Should we, for example, serve parma ham or smoked salmon, stuffed vegetables or tapas, crudites or expensive cheeses? Are they going to take all day to prepare and assemble? Will we still be stoning the olives long after the first guests have arrived? It's no wonder that many of us settle for a quick trip to the supermarket and a few bowls of tortilla chips and salted almonds instead.
But relax. Help is at a hand. For Vivienne Gonley, whose catering company, Zafferano, is fast becoming a leader in the field of the modern canape, insists that it is quite possible to serve delicious snacks without taking a crash course in party catering or slaving over recipe books all day.
The secret of making good party bites is planning, Vivienne says. It was a lesson she learnt on her first professional engagement six years ago, when she allowed only a single day to cater for 60 guests.
"The only thing you should be doing at the last minute is cutting up the tortilla," she says. "You want to be waiting for guests in your party dress, not sweating and red-faced in a pinny."
Below, she gives us an example of her style; half a dozen bites of contrasting textures and flavours, avoiding the cliche of everything just being shoved into a pastry base. The Mediterranean influence is a result of Vivienne's extensive travel around Europe, and of her previous career with the Alternative Travel Group, when she used to take parties on gastronomic tours of Italy.
The key to her approach is to think big; to take a classic dish, and then miraculously reduce it in size. So Spanish tortilla is served in dainty slices, and beef carpaccio in small parcels. Griddled tuna is served in bite-sized squares, and gazpacho in shot glasses.
These canapes are all easier to make than they might seem. The apple marmalade can be made three days in advance. The gazpacho can be made the night before: chilling it overnight improves it. The carpaccio of beef can also be prepared a day in advance and stored in the fridge between sheets of clingfilm. The tortilla should be made first thing on the morning of the party, and left in the pan all day to cool and thus improve. The chard and goat's cheese parcels need to be made last, so that they retain their freshness. But why not? The results will be a lot more memorable than peanuts, and as long as you don't leave everything to the last minute, you can have a lot of fun.
Vivienne Gonley, Zafferano, 102b Belgravia Workshops, Marlborough Road, London, N19. Tel 0171 272 2225. `Canapes', by Eric Treuille and Victoria Blashford-Snell (Dorling Kindersley, pounds 14.99), and `Finger Food', by Elsa Petersen-Schepelern (Ryland Peters & Small, pounds 16.99), are excellent illustrated books on party food
GAZPACHO WITH PARMESAN BISCUITS
This recipe is designed to serve 12 people, as are the rest (see overleaf) The gazpacho and the biscuits can be made a couple of days in advance. Serve the gazpacho in small glasses.
900g/2lb very ripe plum tomatoes, peeled
(if they are flavourless winter tomatoes, halve and brush with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and a pinch of sugar, and roast in the bottom of a low oven for a couple of hours)
700ml/114 pint tomato juice
2 large garlic cloves
half a mild Spanish onion
1 red pepper, de-seeded
1 small cucumber, peeled and de-seeded
1 thick slice stale white bread, without crusts
6 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
pinch of cayenne pepper
salt and freshly ground black pepper
for the garnish
chopped spring onions
chopped black olives
Puree all the ingredients in a blender except those for the garnish. Add seasoning and refrigerate. Serve well-chilled, topped with the garnish
for the biscuits
50g/2oz ground rice or polenta
87.5g/3.5oz white flour
100g/4oz softened butter
50g/2oz Parmesan cheese, grated
1 teaspoon paprika
salt and pepper
Blend all the ingredients and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Roll the mixture out to a quarter-inch thickness and cut to required shape with biscuit cutters. Brush with egg and top with poppy seeds. Bake at 220C/400F/Gas 6 for 12-15 minutes.
12 chard or large spinach leaves
100g/4oz goat's cheese, cubed
25g/1oz toasted pine nuts
squeeze of lemon
salt and freshly ground pepper
On the morning of the party, blanch the chard leaves, a couple at a time, in boiling water. Lay flat between sheets of clingfilm and refrigerate before serving. Amalgamate the rest of the ingredients to make the filling. An hour or so before serving, spoon some of the mixture on to each leaf, and draw the chard together to form a bundle.
TUNA WITH GUACAMOLE
100g/4oz very fresh tuna
for the guacamole
1 ripe Hass avocado
a handful of coriander
1 clove garlic
2 green chillies
zest and juice of 1 lime
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Blend all the guacamole ingredients. If you are making it more than a couple of hours in advance, keep the avocado stone in the finished guacamole to keep the colour vibrant.
Brush the tuna with olive oil. Heat a griddle pan for three to four minutes. Sear the tuna (less than one minute on each side), so that it is marked on the outside but pink in the middle. Half an hour before you are ready to serve it, cut the tuna into bite-sized squares and top with a generous teaspoonful of the guacamole. Garnish with a very small strip of mild red chilli.
WALNUT BREAD WITH ROQUEFORT AND APPLE MARMALADE
4 or so slices organic-style brown or walnut bread
for the apple marmalade
450g/1lb red eating apples
juice and zest of half a lemon
75g/3oz dark brown sugar
100g/4oz walnut halves
30ml/1fl oz brandy Quarter, core and slice the apples. Melt the butter in a pan and add the apples, lemon zest, lemon juice and sugar. Cook gently until the excess liquid has evaporated and the apples are soft. Add the brandy and cook until the liquid has reduced. Add the walnuts when the mixture is cold. Toast the bread and cut into squares (this can be done on the morning of the party). Up to 45 minutes before serving, top the toasts with a sliver of Roquefort and a teaspoonful of apple marmalade CARPACCIO
100g/4oz beef fillet (chilled, but not frozen, to make it easier to slice)
50g/2oz Parmesan shavings
50g/2oz rinsed, halved capers (optional)
dressing made from lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper
With a very sharp knife, slice the beef as thinly as possible. This can be done well in advance. Lay out between layers of clingfilm and gently press out each slice with your fingers until it is very thin. Just before serving, brush generously with the dressing, then lay on each piece a few rocket leaves, a couple of Parmesan shavings and half a caper. Roll the beef around the filling to form a bundle.
Should be made the morning of the party, or even the day before
1 large onion
1 large waxy potato
salt and pepper
Slice and fry the onion in lots of olive oil. Peel and quarter the potato, and parboil it (for eight minutes or so). Slice the quarters and add to the fried, browned onions, and cook
for a further five minutes. Beat and season the eggs. When the onion and potato mixture has cooled, add it to the eggs, and check the seasoning. Heat some olive oil in a heavy frying pan until it is smoking. Add the tortilla mixture and immediately turn the heat down low. The smoking oil will have sealed the mixture, preventing it from sticking. Cook for 15 mins, then turn out on to a plate. Add more oil to the pan, return the turned tortilla to the pan and cook for a further 10 minutes. It should be golden-brown on the outside but slightly runny on the inside.
Cut into wedges at the very last minute and serve at room temperature.