Sunday, July 24, 2022

A Mathematically-Optimised Party!

When throwing a great party, it's important to provide goodies that all of the guests will enjoy. If you know all of the guests and their tastes, then it's pretty easy to tailor your offerings accordingly. But throwing a larger party presents a fun challenge in terms of making sure there's at least a little something good for everyone.

Since I'm trained as a mathematician and tend to throw parties for mathematicians, naturally I can't help but approach this challenge in a mathematical way.

Specifically, I set out to throw a party in which half of the finger-foods have dairy and half don't, half of the finger-foods have meat and half don't, and half of the finger-foods have gluten and half don't. Thus I prepared 2 x 2 x 2 = 8 different recipes!

Starting from the recipe with none of the above, let's review all of the options I prepared:

Tortilla Chips and Guacamole

❌ Gluten, ❌ Dairy, ❌ Meat

This is a perennial favorite and quite easy to make.

Sometimes I make guacamole from scratch, but for this party -- since I was preparing so many items -- I didn't want to deal with the additional cleanup of the food processor, so I just bought some guacamole and mixed it with salsa, plus some hot peppers from the garden for one of the portions of dip.

Bruschetta Toasts with Balsamic Vinegar Pearls

 ✅ Gluten, ❌ Dairy, ❌ Meat

Again I went the lazy route and bought the bruschetta in a jar. Since it can be prepared in advance, I could have prepared it myself -- and maybe I should have since I ended up not having quite as much as I wanted. The toasts should generally have a bit more bruschetta on them than you see in this picture.

All you need is some leftover bread (baguette works especially well). Wait until your guests arrive before toasting it because the toasts with bruschetta on them can get soggy fairly quickly -- but they're quite delicious right when they're prepared.

(Toast the bread slices by themselves and add the bruschetta and garnish after toasting.)

I've found that balsamic vinegar pearls are a nice garnish for bruschetta toast. They're a good compliment in terms of flavor as well as color and texture.

My apologies in advance to all of my vegan friends for the rest of this article... you can stop reading now. 😀

Caprese Bites

❌ Gluten, ✅ Dairy, ❌ Meat

This is one of those finger-foods that I would call "canonical" -- it's such a standard, obvious, perfect combination that it's generally pictured on the package of the mozzarella balls. (Indeed, I'm not sure that mozzarella balls the size of cherry tomatoes exist for any other purpose.)

Caprese bites are delicious, easy-to-make, and can be made early in the day (so they're not taking up that precious hour just before the guests arrive).

Just get a bunch of cherry tomatoes and an equal amount of mozzarella balls. Wash the cherry tomatoes and slice them all in half and add salt and olive oil. Then slice all of the mozzarella balls in half, and pair each one with a half-tomato -- placing a fresh basil leaf in between -- and attach them with a toothpick.

Sashimi Crunch

❌ Gluten, ❌ Dairy, ✅ Meat

This is a recipe I invented myself.

Basically, I like sushi, I like sushi flavors, and I like making sushi for dinner parties. The problem is that getting the rice just right is a time-critical operation, and I don't want to deal with that while trying to coordinate the scheduling of all of the other food preparation.

My solution? Skip the rice.

So it's not actually "sushi", but the preparation of this dish is very similar to preparing maki.

I happen to have a number of these little ceramic/earthenware bowls (?) that some French cheeses are sold in, and I figured I could use them for finger-foods.

The ingredients you need to make 8 of these are the following:

1 long cucumber

~ 120 grams smoked salmon, sliced thin

Sushi nori sheets (about 2 or 3)

Soy sauce


It is very important that the cucumber remain as fresh and crisp as possible, so this recipe should be one of the last things you prepare before the guests arrive.

Peel the cucumber and cut it in half, and cut each half into four sticks:

Then carefully divide the smoked salmon into either 16 or 24 thin strips:

I sliced it into 24 strips in this case because the slices of salmon I bought were fairly small, so I couldn't make 16 long ones, just 24 short ones.

Note that it's OK to kind of piece together some partial pieces -- they don't really need to be perfect.

Then, if you're a mathematician following along, you can probably guess that we'll be adding 3 pieces of salmon to each of the 8 cucumber sticks.

Prepare a bowl of water so that you can get the nori wet with your fingers to make it sticky (as you would do for making maki).

Slice three strips of nori and place them (shiny side down) on the first three strips of salmon in such a way that the bottom of each nori strip aligns with the bottom of each salmon strip, and the top extends beyond the salmon:

Then get the nori a bit wet with your fingers and place a stick of cucumber across the top ends of the three strips and roll the three strips of nori (along with the salmon) onto the cucumber.

Note that it is very important for the nori to be sliced like this so that each cucumber stick has 2 or 3 separate bands of nori/salmon on it. This is because it is impossible to bite through the nori. The objective is to allow the guest to dip the cucumber in the soy sauce & wasabi and eat it in multiple bites. The bites of nori need to be separate for this to work.

Once you have prepared all 8 cucumber sticks in the same way, you can put them in the fridge for a little while -- just be sure to separate them from each other using cellophane or equivalent.

I generally mix some soy sauce with wasabi in advance of the party so that it is very easy to assemble these appetizers just before the first guests arrive. Just pour a bit of soy sauce & wasabi in each bowl and place the cucumber stick across the small bowl as pictured above.

