9 Traditional Appetizers with a New Attitude

The Lowdown on Updated Old Favorites…

By: Stefanie Rose Miles


Entertaining these days, whether for a fancier occasion or tailgating, is overall more casual, with preferences for mixing and mingling over formal, full-on meals.  Appetizers are big hits with guests who like to try different foods and flavors.  Serving appetizers also guarantees that even your most picky guests will find something they like.  We’ve chosen several, tried and true classics that have been updated, upgraded, and received two thumbs up from both hosts and guests of late. 


Take an old standby and think entirely out of the Ritz box.  This first creation is also a tip of the hat to the classic Fig Newton-- goat cheese and fig crackers.  Use plain, water crackers as the base, add a nice size dollop of goat cheese, and top with a few, fine slices of dried fig.  Done and delicious!

Top the same cracker with hummus and add a few slices of decadent, Sicilian olives and you've got a fast, last-minute appetizer that will not give that secret away.

For something a bit more substantial, mix cream cheese, fresh dill, salt, and lemon.  Spread a cracker with the mixture, top that with a small bite of smoked salmon, and garnish with a touch of leftover, fresh dill. 

In this day and time of trendy kale and quinoa, thank goodness one thing is always in good taste.   Bacon simply can't be beat.  Take your hip and cool kale, wilt it in the bacon fat left from frying your crisp strips of succulence, and drizzle maple syrup over the greens. Toss them so they are evenly coated and top your cracker with the coated kale and a hunk of bacon or some crumbles.

For a sophisticated, vegetarian alternative, mini mozzarella salads (Caprese on crackers) is an easy choice.  Slice plum tomatoes, top with mini bocconcini, a splash of balsamic vinegar, and finish with a couple of basil leaves.  Delectable!


But we’ve kicked it up a couple of notches.  Strawberry bruschetta can be made easily by buttering French baguettes and broiling them for a couple of minutes.  Top them with sliced strawberries coated in white sugar and broil until the sugar is caramelized (three to five minutes more.)

Fig Brûlée with Barrata brings it.  Half figs and place them on a flame-proof surface and sprinkle with Demerara sugar. Melt the sugar until it bubbles, with a kitchen torch on medium-high flame. Put Burrata cheese on a plate, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle on a bit of Kosher or sea salt and black pepper, then arrange figs around the cheese. It's easy, makes an impressive presentation, and it's scrumptious!

Watermelon salsa is off the charts sweet and savory when it's made with chopped onion, chopped and seeded Anaheim chile, balsamic vinegar, and garlic salt.

For a more streamlined and traditional fruit salsa, combine watermelon, pineapple, chopped red, yellow, and orange bell peppers, and toss all in lime juice.

Two of my favorite ways to serve sweet salsas are with homemade flour, tortilla chips and/or dessert taco shells. For chips, cut flour tortillas in triangular, pie slices, brush lightly with melted butter, sprinkle with sugar (or a mixture of sugar and cinnamon if preferred) and bake until they’re crisp.  For sweet taco shells, use wonton wrappers (sprinkle with sugar after frying if desired) to fill with fruit salsa. 

Bacon-wrapped dates or pineapple, prosciutto-wrapped cantaloupe, and balsamic roasted grapes are all sweet and savory sensations, with recipes that can be found at www.allrecipes.com.


Spinach & artichoke dip became wildly popular 15 to 20 years ago and it remains so still.  It’s simply irresistible when served hot.  This recipe is perfect for parties because it's served on baguettes.  To keep the individual slices warm, serve in a covered, casserole-type dish. 

Another unique version of this classic is made with no mayo, but adding some red bell pepper, and feta cheese.  The mozzarella is our favorite, main cheese because it browns so beautifully.  Surprisingly, frozen spinach works much better than fresh.  This recipe is also a favorite because it’s chock full of spinach and artichokes.  All these dips, served hot or cold, look and taste terrific in sourdough bread bowls.  The no-mayo recipe can be found at www.cookieandkate.com. For something different, try stuffing shells, peppers, or mushrooms with spinach and artichoke dip. 


Meatballs have been a respectable fixture at gatherings for longer than we know!  Take a break from the typical recipes and wow your guests with rich and full-of-flavor, Swedish meatballs.  This recipe is heavenly, and the gravy is the heart of the dish.  We strongly recommend serving them in a heated container, maybe a crockpot.  The key secret ingredient in this acclaimed version is Worcestershire sauce.  For another dimension of flavor, try adding a tablespoon of cooking sherry. 

Another stick-to-your-ribs version uses a combination of ground beef, veal, and pork plus coffee in the gravy.  Nobody goes home hungry with these on hand!


If you’re going to serve chicken wings, why not make them the best any of your guests have had?  If frying, don’t trouble with fancy oils.  Vegetable, canola, or peanut work best since they don’t have any competing flavors. They also have a high smoking point which makes the skin crisp up perfectly.

No fry zone?  To achieve crispiness, toss wings initially with a bit of baking powder when you salt them.  Twice bake them to ensure crispiness.  Arrange wings on a rimmed cookie sheet filled with about a cup of water.  Cover with foil and bake/steam at 350 degrees until fully cooked.  Lastly, salt the wings after cooking, broil afterward for extra crispiness, then toss in sauce and serve. 

