FINGER LICKIN' GOOD
'Tis the season of parties and get-togethers — and it's always nice to offer something to nibble on. Bite-size appetizers are a great way to keep costs down and not everything needs to be made from scratch. These easy, inexpensive ideas serve about 10 to 15 people, from meat eaters to vegetarians to vegans. Prices are rough estimates based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data and an informal survey of grocery prices.
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MINI SPINACH PIES ($5)
Frozen spinach ($1) and a light sprinkling of feta ($1) in crispy filo dough ($3) is a classic flavor combination. To assemble, thaw and season the spinach and combine with feta. Put a spoonful into filo of any shape and bake according to the instructions on the filo packet.
Frozen meatballs cost about $3 a pound and offer large portions. Simply heat them up in the sauce of your choice ($2), such as barbecue or marinara, and serve with toothpicks for a fun and tasty party dish.
PIZZA BITES ($5)
This appetizer is perfect for a group that includes kids and couldn't be easier to make: Cut a baguette or cheaper Italian loaf ($1) in half lengthwise and spread with marinara ($1), then top with low-moisture shredded mozzarella ($3). Bake until the cheese is melted and bubbly. Let it cool slightly before slicing into bite-size pieces.
This delicious and dirt-cheap snack is a budget standby. A dollar's worth of kernels easily makes 15 cups of popped corn. Supplement with some oil for popping ($1) and a little butter and salt ($1) for a treat that goes with a casual party atmosphere.
FRUIT SKEWERS ($4)
Take advantage of seasonal fruit, cutting apples and pears into chunks and dressing with lemon juice and cinnamon before alternating them on toothpicks for an easy bite. Two of each fruit ($4) is be plenty for nearly 30 skewers.
FRIED RAVIOLI ($5)
At about 20 cents per piece, frozen ravioli make a great inexpensive appetizer when fried in oil ($1) until golden brown and served hot. Because they are so rich, figure only one or two ($4 worth) for each guest.
A bag of frozen dumplings is just $3 at Trader Joe's and other stores and comes with nearly 30 pieces. Use the leftover money for a dipping sauce, such as soy, chili, or sweet mango. Keep a bag or two in the freezer for last-minute entertaining.
VEGAN SALAD BITE ($4.75)
One bell pepper ($1.50), a quarter onion (25 cents), 2 ounces of olives ($1), and one romaine heart (50 cents) is enough to make a tray of refreshing salad bites. Dress with a simple combination of lemon, olive oil, salt, and pepper ($1.50) and layer on a skewer or toothpick for a full-flavored appetizer.
Roasted and salted peanuts are a fun appetizer, though they can be a bit messy. Having people shell their own limits the number of calories consumed, leaving more room to try other foods. A pound of peanuts is easy to find for about $3.
To make a simple quesadilla, simply heat a flour tortilla (25 cents) in a pan, sprinkle with shredded cheese (50 cents), and top with another tortilla (25 cents). Flip and heat until the tortillas are brown and cheese is melted. After making four quesadillas, cut them into six slices and serve with salsa (25 cents).
STUFFED MUSHROOMS ($5)
Break the stems off two packages' worth of button mushrooms ($4). Chop a quarter of an onion (25 cents) and sauté with the stems. Place the mix into the mushroom caps and top with seasoned breadcrumbs (50 cents), then bake in a hot oven until the caps are soft. Serve with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice (25 cents).
BISCUITS WITH SCALLION BUTTER ($4.50)
Ready-made biscuit dough is a quick and easy way to prepare this warming appetizer. Store brands offer packages that make eight pieces for as little as $1.50. Divide each package in half for mini biscuits, or let guests indulge in full-size buns. To add sophistication, use a food processor to combine a small bunch of chopped chives ($1) with a stick of room-temperature butter (50 cents) to slather on the hot biscuits.
CHEESE STRAWS ($4.50)
A humble package of puff pastry ($3) transforms into decadent cheese straws with a light sprinkling of parmesan and dusting of cayenne pepper ($1.50). Simply roll out the dough, distribute cheese evenly -- pressing it lightly into the dough -- and cut into strips. Twist the strips and bake according to the directions on the package.