These have gotten rave reviews, which makes up for the fact that they're a little more labor intensive that some of the other items in this collection.

Of course if you would like to spend more effort on a different finger-food and you'd like something super simple for the "meat-but-no-dairy-or-gluten" category, the "canonical" choice is, naturally, prosciutto e melone:

I did not actually make this for the same party as all of the other recipes, and I assume I don't need to explain how it's done since it's pretty self-explanatory. 

Filled Mini-Pastetlis

✅ Gluten, ✅ Dairy, ❌ Meat

These little pastetlis can be purchased pre-made. Then, when the guests arrive, you just need to warm them briefly in the oven and fill them.

There are tons of different options for fillings. Typically one would use a soft cheese as a base (gorgonzola, mascarpone, or ricotta) and maybe add another food to stuff them with such as a half walnut (the suggestion on the package), or something like I've done here, stuffing some with artichoke hearts and others with stuffed olives.

I feel like this was probably the least-successful item I made for this party because I didn't really test and come up with a good flavor combination in advance. So I used mascarpone mixed with garden herbs (especially sage) and then the stuffing items you see above. This flavor combination did not work.

First of all, I found ricotta was better than mascarpone with the olives & artichokes, and the sage was just really wrong, so it's better to leave it out entirely. But when using ricotta alone with the olives and artichokes, they result is too bland. Maybe mixing the ricotta with a bit of tomato paste and chopped basil would be better...? Anyway there are a lot of possibilities, so this dish is still a work-in-progress.

Salami & Sbrinz

❌ Gluten, ✅ Dairy, ✅ Meat

This is another "canonical" one: It's really easy to make because the flavors of a couple of simple ingredients complement each other so perfectly.

Basically just get a whole Salami Milano and cut it into cubes, and get a block of Sbrinz and cut it into cubes of about the same size as the salami cubes. Then stick them together, two to a toothpick.

I always put the salami cube on top because Sbrinz is a hard, crumbly cheese, which will crack in half if you try to stick a toothpick all the way through it.

You can potentially use a different cheese -- indeed, a less-crumbly one might be easier to work with -- but I think for the flavor combination you can't beat Sbrinz.

Tortilla roll-ups

✅ Gluten, ❌ Dairy, ✅ Meat

These are quite easy to make, they can be made a bit in advance (earlier in the day), and they are surprisingly tasty.

Basically, I just take some soft, wheat tortillas and spread each one with some sauce. I found that (Thomy) Truffle dip works really well for this recipe, but there are lots of other possible sauces or condiments that would work as well.

Then, on each one, I put two slices of prosciutto across the middle and place some fresh lettuce.

Ideally the lettuce should be crispy and crinkly. For this party, I used lettuce that I grew in my garden.

After placing the lettuce, fold one flap over the lettuce, but don't align the two edges (otherwise the inner lip will extend beyond the outer one when you roll it).

Then roll it into a somewhat-tight roll starting from the fold. Once it is rolled, insert 4 toothpicks to hold it closed, and slice it into 4 sections, as pictured above.

For presentation, naturally, it's nicest to stand up the segments on the plate:

For the final category -- the one that combines all three restricted items -- I used a very unusual and imaginative recipe that I got from the Betty Bossi "Apéro & Fingerfood" cookbook, p. 20:


✅ Gluten, ✅ Dairy, ✅ Meat


This picture is from the preparation stage. The picture after it's cooked is below.

Here's how you make it:

Get a pack of 2 cervelats. If you do not have cervelat in your country, you might be able to substitute bratwurst or some other sausage, but I doubt it will be as good.

Peel the casing off the cervelats. In the picture in the cookbook they actually look like they're not peeled (though the instructions say to do it), but if you don't peel them, this snack is very difficult to eat (I made this mistake the first time I made this).

Take a package of fresh tortellini. In this party I used the recipe's recommended tortellini (filled with spinach and ricotta) -- which worked very well in terms of flavor combination. The cookbook seems to imply that other fresh pasta could be used in place of tortellini, but I tried it with ravioli, and the edges burned. Use tortellini.

Take 100 grams of Gruyère or Emmentaler and cut it into cubes, and slice the cervelats into rounds. The objective is to have essentially equal numbers of cheese cubes, tortellinis, and cervelat slices so that they can be stacked and attached (with a toothpick) as shown in the above image.

These can be prepared early in the day and stored in the fridge, and then they can be cooked after the guests arrive. Add some paprika and olive oil to each one and cook them for about 10 minutes in a 180C oven.

I unfortunately didn't get a good picture of these after they were cooked -- I guess I was busy throwing a party or something -- so my one photo kind of looks like those "nailed it" images of attempts to make beautiful foods found on Instagram. 😂😂😂

But another problem was that I used a somewhat larger/cheaper bag of tortellini, and most of the tortellini were kind of misshapen and didn't sit nicely on the cervelat slices.

The next time I make this recipe, I'll make sure to get the highest-quality fresh tortellini.

And I will definitely make it again, because this always gets lots of compliments. It's very rich, though, so be sure to serve lighter fare alongside it, as I've done in this mathematically-optimised collection!

And I'll close with a couple of pictures of my garden (before I harvested the lettuce and basil and sage and mint (for the Hugos)), plus a photo of preparing for the party:

As you might have guessed, the party was a big success, and we'll be sure to be throwing more soon!!