef wellingtons to more versions containing shrimp than you can shake a cocktail spear at. The label introduced its still-popular cheese-based pastries in the '90s.

And appetizers are "absolutely" a growth area for Sobeys, says Yvonne Graham, director of integrated marketing communications for the grocery retailer, as people move from inviting guests over for a "key meal" to more casual entertaining where they can serve bite-size food to more people.

But is it bad form to serve your guests appetizers out of a box? Can that really be considered "entertaining"?

Don't sweat it, say the food professionals – although they have some suggestions to keep it personal.

"If you are going to get stressed out, go and buy stuff," says Julia Aitken, author of the cookbook 125 Best Entertaining Recipes.

"There's a tendency for people who aren't that confident about entertaining to think they have to produce six or eight amazing nibblies. I don't think people want that. They're coming to see you and the rest of the guests. Keep it simple and keep it minimalist."

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Food consultant Trish Magwood remembers the craziness of the hors d'oeuvres season – that six weeks preceding Christmas – from her years running Dish, a Toronto catering company she sold in 2009.

Now she is a working parent and fancy finger foods are not a big part of her life. She didn't even include an appetizer section in In My Mother's Kitchen, her recent cookbook.

But, she acknowledges, "we still need hors d'oeuvres to entertain bigger groups of people." For that, "I'm all for a combo approach."

Both Ms. Magwood and Ms. Aitken believe the secret is to choose your purchases carefully.

Ms. Magwood focuses on making simple appetizers – such as beef or chicken satays, which only require a quick marinade and a dipping sauce – and leaving the more complex ones to the professionals.

"I'm not going to make my own sausage rolls. You can buy good ones. I will also buy meatballs. I'm not going to make spring rolls. I am likely going to order them from a Thai restaurant."

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Overall, her advice for entertaining: "Be easy on yourself."

For hors d'oeuvres before a dinner party, Ms. Aitken keeps things even more simple. She recommends taking a tip from the French, who do not serve a huge number of appetizers. "They will do one thing before you sit down [to the meal]and it might be a bowl of nuts. Do one good thing. Buy a really good pate or a really nice smoked salmon."

Or take advantage of bought ingredients to take cooking shortcuts, Ms. Aitken says. She suggests spreading a circle of frozen puff pastry with goat cheese and roasted red peppers, rolling it up, slicing it into rounds and baking them in a 400 F oven for about 10 minutes.

"The most successful parties I remember are because of the people and the conversation," Ms. Aitken says. "And I'm in the food biz."

Even seasoned chefs appreciate well-made bought appetizers because they can't always do it all, says Cristina Azevedo, product developer for boxed meat and seafood for President's Choice.

"I cook all the time and my focus is on the main meal, or maybe dessert," Ms. Azevedo says.

Ms. Azevedo's efforts for this holiday season include her latest creation – a shrimp mini hors d'oeuvres collection she describes as "four beautiful little parcels of shrimp."

At Sobeys, the top apps in the lineup show influences of Asian cuisines, such as Thai-inspired little dumpling "purses" of shrimp and vegetables.

The Canadian Press

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