10/01/2011 01:43 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Sisters' Secrets to Confident Entertaining

Deconstructed Hors D'oeuvres

When we began writing our book, Cocktail Parties, Straight Up! Easy Hors d'Oeuvres, Delicious Drinks and Inspired Ideas for Entertaining with Style, we did an informal poll of our friends: Why, we wanted to know, did so few of them ever throw a cocktail or dinner party? Or for that matter, do any entertaining more elaborate than inviting friends over for takeout sushi and TV? The answer, overwhelmingly, was: It's just too overwhelming. It wasn't that they didn't enjoy parties -- so long as they were other people's. Hosting one? Too hard!

Except we knew it really wasn't. OK, it's true that partially, we were just predisposed to entertain: We grew up in the small-town South, where it would be very nearly traitorous not to be good and frequent hosts. But we're capable cooks, not trained chefs or caterers. Enthusiastic cocktail drinkers, but by no means professional "mixologists." We have full-time jobs, not full-time staffs. (And back then, a Manhattan kitchen that had room for two of us only if we sucked in our stomachs.) So if we could throw successful parties and actually enjoy ourselves, we decided, we could teach you to do it, too.

We mean for this blog to deliver, as our book and newsletter do, the kind of down-to-earth entertaining advice you would give your sister or best friend if you were a veteran host or hostess. You'd share all your secrets and shortcuts. You'd give detailed practical advice, not vague suggestions. You would help him or her head off mishaps you had suffered through already. (You would, wouldn't you?!) Sisters' Secrets to Confident Entertaining is like having a tell-it-like-it-is sister by your side. Or, as it happens, two sisters.

How in the &*^!@ do you get everything done?

We've fielded lots of questions about how to ease party fears, and the big stumbling block for most people seems to be worry that they'll never be able to get the food prepared in time. (Remember, we're talking about throwing a party yourself, not hiring a caterer.) We've developed tons of shortcuts over the years; as an introduction, let us share one of our easiest and most ingenious: the DIY canapé.

If you're putting together a party menu, you've probably got a couple of canapés in mind (even if you don't call them that). Canapés are a classic cocktail-party offering -- elegant little stacks usually built on a cracker, cucumber round, slice of baguette or some similar base. They look great on a tray, are easy for guests to pick up and let you combine interesting flavors and ingredients in one quick bite.

But they are a royal pain to make. Each one has to be individually constructed. And once that's done, there they sit, adorable and mouthwatering... occupying every tray you own, covering every surface you need empty so you can keep preparing the rest of the food!

Instead, we make each component of our canapés, set it out in a large bowl or basket and let the guests do the construction work. Here's an example with an open-face version of our Pork Tenderloin Sandwiches Two Ways:

Instead of this...

Serve them like this...

You can use this time-saving technique with any hors d'oeuvre that is usually presented individually -- for example, we've done it with our Olive Crostini with White Truffle Oil. It also works with food meant to be served on skewers (our Seared Tuna and Cucumber Brochettes, for instance.)

The deconstruction strategy saves you time and stress, and that counts for a lot. But there's an even bigger payoff: DIY hors d'oeuvres get your guests to mingle without even noticing they're doing it. They're not just blithely plucking a little bite off a tray; as they pause to create an hors d'oeuvre themselves, they almost magically finding themselves consulting each other over how spicy the mayo is and whether it goes on top of the bread or on top of the pork tenderloin. Or teasing the guy who's putting two tenderloin slices on his baguette. Through the simple act of having something to do, they also have something to talk about. The result: that magical swirly, mingly, connected atmosphere that makes for a party where no one ever talks about the weather and everyone leaves at the end of the night with that "what a great party" glow.