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Cocktail Party for 30+ -- ideas needed!

  • m

Next weekend I'll be hosting a cocktail party with lots of food promised (the party starts at 7) for over 30 guests, most of them in their late 20s and more used to parties with chips & dip and maybe-- MAYBE-- store bought mini quiches. I'd like to do something classier, show off my cooking skills, try some new ideas...

BUT 1) don't want to alienate my guests too much and 2) want to stay within a reasonable budget. A VERY reasonable budget-- say $150 (on food).

Here are some of my ideas so far

--spiced nuts -- several varieties of nuts with different spices, some sweet, some hot, some savory

--cured meat tray--neighborhood butcher makes his own salumi ... delicious


--fruit skewers

--homemade cheese sticks

--white bean-sundried tomato dip w/pita chips

--prosciutto wrapped melon

--endive spoons with goat cheese


--cucumbers with thai peanut noodles

(I'll be making several cakes for dessert)

PLEASE help with any other ideas -- I need all the help I can get!

Of course, I could always just run down to Little Caesars and get 20 $5 pizzas ;)


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  1. Fun! Good luck!

    I'll take this opportunity to shamelessly show off my own photo, from a party for 15. We had a very similar idea in mind--finger foods for the mid-twenties crowd. I made all the bread a few days before, then did things like turn them into toast points, and herbed disks the day of. I cut/sliced/diced everything the night before, so I mostly had assembly the day of the party. Early-comers were happy to do things like wrap prosciutto around melon squares (although I'm sure some got eaten in the process). The presentation might leave a lot to be desired, but I was too busy manning (womanning?) the kitchen to be bothered with details, as long as everything tasted good. If your friends are anything like mine, they'll just want to inhale food (especially food that's not BBQ or pizza, for a change).

    Our menu:

    7 kinds of bread, including sticks, crackers, etc.
    7 kinds of cheese, plus pate and artichoke dip
    1 brie wheel baked in puff pastry
    endive cups with dill cream cheese and salmon
    5 crabs steamed in lemon/white wine, then cooled, cracked, and broken into sections before the party.
    berries, pears, and muscat grapes
    a HUGE meatloaf wrapped in puff pastry (my co-host's specialty)

    The photo shows only about 1/2 the food. On the other side of the room I set up my family sized Foreman grill next to trays of marinated asparagus (oil, salt, pepper) and marinated drumsticks (rosemary, onions, pepper, salt, lemon). The idea was that people would show up at different times, so the hot food could be prepared to order. It actually worked out really well, and no one had to eat cold chicken.

    13 bottles of different wines

    The big hits of the night were the meatloaf, chicken, seed crackers from Deborah Madison's book, toasted baguette disks, and the muscat grapes. People were also pleasantly surprised by how well goat cheese goes with glazed walnuts. That was probably the dark horse contender.

    My advice would be to get as much done ahead as possible. My boyfriend kept telling me I was being silly and neurotic when I started baking two days before and slicing furiously the night before. The day of the party, I was able to relax and do everything slowly. I could have rushe the day of, but I would have been pooped by dinner time.

    Image: http://www.jimmyshang.com/peggy/blahg...

    1. These are great ideas. I don't have anything brilliant to add, but there was a thread a while ago that included a description of something that sounded really good--dates stuffed with a Marcona almond and goat cheese, wrapped in bacon and broiled (I can't remember who posted it--maybe Carb Lover?!). I am keen to try this myself but have not yet done so.

      Also, my husband and I have a big christmas party every year (drinks, hors d'oeuvres and desserts). I slave over this event, from the invitations to the decorations and especially the sweets. My husband's only contribution is a triple recipe of "spicy meatballs" from an old Gourmet.

      Last year, I knocked myself out showing off the skills I had recently acquired at the "Pastry Boot Camp" at the Culinary Institute of America. The spread was, if I say so myself, phenomenal, including (among much else) gougeres (these would also be good for your party if it is not likely to be humid), bite-sized linzer cookies and the piece de resistance, a towering croquembouche. And yet, while guests were generally complimentary (especially of the very-cream-filled croquembouche, which WAS eaten), the spicy meatballs, as usual, garnered a disproportionate level of raves.

