Looking back, the nibbles of yesteryear were sometimes as comical as their nickname of "horses' doovers".
And the hostess's little helpers in this bygone age? Toothpicks.
Among their many roles, they speared cubes of cheese topped with cocktail onions, sliced gherkins or pineapple chunks into upturned grapefruit halves. They secured bacon wrapped around the prunes and oysters that emerged from the oven as devils and angels on horseback. And they were plunged into "little boys", then into Heinz tomato sauce.
Beside the Ritz crackers would be a dip made from dried soup mix and a tin of reduced cream; nearby, nestling on shredded lettuce, a platter of vivid yellow devilled eggs.
And let's not forget the chewy vols-au-vent, filled with a mushroom or tuna sauce.
Today we are far more cosmopolitan, plucking ideas from a smorgasbord of contenders - Spanish tapas, Egyptian mezze, French crudites - to accompany drinks as the prelude to a meal.
As Christmas in this neck of the woods is usually hot, I prefer to skip hot nibbles (though here's a tip for making terrific sausage rolls: use the meat mixture from your favourite snags) and stick to my mantra of Keep It Simple.
A large white platter arranged with mounds of fresh vegetables is as festive as it is refreshing: think baby carrots, green beans, radishes, sugar snap peas, sliced celery sticks and just-cooked asparagus. Fill the gaps with quartered artichoke hearts and good black and green olives.
Crunchy vegetables go with any kind of dip, from a robust mayonnaise to tried-and-true hummus (given a kick perhaps with sun-dried tomato or roasted capsicum). Stir sweet chilli sauce into a tub of sour cream, or whip up one or more of the dips presented below. Add a few mini-toasts and bread sticks and you can be sure that nibbling on vegetables is the best and most sociable way to sharpen the appetite for whatever is to follow.
FOUR EASY DIPS SMOKED SALMON AND CHIVE PATE
Makes about 2 cups
In a food processor, blend 200g cream cheese with 1 Tbsp horseradish cream, the juice of half a lemon and 4 Tbsp finely chopped chives. Stir in 200g of finely chopped smoked salmon. Taste and season as necessary.
Makes about 1½ cups
In a food processor, blend 300g stoned black olives, 2 Tbsp drained and rinsed capers, 1 chopped clove garlic, 2 Tbsp lemon juice, 1 Tbsp flat-leaf parsley and 80ml good olive oil until smooth. Taste and season as necessary.
Makes about 1 cup
In a food processor, blend 40 drained anchovy fillets, 1 Tbsp lemon juice, 2 cloves chopped garlic and 3 tsp fresh lemon thyme leaves until smooth. With motor running, add 80ml good olive oil in a thin, steady stream until mixture thickens. Transfer to a bowl and stir in up to 2 Tbsp hot water.
Makes about 1 cup
In a food processor, blend 100g fresh basil leaves, 160ml good olive oil, 150g pine nuts, 1 chopped clove garlic, 2 tsp grated lemon zest and 2 Tbsp grated parmesan until smooth. Taste and season as necessary.
- The Southland Times