Thursday, October 19, 2006

Canapes for the hungry hordes

We have a party coming up so it's time to think about the tricky issue of canapes. Within an hour of every party I host I start to feel like I've been invaded by hordes of hungry savages whose vast appetites must be sated or I will meet a grisly fate. This is, of course, not true. My friends are a forgiving lot who are generally good cooks and always offer to bring food. They are however turned down by my uber-hostess control freak ego who insists on providing all refreshments herself. Which can mean catering for up to 50 hungry people single handedly. One day I will be found gibbering on the kitchen floor covered in pesto and olive tapenade and taken away to get the help I truly need but until then... what do I serve at cocktail parties?

There is one main problem I find with serving party food - leave out a spread for guests to serve themselves or carry round canapes? If you put the food - dips, cheeses, nibblies - out for the guests to fend for themselves, within about two hours you are left with a disgusting mess which looks terribly unappetising, unhygienic and half the food's ruined ('who on earth put the guacamole spoon in the brie?'). The problem with carrying trays of food around is that once it runs out (and inevitably all the good stuff is served first and goes quickly which just leaves you no place to go but down), you have to spend ages in the kitchen making more. And with the more complicated canapes, like fried spring rolls or fish cakes, this is pretty tiring and messy and, if you've had a few drinks yourself, downright dangerous. Weighing these two problems up, I tend to go with the carrying round trays of canapes option. It makes a party feel more sophisticated, setting a tone that even the most unruly guests can't ignore. There's usually more than enough volunteers to carry round the food - this is a great way for people who have either come alone or aren't great social mixers to meet people.

That just leaves one problem - having enough food to take around the whole night without running out. This means I've decided to forgo the hot food - it's not dinner we've promised, after all - and go with cold stuff which in fact is much easier for guests to handle. No hot food means no greasy fingers to soil your favourite sofa!

The fact that I don't own 50 chinese spoons or shot glasses (fresh oysters, cold soups) or want to spend ages cooking and preparing (tortillas, sushi rolls) cuts out a whole range of yumminess, so it's back to good old '70s style bites I remember my parents serving.

A basic rule is to take a plain, starchy but firm base - toasted bread, crackers, mini popadoms, tartlet cases - and top them with some strong flavours. Garnish with fresh herbs to add flavour and colour.

Suggested toppings are:

- cannelini bean puree (blitz a tin of beans with olive oil, salt and garlic) + anchovy
- hummus + sundried tomatoes + dukkah
- salsa + guacamole
- smoked salmon + horseradish cream
- smoked trout dip (mix smoked trout, cream cheese, paprika, lemon and chives)
- pesto + olives
- cheese and gherkin
- brie, gran padano or cheddar with onion jam
- goats cheese + roasted capsicum
- tinned sardines + red onion
- pate + flat leaf parsley


Sandwiches can be on white, brown, rye bread, cut into triangles, halves or shapes (with cookie cutters).
They fill people up more than little bites like tartlets, but somehow seem less sophisticated.

Suggested fillings are:
- egg + mustard cress + mayonnaise
- tinned salmon + mayonnaise + capers
- cheddar cheese + ham + chutney
- roast chicken + lettuce + mayonnaise
- smoked salmon + cream cheese
- roasted veges (eggplant, red capsicum) + pesto

Toothpick food
- melon wrapped in proscuitto
- kabana or cooked chorizo sausage
- smoked oysters

And to finish off the evening - large strawberries dipped in dark chocolate, then refrigerated until serving.

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