      If you'd like the recipe, I will dig it out and paraphrase!

      2 Replies
      1. re: LindaMc

        I'd love the spicy meatball recipe for a cocktail party I'm having in August. Would you mind posting? Thanks.

        1. re: Samantha

          This will make about 3 dozen meatballs.


          3/4 cup ketchup
          1/2 cup water
          1/4 cup cider vinegar
          2 T brown sugar (firmly packed)
          2 T minced onion
          2 T Worcestshire sauce
          1 t dry mustard (although I like to use a little bit more)
          Hot pepper sauce (eg Tabasco) and cayenne to taste (be bold!)


          3/4 lb ground beef
          3/4 c fine, dry bread crumbs
          3/4 t salt
          3/4 t pepper
          2 T minced onion
          1 1/2 t horseradish (drained)
          2 large eggs, lightly beaten

          2 T butter for browning

          To make the sauce, whisk everything together.

          To make the meatballs, gently mix (best to do this with your hands) everything else (except the butter!). Form mixture into meatballs, using about 1 (level) T of mix per meatball. Brown meatballs well in a large, heavy skillet in two batches, using 1 T butter for each batch (with the mass production, my husband does this in a Dutch oven). Remove meatballs, as they are browned, with a slotted spoon and drain them on paper towels. Add the sauce to the skillet/Dutch oven and simmer it, stirring, for a minute or 2. Add back the meatballs and simmer until they are heated through.


      2. For easy and inexpensive you can get a big tin of vegetarian stuffed grape leaves, drain, platter and squeeze lemon over and some chopped dill.

        Something to make ahead - stuffed Phyllo triangles - I recently made some filled with a mixture of black beans, green onion, chipotle, and cumin, add a slice of/shredded cheese of your choice and freeze until you are ready to bake them.

        1. You can make these (link below) a day ahead and reheat them in the oven for 15 minutes. They are utterly delish!

          You can also cut up a nice crusty baguette in slices, place thin slices of brie on top, bake in the oven until brie melts and add a little bit of really good quality sour cherry preserve on top. Lingonberry preserve or good quality cranberry relish (home made, not the canned stuff) on top. People really do like a few warm things to nibble on. Have fun!

          Link: http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/rec...

          1. Last night I broiled sliced polenta rounds with a little shaved pecorino. Then, plopped a little store bought sundried tomato pesto on top. You could make the polenta and pesto ahead of time, or buy them already prepared.
            Very easy, and they still taste good at room temp.
            And, with the polenta, you can add ANYTHING on top, salsa and creme fraiche, veggies, etc.

            1. For a dramatic flair you could serve Saganaki.

              1 lb. soft Kasseri or Kofalotiri cheese
              3 tbsp. butter
              1/2 lemon (juice)
              2 tbsp. brandy

              Cut cheese into slices 1/4 inch thick. Place on broiler pan and brush with melted butter. Broil on high 4 to 6 inches from heat until cheese bubbles. Remove from heat. Pour brandy over cheese and ignite immediately.
              Sprinkle with lemon juice and serve with warm pitas.

              1. I recently had a cocktail party for about 25 guests - it was a big success. I served gougeres, a huge wheel of brie baked in puff pastry (store-bought) and served with red pepper jelly, nuts and olives, filo triangles stuffed with mushroom duxelle, coconut shrimp (both prepared ahead, frozen and baked from frozen at the party), tiny pizzas with spinach and goat cheese and also with sundried tomato and smoked mozzarella, chicken satays with peanut sauce. The filo, shrimp, pizzas and chicken were passed around by a server which I hired. It wasn't a huge expense and really made the party easy and special. She baked all the food which I had prepared ahead and passed it around to everyone as they had drinks and nibbled on cheese, nuts and gougeres. Since it was a birthday party, there was a purchased cake.

                1 Reply
                1. re: munster

                  I have made brie en croute using pillsbury crescent rolls. No one knew the difference, and by putting it together myself I have been able to fill it however I want and also save money.

                  I've done this with berries atop, but my favorite filling was pear jelly and slivers of almonds. SO good. Brie en croute is definitely one of my cocktail party must-haves.

