My philosophy on starters (if you can call it that) is that they should set the tone for what follows but not upstage everything else. If you are having a sit-down dinner with lots of courses, it’s probably best to keep the hors d’oeuvre offerings down to a dull roar, unless you are going to have drinks for more than an hour before sitting down at the table. I suggest some fabulous olives, perhaps something a little different such as Arbequina, Niçoise, or Picholino olives to add some extra interest. Match these with a bowl of warm toasted almonds sprinkled with fleur de sel, and then maybe add one dip like the caramelized onion and blue cheese dip and some raincoast crisps® and flatbread.
If you are going to enjoy cocktails for longer than an hour, add one or two individual hors d’oeuvres to keep those with hearty appetites happy. If you are doing a full-on cocktail party, you want to allow 8 – 12 different items, with a mix of hot and cold hors d’oeuvres. And remember, it works best if you start with the cold hors d’ oeuvres first and then move to the hot ones; guests rarely go back to cold once the hot ones appear unless it is a scorching summer day.
When it comes to starters that are first courses—these and desserts are often my favourite parts of the meal because you can be more adventurous—I have always loved drama, texture and the combination of hot and cold. Two recipes that stand out for me are the olive and fig tapenade, and the baked camembert; both are delicious paired with salad greens for the first course of a dinner and give you the contrast of sweet, salty, hot and fresh, crispy, cold.
Remember to balance your party workload so you aren’t in the kitchen all night. Keep it simple with make ahead items, dips and platters. Your guests are there to see you and you them, so you’ve got to emerge from the kitchen at some point and say hello!