Zen and the Art of Hors d’Oeuvres

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I have very happy memories of helping my mother prepare for parties in the 1970s. She recognized early on that many hands make light work and that small hands make excellent cheddar olive balls. Mom's repertoire of hors d'oeuvres was broad—everything from salty Smithfield ham buns to oysters Rockefeller—but the cheddar olive balls were my favorite for many reasons, not least of which was the fact that making them was much like playing with Play-Doh. A few hours before the party, Mom would line up my brother and sister and me on stools at the kitchen counter, and we'd get to work molding a dough of cheddar, butter, flour, and cayenne around pimiento-stuffed green olives, one by one. The little orbs were baked in the oven until the exterior was golden and crunchy; biting into one and finding the briny olive inside always felt like a surprise, no matter how many you'd already eaten.

I was reminded of those cheddar olive balls this weekend as I prepared for a party of my own. On the afternoon of the event I found myself making another orb-shaped hors d'oeuvre, Swedish meatballs—not the big ones with the creamy sauce, but the daintier ones served simply, drizzled with pan juices, as part of a traditional Swedish smorgasbord. These can be oven baked—Clifford Wright provides a good recipe in his book Bake Until Bubbly, the most erudite collection of casserole recipes you'll ever find—or sauteed in butter, as in this recipe that ran in SAVEUR back in 1997. I usually make mine with a combination of ground beef, veal, and pork, along with minced onions, fresh bread crumbs, a beaten egg, and heavy cream. Another ingredient, seltzer, gives the meatballs a nice, delicate texture. In making meatballs, as in making pastry, cold hands are a boon; mine aren't, so I keep a bowl of ice water nearby to dip into from time to time as I form the meatballs between my palms, one by one. It's a quiet, calming pre-party exercise—a sort of meditation before the bustle and buzz of the party itself.