                2. This mango salsa is delicious and always a big hit.

                  Link: http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/rec...

                  1. This receipe for shrimp cocktail Vincente is great, make it the day ahead and just wait to before the party to add the avocado. Its in the style of a Mexican Campechana, serve with tortilla chips to dip. Make sure to use small shrimp or cut in half.

                    Link: http://www.foodnetwork.com/food/cda/r...

                    1. c
                      Caitlin Wheeler

                      One thing that'a reasonably easy for a crowd but still very good is homemade focaccia. You can usually buy pizza dough unbaked at the grocery store (I know Trader Joe's has it). Then you stretch out into a long thin flat piece and top with olive oil and some toppings -- sundried tomatoes and pesto, tapenade, crumbled goat cheese and caramelized onions is usually a big hit, or anything else you can think of. Bake, cut into triangles, and serve.

                      1. Just came home tonight from catering a party for 30 in Tokyo. Some popular items were:

                        pizza (made from foccacia topped with a melange of sauteed mushrooms, gruyere cheese, olive oil and Maldon salt)

                        artichoke dip (cream cheese based)

                        Jamon Serrano & figs

                        crostini topped with fresh mozzarella and tomato

                        crostini topped with slice of hard boiled egg, tuna marinated with vinegar, oil and shallots, topped with capers (mini Nicoise salad on crostini)

                        popular dessert was chocolate chip cookie bars and carrot cake with cream cheese frosting

                        good luck! and make sure you have plenty of wine on hand.

                        1. Here are 3 hors d'oeuvres ideas that have turned out well for me in the past.
                          Spinach artichoke dip is all the rage, and this one is tasty and not too unhealthy:

                          1 part artichoke hearts to 2 parts spinach leaves to 2 parts part-skim ricotta

                          Mix in a blender, seasoning with freshly grated lemon zest, salt, pepper, cayenne and fresh thyme.

                          Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Drain the artichoke hearts and spinach in a colander, pressing with the back of a large spoon to remove excess liquid. Set aside to drain.

                          Put the ricotta, zest, thyme, 3/4 teaspoon salt, garlic and cayenne in the processor and pulse until smooth. Add the artichokes, spinach, pulse until evenly mixed but chunky. Spray a 4-cup gratin dish with vegetable cooking spray. Transfer the artichoke-spinach mixture to the dish.

                          Bake the dip until browned and warmed through, about 45 minutes. Serve warm with chips.
                          My next idea is salmon mousse. My mother serves hers unmolded and surrounded by crackers. I serve mine a tad fancier -- I use a melon baller to put this salmon mousse on melba toasts, and then top each one with a tiny bit of caviar (or cheaper fish eggs) or dill. The recipe I use is below -- it is easy to get right.

                          Dissolve 1 package of knox gelatin in ½ cup of boiling water, add a squeeze of fresh lemon and blend for 30 seconds.
                          Add ½ cup mayonnaise, some fresh dill, a bit of salt and pepper, and 2 cans of salmon (cleaned up and drained of course), and blend for another 30 seconds.
                          Add up to a cup of cream slowly, blending until smooth.

                          Pour into a a nice mold if you're unmolding, and just any old bowl if you're spooning it out, and chill overnight.
                          The dredge described below is wonderfully sweet, spicy and exotic, and tastes great on chicken, shrimp or beef (though my favorite is shrimp). I think that I may have posted this recipe in response to another question a while back, but my cocktail party version of this is quite distinct:

                          When I've done this recipe for a cocktail party, I take wooden skewers and soak them, skewer up one piece of meat (or one shrimp) per stick, dredge the meat, and bake until done -- then I serve them on a big round platter with the meat in the middle, and all the sticks sticking out, like a porcupine. (If anyone who reads this can tell me how to post pictures here, I would be happy to provide a picture of what I mean). Then I garnish with twists of lime all over the platter. It's really tasty and funky and everyone will want to know what the heck you put in it.

