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12/24/2013 11:43 pm ET Updated Feb 24, 2014

7 Indispensable Tips for the Ultimate New Year's Eve Cocktail Party

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Holiday time and the sipping is easy. As for the food—I have four words to help you take your New Year's Eve bash over the top: fire up the grill. Yeah, it's cold out there—especially if you live up north, but live fire and wood smoke add high drama and depth of flavor you just can't achieve on the stove or in the oven.

So what makes a great holiday hors d'oeuvre spread? Three words: snap, crackle, and salt. Appetizers should be small enough to snap up with your fingers and salty enough to drive you to drink. The appetizers offer a contrast of textures, the most important texture being crunch. (I'm thinking crisp bacon exterior with gooey cheese center.) The short list of world-class starters includes poppers and chicken wings, dips and chips, mini sandwiches and sates.

Here are 7 indispensible tips to help you take your New Year's Eve cocktail party over the top.

  1. Variety matters and so does abundance: If hors d'oeuvres are the only food served at your party, figure on 6 to 8 pieces per person. Serve at least 3 to 5 different items—the more the better. Your reputation as a savvy host and accomplished grill master is directly proportional to the elaborateness of your menu.
  2. Finger food should be just that—food eaten with your fingers. Use a delivery system that allows for one hand eating, so you don't have to put down your cocktail. Kebabs and sates come to mind, as do dips and chips, and mini-sandwiches and sliders. Try these Singapore beef sates—named best in the city by the Straits Times.
  3. As you build your menu, include a few items that can be prepared ahead of time and served at room temperature, such as this explosively flavorful Fire-Charred Red Bell Pepper and Feta Cheese Dip.
  4. Make your life easy by grilling or smoking a large hunk of protein to be pulled or sliced for mini-sandwiches. Smoked brisket mini sandwiches on Parker House rolls come to mind. Ditto for mini pulled pork sandwiches on slider rolls.
  5. Hors d'oeuvres are supposed to be salty. Salt makes the cocktails taste even better. Work with salty flavorings like anchovies, capers, soy sauce, and olives. Serve salty meats, like bacon and ham—extra points if the latter is smoked. Try Village Hammers—Balkan-style cheese-stuffed, bacon-grilled prunes or dates.
  6. Turn up the heat. Nothing electrifies a cocktail spread (or makes you appreciate the drinks) like chile peppers and hot sauce. Poppers (cheese-stuffed, bacon-grilled jalapeno peppers) are a perennial pleaser, as are piri-piri chicken wings and shrimp.
  7. Don't forget to provide guests with an obvious and convenient place to dispose of bones, skewers, toothpicks, olive pits, etc. And above all, don't be a short order cook at your own party. Plan and prep ahead to keep the actual time you spend at the grill during the party to a minimum.

Get more tips on staging an unforgettable, drop-dead delectable New Year's Eve cocktail party.

And for recipes for this over-the-top menu, try:

READ MORE ABOUT GRILLING AT BARBECUEBIBLE.COM: READ THESE BOOKS BY STEVEN RAICHLEN:

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Steven Raichlen is the author of the Barbecue! Bible cookbook series and the host of Primal Grill on PBS. His web site is www.barbecuebible.com.

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