When you have guests coming over at the last minute, one easy way to feed them is with a mix of sophisticated hors d'oeuvres.
Indeed, David Bouley, chef of Bouley Restaurant and owner of Brushstroke in New York City, believes small bites of food are one of the secrets to entertaining well, whether you're in a time crunch or not.
David Bouley, Chef and Restaurateur
Throwing a party based on hors d'oeuvres instead of a seated dinner has other pluses, Mr. Bouley says.
"Guests don't feel like they're glued to a seat talking to the same people all night," he notes. "And you're giving them a range of things that they can try and eat."
An easy way to lend oomph to hors d'oeuvres is to take simple, fresh items, such as vegetables, fish, tofu or steak, and drizzle an unusual sauce over them to dress them up. Often, you can find the toppings in your pantry—or you can keep the sauces around the house for a few weeks, to be used in everyday cooking (in risottos, on meats) or as a last-minute addition.
For example, Mr. Bouley says, he'll take juice from a citrus fruit such as blood orange, "cook it down to 50%, and use that as a sauce that I would mix with olive oil and a drop or two of vanilla oil." He puts that on top of sardines, Serrano ham or a bite-size piece of steak.
The chef uses hibiscus to make a tea that he turns into a sauce with kuzu, a Japanese mountain root used as a thickening agent. Mr. Bouley will drizzle that sauce on small pieces of a fish such as hamachi or add it to cooked rice to create "an exotic seasonal risotto" that can be served in cups set out with small spoons.
Or, he'll cook together dashi, a Japanese soup stock, and kuzu in a sauce that he jazzes up with a spoonful of Italian black-truffle pâté, which he keeps in his pantry, and a handful of bonito, a dried, fermented, flaked fish that can also be kept on hand.
"That sauce can be put on anything," he says. "Fish, vegetables, mushrooms."
When planning his hors d'oeuvres, Mr. Bouley takes his menu cues from what he sees on the farm stands. Right now, he's excited about "winter vegetables, hibiscus and exotic citruses like kumquats," he says.
The chef places a premium on having enough variety and quantity of hors d'oeuvres for his guests, noting that he generally plans for at least 10 to 12 bites per person. These bites, too, should span a range of offerings that include vegetarian, protein-driven, seafood, starchy and light options—"you should have sweetness, salt, fat, some that are warm, some that fill you and some that give you energy."
Offering a good diversity of hors d'oeuvres also caters to the "range of allergies" that your guests may have, Mr. Bouley adds, noting that "some people don't eat shellfish, some don't eat red meat, certain people have no interest in dairy." He says he tries to make about 40% of his offerings vegetarian.
Still, there are a few crowd-pleasers that never fail him.
"You can cook fingerling potatoes, cut them up into little slices and put a little caviar on top with a couple of drops of vodka, salt and pepper," he says. "There isn't anyone who doesn't like that."
Alternatively, he'll use a curry oil that he has made by combining a few tablespoons of curry powder with a small bottle of safflower oil and letting the mixture sit for a few weeks. When he's ready to use the oil, he blends it with some olive paste and adds that to fingerling potatoes, too.
When it comes to beverages, Mr. Bouley likes to serve cocktails that pick up on some of the flavors in his hors d'oeuvres. With his hibiscus bites, for example, he may serve hibiscus cocktails made with vodka or champagne.
"Finding that flavor in the savory and in your drink harmonizes the season," he says.
The key to pulling off a party that has so many moving parts is to keep each hors d'oeuvre simple, Mr. Bouley notes.
"Something basic like a slice of tomato with vanilla oil and a drop of raspberry vinegar on it is unbelievable—and how long does it take to do that?" he says. Or you can take a fresh oyster and serve it on a kiwi purée with a kiwi slice and a garnish.
The best part of such an event, Mr. Bouley says, is how it leaves your guests feeling at the end. "A meal should never make you feel like you need to take a nap," he says.
David Bouley's Wellfleet Oyster With Fresh Kiwi Recipe
3 Wellfleet oysters per person
Wash and clean oysters well. Open oysters and remove from shell. Chill oysters in refrigerator or in a bowl with ice. Discard top shell. Wash bottom shell and reserve in refrigerator or in a bowl with ice.
1 kiwi for every 6 oysters
Squeeze and crush kiwi through a steel tea strainer or sieve. Reserve pulp. Chill puree in refrigerator or in a bowl with ice.
1 kiwi for every 8 oysters
Cut kiwi in quarters. Remove white stem that runs through center of kiwi. Slice lengthwise in 1/8" slices. Reserve on plate.
Putting It Together: Place kiwi puree in bottom of chilled oyster shell. Place chilled oyster on top of puree. Place slice of kiwi on top of oyster, covering the muscle to expose a clean oyster tummy. Garnish with a small finger of parsley leaf, or julienne of more esoteric microgreens such as hyssop or celery leaf.
Option: Add a drop of vanilla oil on top of kiwi after placed on top of oyster.
Corrections & Amplifications
David Bouley's first venture was Bouley Restaurant. An earlier version of this article incorrectly called Bouley Bakery his first venture.
A version of this article appeared January 31, 2013, on page D2 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Spontaneous Entertaining, Bold and Bite-Size.