                          The Dredge:

                          Just mix the following in a bowl:

                          1 cup sugar
                          2 ½ tsp kosher salt
                          ½ tsp freshly ground pepper
                          1 large clove garlic, minced
                          1½ inch slice of ginger, minced
                          ½ tsp each cayenne (or red pepper flakes) & allspice
                          2 TB flour
                          veggie oil

                          Then, after dredging and cooking, squirt lime juice all over them -- it makes a HUGE difference.

                          Good luck with your party!

                          1. Sounds like an interesting and ambitious menu. I have four suggestions in order of complexity. All of them have always been very well received at parties of all types. Don't be fooled by the simplicity, they are yummy and easy to make in bulk.

                            1: Since you are making white bean and sun-dried tomato dip already it would be nearly trivial to also make white bean and roasted garlic dip. Put a couple heads of garlic onto foil, pour olive oil over, roast (400) for about 45 minutes. Squeeze out the goodness and puree with your white beans. Add olive oil and salt to taste. It really can take a lot of both. Very easy and looks great to have both dips, one pink/red one beige, there - sort of subtley brings to mind the effort you are making. In fact white beans with olive oil, lemon, and basil would be nice as well (and lemon and basil can be used in ideas to follow). Three dips - red, white and green. Any Italian friends will love you (just be sure to arrange them like the flag). Just use your instincts, but don't be shy with the olive oil and (good) salt. White beans and olive oil are made for each other. Play with the presentation and this stuff will be gone before the sun goes down.

                            2: Chicken dips. This is a variation on a recipe from Jean-Georges' Cooking at home w/4 star chef cookbook (pg 94). Basically cook some chicken breasts (works best with white meat) any way you want. Don't worry about browning them, you could poach, roast, saute, whatever is easiest for you and your schedule. The thing is the dip. Cut the chicken into bite size chunks and make sure they stay moist - you could serve them in a pan with a bare (1mm) coating of chicken stock on the bottom or whatever else you can think of. For the dip take one third each: coarse salt (kosher, sea, anything coarse), finely chopped rosemary, finely chopped hazelnuts. You could put 1/2 cup nuts and rosemary into a coffee grinder and mix in the salt. Very, very easy. Just serve the dip next to the chicken. You take a piece of chicken (toothpicks?) and dip it into the salt/herb/hazelnut mix. I promise you people will go bonkers. So easy so unexpected, so yummy.

                            3: Broccoli and cauliflower dips. This is essentially from Jean-Georges 4-star at home book pg 129. Extremely easy, extremely tasty. Steam or boil a head or two each of broc and cauliflower. Cut into conveniently sized finger-grabable pieces. Serve in a big ol' bowl. Next to the bowl have two additional serving pieces (I am partial to martini glasses for this). In one have plain yogurt (can even be non-fat). In the other have browned bread crumbs, and ground cardomon (and salt to taste). Make sure the cardomon is fresh and you grind/chop it really finely. I would suggest a tablespoon of cardomon per half cup of bread crumbs. This is another fantastic recipe that is easy. Again, do not be fooled by how easy it sounds. It is a veggie (menu seems light on veggies) that is easy to eat by hand and, once again, an unexpected elegant flavor.

                            4: If you really want to put in some effort (more than an hour) then I suggest this little gem. Salmon torte. This is from East of Paris by David Bouley (roughly). What you need: eggs, smoked salmon (buy good quality, thinly sliced), sour cream OR cream cheese, lemons (meyer would be good), chives or green onion. You may want horseradish. Essentially you are making four thin omellettes about 5 inches in diameter. Beat 5-6 eggs with salt. Melt butter in a saute pan with a 5-6 inch diameter flat surface (if you dont have one that small use more eggs and make bigger ones!). Pour a scant 1/3 cup egg mixture into pan after bubbles subside. The object is to make a thin crepe like omellette. Let it cook until the top is just moist, flip (here's where you show your talent :) ). Remove a minute later. Set aside, wax paper on top. Make at least 4, but 8 works too (probably need 8-10 eggs then). Once you have thin 'egg-crepes' you can assemble the dish. Mix cream cheese or sour scram with lemon zest and lemon juice (and horseradish if you want). I am not listing amounts because you should make this your own. Whatever you feel is right is right. Trim the crepes to a round shape (find a bowl the right size and trim with a paring knife). Place a crepe on a large (at least a foot long) piece of saranwrap. Spread cream cheese/sour cream mixture over it. Add a layer of smoked salmon. Don't go too thick with either. Sprinkle chives/green onion if you want. Add another crepe. Add more sour cream/cheese. More salmon. More chives/onion. Repeat. You should have 4 layers egg, three layers salmon, cream goodness, chives/onion. Wrap tightly in the saran wrap and put in freezer for at least 2 hours. Do NOT put too much stuff between the crepes. Remove 20-30 minutes before serving. Take a big 'ol pil eof chive or green onion - finely, finely chopped - and pat around the sides of the stack. Then cut into at least 8 and up to 12 pie slices. You could decorate with the cream cheese/sour cream mixture to express yourself (i.e. dots on top, streaks, whatever). This takes a while, but you can absolutely make this several days in advance and leave in the freezer until ready to serve. Very impressive, most people will think they couldn't make it, and very tasty (the only really important thing). One pound of salmon can make two of these.

