When I was in my twenties, I attended a talk at a local Brooklyn church…
The title of the evening was something like “Entertaining with Amanda Hesser!” Amanda Hesser, who we know now as the co-founder of Food52, was a new hire for the New York Times Dining section — as an aspiring food writer myself, I was an instant fan — and she was there to give dinner party advice in advance of the holidays. I don’t remember what she said about festive main courses or impressive desserts, but I’ll always remember what she said about starters. The ideal way to get a night going is not necessarily with cheese and crackers. It’s something salty and light, she said. You want something to wake up your taste buds, something that teases your appetite, as opposed to smothering it.
I have never forgotten this tip, even on those nights when I do the exact opposite and serve a huge cheese platter with creamy dips and jam pairings and marbled charcuterie (those spreads are so pretty!) and then later wonder why my guests didn’t ask for seconds of the lasagna dripping with mozzarella. I mean, it’s really a good point: Why spend so much energy on a starter that will just steal crucial stomach real estate from the main event, a main event you’ve likely spent a lot of time and money on?
So, on my smarter nights, like last week when I was serving a decadent pasta, I decant three store-bought snacks into pretty bowls and call it a day. I’ve expanded Amanda’s strategy to include spicy and tangy in addition to salty, because I find those kinds of snacks to be equally capable of waking up taste buds. Here’s what makes the cut:
Cape Cod Sea Salt Kettle-Cooked Potato Chips
Wonderful Chili Roasted Pistachios
Trader Joe’s Cornichons
In addition to being a gastronomically strategic move, the store-bought salty starter is also just so much easier! I’m vowing to keep this in mind as we enter fall and winter, the seasons of dinner parties large and small.
What are your ideal tangy-spicy-salty starters? Please share!
P.S. A $60 dinner party and a menu that works for almost everyone.