Drop the Fork For This Festive Fete

CANDY canes, cookies, popcorn, and pretzels. There certainly is more to holiday nibbling than these finger foods. Cookbook author Barbara Kafka would respond with a resounding yes.

Homemade Italian crostini topped with eggplant-moroccan spread, Mexican empanadas, and Greek spanakopita are just a few of the foods she recommends in ``Party Food: Small and Savory'' (William Morrow and Company, 323 pp., $25.00).

Ms. Kafka's book is filled with sensible advice and interesting, doable recipes to sparkle your next fete.

No matter what your budget, entertaining style, or the number of guests, finger foods can be easy to prepare, fun to eat, and the mere act of dropping utensils sets a less formal tone. Keep it simple

``It's very important to do some foods ahead,'' Kafka said in a telephone interview. She suggests a quick pate, blended in a food processor and cooked in a microwave oven. ``It's about as simple as you can get,'' she says.

Kafka's Sundried Tomato, Eggplant Moroccan, or Roasted Red-Pepper spread are also ideal candidates for make-ahead foods.

She advises: ``When you choose dips for a [stand-up] party, use thicker ones - they are less likely to drip on the floor. And don't use potato chips because they'll break - that's why tortilla chips have made such a hit.''

The Roasted Red-Pepper Spread is one of Kafka's favorites. She recommends coating crostini with this delicious, unusual sauce.

As an alternative to canapes, Kafka suggests daikon, a Japanese radish, sliced very thin, crisped in cold water, and then spread with a olivada (olive spread).

Greek appetizers including stuffed grape leaves (dolmades), cubed feta cheese speared with toothpicks with a bowl of anise seeds for dunking, and a dark brown garlicky walnut dip are ``sinfully easy,'' she says.

To expand on the Greek theme, she suggests serving them with thinly sliced bulb fennel, olives, and - for the truly ambitious - phyllo dough with tyropitta cheese filling.

A careful choice of dinnerware is a simple way to add dash and color to a party. Easy elegance comes with a black-and-white party - a variety of white dips served in black bowls.

But for the most dazzling presentation, it's hard to beat golds and reds, Kafka says. She likes to contrast a red dip such as Sundried Tomato or Roasted Red Pepper to a green olive spread, black olives, and green vegetable platters. She points out that a variety of textures and compatible but different spices add eye as well as palette appeal.

Kafka suggests restricting the number of colors on a raw vegetable platter. ``Have you ever been to one of those parties where someone has made a garden out of the raw vegetables and then no one wants to taste it because they will be the first one to mess it up? It becomes a disorderly garden. But if you stick to one or two colors it never looks messy. The color gives it a sense of organization.''

Kafka recommends placing small arrangements of food in different corners of a room rather than piling it all onto one table. With any finger-food party, have plenty of bread plates on hand and paper, rather than cloth napkins. ``The most important thing is to be comfortable [with the presentation],'' Kafka says. Short cuts

For those who are strapped for time or would rather shop than cook, Ms. Kafka suggests buying a variety of finger foods and pates from a deli, ethnic, or specialty store. Remember to also get a variety of mustards, pickles, and olives, she adds.

One of her favorite party dishes is a roast loin of pork, which can be served hot, cold, or room temperature and eaten - how else? - sans knife and fork.

Other options are to get Chinese appetizers such as pan-fried dumplings, raviolis, or sushi take-out.

``These choices depend on knowing your friends and having a sense of what will make them happy,'' she says. Happy guests, great party.

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