                            These are my four stand-by stand-outs. I encourage you to make them your own. I have made them several times for several groups of people and honed them to my own taste. The one thing they all have in common is a bedrock in the familiar but delivered in an elegant and/or unexpected fashion. I first used them in a group very similar to the one you imply - under thirty, maybe not foodies, but on the road to sophistication - and they have killed. They all contain flavors everybody knows (garlic, rosemary, broc/caul) in unusual ways, and one with a semi-luxury ingredient (smoked salmon) in a very elegant way.

                            As a fifth option, you could add a dollop of goat cheese between the prosciutto and melon (for some of them anyway). Also, not to be critical - your menu looks yummy - the thai peanut noodles seems out of place. They are certainly yummy, but you have a strong Mediterranean feel goin' on, and thai noodles, well, aren't that. For your endive and goat cheese spoons you could add some freshly chopped basil on top for some color (and flavor) and/or, if you are feelin' up to it, some chopped bacon. Goat cheese with basil and/or bacon with endive. Yummy. Dang yummy. In fact to play on that riff (like the three dips for th pita chips) you could insert blue cheese into this. Blue cheese and bacon on endive - everybody will love it. Promise. And the whole idea of variations on a theme really emphasizes your creatvitity.

                            Anyway, good luck! Please report back. If you want any clarifications or whatever you can email me. I have been a little vague because these ideas are so simple that your own talent should fill in the blanks and make them your own.

                            Have a good time! Don't be shy about emailing if you are interested in more detail.

                            1. My mother feeds between thirty and fifty people every Christmas. Whilst the focus is broiled asian salmon, two massive braaied (barbequed) turkeys and a cold filet, a lot of time is spent noshing whilst the turkeys cook, and everyone arrives. The most popular things are:
                              mini fish cakes with a hummus-like dip
                              butternut samosas (little pastry triangles filled with spiced butternut)with a sweet chili dipping sauce
                              and above all, the mini-chicken sausages she makes for the kids

                              People like carbs, so perhaps consider getting a range of dipping sauces, and lots of things to dip in them. Local 'ethnic' family restaurants (Indian, Greek, Italian) probably could make you up a tray of stuff like this to order, and shouldn't be too expensive. An Indian restaurant probably has different chutneys and a range of herbed naan breads, aGreek place could do dolmades and various meat-stuffed goodies. Falafels, fish cakes, little pasties (heck, you could do your own crostini easily enough). Especially if you're only feeding them cocktail snacks, these would fill up your guests nicely.

                              1. Great menu. I'd add for the fruit skewers to make a dark chocolate and white chocolate sauce to dip them in. Over a double boiler just melt the respective chips and then slowly add milk and whisk until "saucy." Make it runnier than you want it because it will firm up. Remember that while expensive, puff pastry is your friend. One recipe I do is to roll it out a bit and then cut it into 2 inch squares, and then put them into greased mini-muffin tins where they will be these lovely little nests to fill with and bake. I usually fill them with a mushroom ragu but you can fill them with goat cheese, spinach gratin. Another great cocktail party dish is crostini. You can put a good pepperonata on slices of bread or do roasted peppers with goat cheese or mozarella.