Eating in: Go like the tapas

It's much more fun to whip up dozens of dazzling little treats than to sweat over a formal dinner, says Michael Bateman

THE FRENCH have their hors d'oeuvres, the Scandinavians their smorgasbord (open sandwiches), the Brazilians their salgadinhos (savoury bites), the Spanish their tapas and the Italians their antipasto (which means before the meal, and not before the pasta, as many people assume).

And in Britain what do we have? The heart sinks when you consider the fare which has been served up at so many British drinks parties over the years, though we have come some way from the worst - those sausage rolls and stuffed eggs and cheese cubes skewered with pineapple. And at least the ubiquitous bowls of crisps and salted peanuts have been replaced with tortilla chips and tasty dips.

But there is every sign of a sea-change in our habits. Jane Suthering, who teamed up with Savoy chef Anton Edelmann to produce the first classic guide to such appetisers (Canapes and Frivolities, republished in paperback this month, Pavilion pounds 9.99), says this is because people are now focusing more on the food than the drink.

What was once the domain of the banqueting dep- artments of grand hotels (the inspiration for Jane's book) has now extended to catering companies, which vie to outdo each other with ever wilder forms of presentation and more exotic flavours.

The most obvious changes have been in presentation, Jane notes. Traditional bases for such snacks - biscuits, toasts and fried bread - have been exchanged for other vehicles. Morsels are served in salad leaves or wrapped in blanched leaves; cones of greaseproof paper enclose miniature fish and chips (say, three tiny chips and a nugget of deep-fried monkfish), and seasoned oysters offered in their shells. Sushi is increasingly included, the rice and fish wrapped in nori seaweed.

Moister morsels which you can't pick up can be served in cupcake cases. Soft-boiled quails' eggs and caviar may be presented in small teaspoons.

Even the humble crisp is experiencing a make-over: they are now more likely to be made with sweet potato or beetroot, celeriac or fennel. (These are easy to make at home; peel and cut the vegetables into razor-thin slices, mop dry, and fry a few at a time in very hot oil 180C/350F. Drain on absorbent paper, store in an airtight tin and warm through before serving.)

Jane Suthering argues that it's far more rewarding to put your creative efforts into producing dazzling little treats than sweating over a formal dinner, and she points to the stunning examples on this page. These are the work of Maria Ella, 30, the cook at Delfina Studio Cafe (50 Bermondsey Street, London SE1 3UD: Tel 0171 357 0244), an artists' co-operative situated by London Bridge with its own lunchtime restaurant. These appetisers are served at parties held in the studio in the evenings.

MACKEREL IN CRISPY NOODLES

Makes 10

2-3 small mackerel fillets

75g/3oz seasoned flour

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

pinch paprika

pinch chilli powder

vegetable oil

125g/5oz fine egg noodles

salt

For the pickle

1/2 peeled mooli (white radish), finely shredded

1 cucumber, seeded and julienned

150mI/1/4 pint rice wine vinegar

2cm/3/4in grated ginger

1/2 stick lemon grass, chopped

1/2 chilli, seeded

sugar to taste

For the dressing

olive oil

vegetable oil

lime juice

harissa (the hot Moroccan sauce) or Tabasco

lemon grass, chopped

fish sauce (nam pla)

pinch of sugar

Make the dressing to your own taste, starting with, say, four tablespoons oil, adding a teaspoon or more of the other ingredients.

Make the vegetable pickle 24 hours in advance. Put mooli and cucumber in a jar. Bring the other ingredients to the boil. Add to the jar and leave to absorb flavours.

Drop the noodles into boiling salted water to blanch, and when water boils again, remove and drain.

Cut the mackerel into 5cm (2in) strips. Roll in sifted flour and spices. Shallow fry in hot oil just long enough to set the flour. Drain on absorbent paper. Wrap noodles around the pieces. Fry again in very hot oil until crisp and drain.

Strain the pickled mooli and cucumber, reserving juices for future use. Pour the dressing over. Serve each roll on the pickle on dessertspoons or in shot glasses.

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