HOMEMADE CHIPS AND SALSA ($5)
To make a quick salsa, combine a can of whole peeled tomatoes ($1), an onion (75 cents), a handful of cilantro (25 cents), and a chili pepper (25 cents) in a food processor and mix until combined but still chunky. Next, heat 1 cup vegetable oil (75 cents) in a pot and add corn tortillas cut into triangles to make homemade chips ($2) -- or opt for a large value bag of chips (also $2 or so) from a supermarket.
GARLIC BREAD ($3.50)
Slice a baguette or cheaper Italian loaf ($1) lengthwise and slather with butter (50 cents), chopped garlic ($1), and chopped parsley ($1). Then put the halves together, wrap in foil, and bake until warm and crispy on the outside. Slice into pieces and enjoy while hot.
ONION TARTS ($4.25)
To create simple and delicious onion tarts, start by defrosting a box of puff pastry ($2) and cutting into small squares. Sauté two large onions with olive oil and a few sprigs of thyme ($2.25). Take a small spoonful of the mixture and place in the center of each square, then bake according to the package instructions.
MINI GRILLED CHEESE ($5)
A simple grilled cheese with two slices of bread (50 cents) and two slices of cheese (50 cents) becomes a party hit when cut into bite-size pieces. Cut each of five sandwiches into quarters and stack high on a platter; figure at least two pieces of this American favorite per person.
PAPAS BRAVAS ($4.75)
Crispy potatoes are a delicious snack in nearly every culture. To make this Spanish-style appetizer, cut four large potatoes ($4) into small cubes. Bake with olive oil and plenty of sea salt (25 cents) until the potato is soft and the skin turns crisp. Sprinkle with smoked paprika (50 cents) or drizzle them with salsa and mayonnaise (25 cents each) before serving with toothpicks for easy snacking.
ROASTED VEGETABLE SKEWERS ($4)
Transform two onions ($1.50), three carrots (50 cents), and a large potato ($1) into a delicious appetizer by cutting and roasting the veggies with olive oil, salt, pepper, and dried herbs (50 cents). Once done, load a toothpick with one of each veggie and drizzle the skewers with balsamic vinegar (50 cents).
PIGS IN A BLANKET ($5)
Create this favorite using one package of break-and-bake croissant dough ($2) and a package of hot dogs ($3). Cut the hot dogs into bite-size pieces and wrap in a small piece of dough. Bake until the dough puffs up and starts to turn golden.
POTATO CHIPS ($4)
This quick recipe uses just a few potatoes, some oil, and the power of a microwave. To make, thinly slice three large russet potatoes ($3) and coat lightly with 2 tablespoons of high heat oil, like peanut (50 cents), then microwave on a plate for 3-5 minutes until the potatoes turn brown. Season with salt and other spices of choice while still hot (50 cents).
HAM AND CHEESE WHEELS ($5)
Deli ham and cheese get turned into a crowd pleasing combo with the help of store bought pizza dough. Roll out the pizza dough ($3) as thin as possible without tearing it and line it with a few thin slices of deli ham and cheese ($2). Roll up the dough with the ham and cheese inside and bake at 450 degrees until bubbly and golden brown. Once cool, slice into bite sized rounds.
MARINATED OLIVES ($4)
A simple jar of olives ($2.50) can be turned into a gourmet appetizer with a few tweaks. Drain the olives of their brine and add to a bowl with 2 tablespoons of olive oil (30 cents), the peel of a lemon (75 cents), and a few sprigs of rosemary ($1). Let the mixture marinate overnight for a deeper flavor.
CELERY WITH ONION DIP ($5)
Celery is a healthy and cheaper alternative to classic chips that's also an ideal match for a creamy, savory dip. For a simple appetizer, whip together one packet of onion dip seasoning ($1) with a container of sour cream ($2). Serve with one bunch of cut up and de-stringed celery sticks ($2).
CINNAMON SWIRL ROLLS ($3)
Save money and time by using store bought crescent dough and layering with your own filling. Roll out one can of store brand crescent dough ($2) and liberally sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar ($1) in equal parts. Roll up and bake according to the product's specifications.