I absolutely love finger food, or as it's more formerly know, hors d'oeuvres or apetisers. If all meals could be a selection of tiny morsels, I'd be in seventh heaven. For the same reason I love degustation menus.

A Bit of History
Hors d'oevres have been around for a long time, the terms hors d'oeuvres and appetisers are often used interchangeably, but there is a difference: hors d'oeuvres are the small savoury bites, typically finger food, served before a meal, while appetizers appear as the first course served at the table. The name hors d'oeuvres comes from the French and is literally translated as “”out of the work,”” but it's more logical to think of it as meaning “”apart from (or before) the meal.””

Although we use the French term, many other cuisines also have a long tradition of similar savoury mouthfuls served before a meal. Italians have antipasto, Russians zakuski, and in Spain and Portugal, tapas bars are favourite gathering places where friends meet to snack on salty tidbits while enjoying a glass of sherry. In addition, in Greece and certain Middle Eastern countries the meze, or mezze, table is an essential part of many gatherings.

If there is an extended period between when guests arrive and when the meal is served (for example, during a cocktail hour), these might also serve the purpose of sustaining guests during the wait. Hors d'oeuvre are sometimes served with no meal served afterward. This is the case with many reception and cocktail party events.

Hors d'oeuvre may be served at the table as a part of the sit-down meal or they may be served before sitting at the table. Hors d'oeuvre prior to a meal are either stationary or passed. Stationary hors d'oeuvre are also referred to as “”table hors d'oeuvre.”” Passed hors d'oeuvre are also referred to as “”butler-style,”” “”butlered”” or “”butler-passed”” hors d'oeuvre.

Though any food served prior to the main course is technically an hors d'oeuvre, the phrase is generally limited to individual items, not crudites, cheese or fruit. For example, a glazed fig topped with mascarpone and wrapped with prosciutto is considered an “”hors d'oeuvre,”” whereas figs on a platter are not.

In catering, both frozen and fresh hors d'oeuvre are served. Generally the fresh, handmade items are more flavourful, beautiful and expensive.

A more substantial starter or first course served at the table might be referred to as an entree.

Planning Hors d'Oeuvres

We love hors d'oeuvres, bite-sized, or perhaps two-bite-sized-morsels that come our way early in the evening to stimulate the appetite. Of course, sometimes a selection of these tasty tidbits makes a more-than-satisfying meal. And serving a variety of hors d'oeuvres can be an enjoyable, relaxing way to entertain.

Hors d'Oeuvres Basics

Hors d'oeuvres are as simple as a bowl of succulent green olives or as elegant as buckwheat blini topped with creme fraîche and caviar. If you are serving them before a meal, you may want to offer only one or at most two different types, a bowl of spiced nuts might be all you need. Or, for a formal dinner, you may choose to prepare a more elaborate hors d'oeuvre, such as smoked salmon on blinis. At a cocktail party, of course, you will want to offer your guests a variety of choices.

A Little Bit on Balance

When serving several hors d'oeuvres, keep in mind that you want a balance of flavours, textures and colours, because part of the charm of hors d'oeuvres is their visual appeal. Temperature is also a consideration; you could serve an entire selection of room-temperature hors d'oeuvres, often the easiest option, or choose a balance of both hot and cold.

Even at the largest party, though, plan on no more than two hot hors d'oeuvres at most, or you will find yourself spending all your time in the kitchen. Some hot hors d'oeuvres, such as tiny herb-and-cheese biscuits, are prepared early in the day and reheated; others, spinach-and-feta stuffed triangles for example, might be assembled well in advance and frozen, then popped into a hot oven at the last minute.

Preparation Hints

Choosing hors d'oeuvres that are prepared entirely in advance is one way to keep entertaining simple and fun, but often much of the work for any recipe can be done well ahead of time. Even easier is to prepare some “”almost instant”” hors d'oeuvres: pecans tossed in hot oil with paprika and cumin, logs of goat cheese rolled in finely chopped herbs for a sophisticated look and taste, or store-bought pesto stirred into mayonnaise or sour cream for a wonderfully simple dip.

Take advantage, too, of the wide range of high-quality convenience and prepared foods available. Excellent prepared tapenade (the Mediterranean olive and caper paste) and caponata (a chunky Sicilian eggplant puree) are available in many places. There are many other intriguing condiments that add flair to hors d'oeuvres: a sweet-spicy bottled Thai dipping sauce, for example, gives a whole new dimension to grilled chicken skewers. And instead of serving only crackers, offer herbed Italian focaccia or another unusual flatbread.

Presentation Essentials

Presentation is an important part of serving hors d'oeuvres; they should look as tempting as they taste. Use colourful serving platters in a variety of shapes and sizes, or line a flat cane tray with rocket leaves, especially attractive with stuffed cherry tomatoes. Tuck a few sprigs of fresh herbs onto a cheese plate, or surround a wheel of Brie with clusters of tiny champagne grapes. A hollowed-out red cabbage makes a colourful container for a dip, and crackers can be tumbled into small baskets lined with colourful napkins. The choices are almost endless.

While you might be tempted to set out all the hors d'oeuvres in a single spot when serving a crowd, it makes better sense to arrange the bowls and platters throughout the room. Otherwise, you'll find all your guests crowded around the buffet table. And, finally, be sure to have enough napkins (paper or cloth is up to you; both come in a stunning array of patterns and colours) on hand for your guests, after all, it is “”finger food”” you're serving.”