Since I was young, appetizers have always been my favorite part of a meal. At family parties there would always be a spread of good Midwestern cheesy dips and classic veggie trays laid elaborately out on a table, complete with miniature paper plates and corresponding napkins. I loved the smorgasbord of salty variety that allowed you to both sample and indulge at the same time. Often I had no interest in whatever the main meal was, and would have been content to graze at the appetizer table all night for my meal.
This is still true of me at family parties, and now when I throw my own gatherings I love nothing more than a cheese and charcuterie plate. I like to enjoy the indulgence of appetizers in miniature form, even when there is no party to be had, while I am cooking. It seems silly and indulgent to be eating while preparing something I am going to be consuming in the next hour, but I can’t help myself. Especially if it has been a particularly long day (or long commute), and I haven’t eaten since the early lunch shift, then I am in definite need of sustenance before dinner will be ready. As Jason will happily tell you, a hungry Sarah is not someone you want to be around.
There are really two most ideal items to snack on while cooking: cheese and olives. These can be easily placed on a napkin or small plate, or in the case of olive eaten directly from their container. Whenever I’m cooking I take up every inch of available space with cutting boards and ingredients, so a compact snack is important. One that also only requires one hand to consume is also ideal, as my other hand may at the same time be salting the chicken or deglazing a pan.
Typically the cheese will be whatever is leftover in the fridge from a previous meal or being used in the current one, unless I was feeling very bold at the cheese counter that day. Parmigiano Reggiano is a frequent ingredient in our meals, and a few deliciously crumbled chunks with a class of a light Chianti or Italian red wine are the perfect cooking companion. If you don’t want to shell out for the really high end stuff, Murray’s Select Parmigiano Reggiano (featured in most Kroger’s with a good cheese shop) has a very delicious version, as well as the even cheaper (but really one of my favorites) Satori Parmesan.
Another favorite snacking cheese is a Spanish Manchego, a slightly gamey, but still with a caramelized and nutty sweetness, sheep’s milk cheese. Not that I would ever have this on hand, but it goes really well with quince paste. A substitute of some quickly chopped strawberries or even strawberry jam can do the trick if you have some on hand, or just reach for a glass of Tempranillo or grassy Sauvignon Blanc.
Lately what I have been snacking on most often are olives. They are one of my favorite foods. They pack a lovely punch of salt, but are so much more than that if you’re eating anything decent (not that I wouldn’t turn down a jar of pimento olives in a pinch). Castelvetrano, bright green and so buttery, are my absolute favorite snacking olive. Kalamata, dark purplish black and almost winey, come in second. I am by no means an olive variety expert, so I recommend checking out this extensive Serious Eats post about olives.
Most often I get my olives from the olive bar in Kroger or Whole Foods. I’m sure they are not the same quality as what I might find special ordered by mail or what not, but in general they meet my standards. It’s usually best to buy them with pits, as often the pitted varieties are quite smooshed and sad looking. (Pitted means without pits – a bit confusing at times.) If you are eating them that day or soon after, then put in as little of the liquid they are packed in as possible to save yourself some cash at the counter. Otherwise, make sure they are floating in enough of the liquid to keep them plump and prevent them from drying out.
I generally avoid canned olives, and will only buy jarred olives from specialty stores like Jungle Jim’s or smaller international markets. I’ve never had much luck with jarred olives from chain stores or big brand names, but buying from specialty markets or an international brand is usually a safe bet. There have been occasionally disappointments, but it’s a learning process. Don’t be afraid to try a new variety or unfamiliar brand – in the end it won’t be more than a 5 or 6 dollar loss if you hate them. I bet most olives could be revived in a good tapenade recipe.
Snacking while cooking helps me embrace the whole process of making a meal. It turns it from a meaningless weekday chore to the time of day where I can finally slow down, and shift from the day’s toils into evening mode. Last night as I finished prepping our meal and put it in the oven to finish, I sat on the floor of my kitchen, wine and olives within reach, and threw my dog’s toy for the 20 minutes it took to cook. The smells of rosemary and roasting tomatoes filled the air, and my dog’s stupidly happy look every time she brought her toy back further relaxed me. This, for me, is just as much a part of the cooking process as prepping vegetables and marinading meat. This is what home cooking is all about.