For a more sophisticated buffalo sauce, use your typical minced garlic and hot sauce, but replace melted butter with olive oil and lemon juice.  Add chopped, fresh basil to your ranch dressing for a more vibrant taste. 

Some of the most unique flavors of chicken wing sauces include wine wings (made with white zinfandel and cinnamon, and are acclaimed to be best when dipped in blue cheese), maple mustard (for sweet and spicy), garlic parmesan, sweet and spicy Sriracha sauce, and Coca-Cola sauce.  You may want to go Memphis style and dry rub your wings.  Start with a base of Cajun spice, ground mustard, paprika, and dash in whatever else your palate prefers.  Wing it on the international stage and try a Latin-Asian fusion glaze.  Sour cherry preserves, lime juice, and habanero meld to make a sweet, sour, and flaming hot sauce for grilled wings. Another Asian angle tosses wings with a green curry paste.  Or take it Italian with a creamy tomato sauce.  Roast plum tomatoes until very concentrated.  Blend with goat cheese and olive oil, then toss wings in the mix before broiling to crispy yumminess.


Start with the best beef for burger-grilling available, as well as ground chicken or turkey and veggie patty options.   For toppings, build from the basic vegetables like lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and pickles.  Then consider grilled zucchini, roasted green chiles, sun-dried tomatoes, caramelized onions, sauteed mushrooms, jalapeños — whatever you can imagine.  Fruits like figs, pineapple, pears, and coconut can be delightfully daring, particularly when grilled.  Be sure to provide a variety of cheeses and don’t forget crispy bacon!

Condiments can be just as complex, just remember the ketchup, mustard, mayo, and relish.  Try BBQ sauce, Sriracha, salsa, bean dip, tzatziki, guacamole, pesto, pesto-mayo, and hummus.  Spreads like lobster or crab can be unexpected and sensational as well as jellies like red pepper, mint, and basic strawberry, grape, and/or raspberry.  Wooden, craft sticks are great for labeling—stand them right in the container and they can double as spreaders.


Chips and dips have certainly come a long way, baby!  Handmade guacamole, salsa, tzatziki, and hummus will never disappoint.  To step up the onion dip, how about using caramelized onions?  Creamy horseradish and dill is an addictively, different spice combination. Hot Ricotta is a cool switch from queso.  Creamy smoked salmon with horseradish and dill is D-lish.  One of my favorite tea sandwiches also makes a simple and savory spread—cream cheese with sliced olives and crushed walnuts.  On rye crackers or bread, I could eat my weight in it.  To enhance most any dip, try adding a squeeze of lemon; use very sparingly to taste.  A hulled-out cabbage makes a gorgeous bowl for dips, especially for those served with crudités. These recipes and more can be found at www.realsimple.com.

A wonderful vegetarian option is the "no-cheese dip."  With fresh cashews, red bell pepper, water, lemon juice, Kosher or sea salt, and garlic, everything is soaked before blended on high.  Tastes like cheese! Find recipes here.

Chips can and should be just as varied as dips.  From handmade potato and sweet potato, with a variety of salts and seasonings, to pita, veggie straws, and squares of various breads grilled stove top in butter—the more to dip the better.


Skewers, kabobs-- whatever you call stuff on a stick, what a fabulous way to cook, serve, AND eat.  We’ve got some funky alternatives to the beef and vegetable or shrimp skewers we all know and love.  My absolute favorite from a presentation perspective (they taste great too!) are these tortellini skewers that look like flowers in a vase!  Try using spinach and tomato tortellini too, for more color.

A pasta skewer begs antipasto.  This crowd-pleaser consists of Italian-style chicken sausage, sun-dried tomatoes, roasted peppers, artichokes, and basil.  Another stick-app that tastes just as good as it looks. 

Another skewer presentation that wows, is anchoring skewers of fresh, seasonal veggies with a large head of lettuce.  Load up the skewers and load up the lettuce head.  Finishing each skewer with dark olives as pictured, finishes the look and taste completely. 

Mini salads and sandwich sticks are as crazy cute as they are fun to eat.  Some favorite salad sticks are Greek, chicken Caesar, wedge, melon feta, and a summer salad made with a melon ball, two salami slices, and arugula leaves.  And how about quail egg salad sandwiches, BLTs, and brown sugar smokies? My favorite, not pictured and that is to die for-- powdered sugar-dusted Monte Cristos with warm raspberry sauce for dipping.  Most of these recipes can be found at www.allrecipes.com.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention skewered sweets.  It’s hard to eat just one of these mini pie pops.  Serve these cuties with individual, self-serve cups of warm vanilla and/or blueberry sauce.  And especially for the holidays, these Grinch skewers are loved by kids from one to 92.  It’s as easy as 1-2-3 with green grapes, bananas, and strawberries.  Cap the caps with mini marshmallows and it’s beginning to look a lot like Whoville! 


But he's not in these diverse, deviled eggs. Three favorites can be found at www.sheknows.com.  They are smoked salmon and dill, topped with caviar; feta and caper with chives; and curried with grapes. Love how they are displayed together randomly.  This adds to the intrigue.

Just when you think you've seen it all, think and see again.  These aren't your granddad's deviled eggs, but they'll be gobbled up with the same voraciousness.  Many appetizers are timeless, but they transform and translate, just as art and music.  Embrace your tastebuds.  Experiment, create and entertain others and yourself.  Eat well, live well.

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