Appetizer or hors d’oeuvre, (pronounced or-derv)
The two words once had distinct meanings in culinary vocabulary – well, sort of – one does imply the other.
We, in our casual entertaining and perhaps not wanting to be pretentious, have gravitated to the word appetizer for those foods we serve before a main meal. Truthfully, I think when we write down our menus, we use the word appetizer because we are not sure how to spell hors d’oeuvre.
But for today’s purposes, let’s set the record straight – kind of.
When I want a definition or meaning I always consult the “Food Lover’s Companion.” With lots of showers for spring brides, this would be a gift that keeps on giving. From barm brack (you might want to know what this is for St. Patrick’s Day) to walleyed pike and everything in between, it is the definitive go-to book when you want to know what something is. Plus the all-inclusive appendix is rich with information.
Appetizer: any small, bite-size food served before a meal to whet and excite the palate. It is used synonymously with the term hors d’oeuvre, though this term more aptly describes finger food, whereas appetizer can also apply to a first course served at the table.
Hors d’oeuvre: small savory appetizers served before the meal, customarily with aperitifs or cocktails. They are usually one or two-bite size and can be cold or hot. They can be in the form of a fancy canapé or as simple as a selection of crudités.
Hors d’oeuvre is properly used for both the singular and plural forms. The reason is that the term translates literally as (dishes) “outside the work (meal)” and no matter how many dishes there are, there is only one “work.” In today’s modern parlance, however, the plural is often spelled and written as hors d’oeuvres.
How’s that for explanation? Now for just a bit more on understanding the subject – this is the “kind of” I mentioned earlier.
Chef Tim McGowan of Serafini reminded me this week that on current menus the word “starters” or “small plates” perhaps better reflect the word appetizer as the beginning of a meal.
Thanks to Tim and assistant manager Carlos Ceballos, several of their “small plates” appear on today’s page. My favorite at Serafini is fried oysters accompanied by a delicious plum sauce.
When dining out with a small group, I like the idea of getting two appetizers, extra plates and allowing everyone to have those bites that whet the appetite for the next course.
This tomato/tomato (remember the song) discussion began when a young 30-something former student of mine called from out-of-state to say she and her husband were hosting a dinner party for eight to celebrate a couple’s 10th anniversary – they had introduced the couple when they were all in college.
They wanted to do something more formal-fun and this event provided them the opportunity to use the china, crystal and silver flatware they had received as wedding presents.
Don’t you remember being young and trying to host the “perfect” dinner party?
She had her menu planned, but was unsure how she wanted to start the meal. Appetizer or hors d’oeuvre and what for heaven’s sake is correct?
Serving double duty
Guests arriving for dinner can sometimes be a bit daunting when you are serving double duty as host and hostess who need to greet everyone at the door, perhaps take coats and then feel the need to rush to the kitchen or bar you have set up and offer your guests a cocktail, whether it is alcoholic or not. In either case, a gathering drink should be offered in a pretty glass.
Then comes the question, do I also have a hors d’oeuvre? My response – the best I can glean from several sources – is yes, but only one and make it tasty. Perhaps rumaki, stuffed mushrooms or even a filled vegetable like celery with a tasty creamed cheese or bite-size bruschetta.
Once all your guests have arrived, offer a cocktail refill and head them to the table.
I love an appetizer first course where everyone is seated around one table and can enjoy the conversation as they begin the meal.
The easiest of first courses as far as I’m concerned is shrimp cocktail – providing no one is allergic to shell fish.
In today’s world without possibly having individual shrimp bowls, martini glasses work well, or any service dish on a stem – think outside the norm. But always serve it on a plate with a flatbread cracker or toasted crustini on the plate.
A cardinal rule
Now there is a cardinal rule about appetizers, never serve anything in the appetizer course that is going to be included in the main meal.
For example, if the entrée is going to include a grilled tomato, do not have anything tomato for an appetizer, say like a tomato bisque.
Or if seafood is the main course, do not serve the shrimp cocktail. And the rule applies to hors d’oeuvre – if mushrooms are in the main course, do not offer them stuffed. The same would apply to dessert, if it includes strawberries, don’t put strawberries in a salad.
Ree Wilson, former chef for several governors at the Governor’s Mansion, first taught me this rule. As I was studying to bring you all this information, I found it repeated in books like the “Joy of Cooking.”
For those of you who have soup bowls with your china, a soup is always a great course for an appetizer.
I love those shallow, almost flat bowls or if you are truly fortunate, the ones that come with the handles on both sides. Again, as with any appetizer place a plate under the bowl.
As for those chargers you often see, they are also called service plates. They don’t have to be part of your formal dinner, but if you do remember they are always removed when the entrée is served.
About 25 years ago I found a booklet with table setting cards on formal dining that I would give to new brides. Unfortunately, my last copy I either loaned or have given away, but the rules offered in the booklet have always served me well.
The formal table requires a starched tablecloth with an obvious crease running down the length of the table. If you choose to show off your dining table, use starched placemats that are large enough to hold the complete individual table setting.
Starched cloth napkins are a must-use, whether they are laid to the left of the plate, folded across the plate or creatively arranged in one of the glasses. A filled water glass should be on the table when guests are seated.
And lastly, a centerpiece should never obstruct the view of the guests and if candles are on the table, they should be lit prior to the guests being seated.
Dinner parties can be such fun and allow us the opportunity to be creative in our table settings and food.
Don’t be afraid of them, especially if you are young, practice in this case just makes it easier for the next one or maybe you’ll decide casual dining is just more your style.