Food & Drink: Sit back. Relax. It's party time!

Sick of munching on peanuts and crisps? Always in the kitchen at parties? Then check out these canapes - fast food with attitude.
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The Independent Culture
Canapes are a sub-species of food that cannot be classed as proper nutrition, while lacking the redeeming sweetness of petits fours. One tends not to get home after a hard day hoping to sate oneself on a canape. Stiff drink, yes. Vol au vent, probably not.

The Continentals have it down to a fine art with their tapas and antipasti designed to keep the fires stoked and the taste buds stroked in order to permit a large intake of alcohol, and much merry chat, prior to a late dinner. The canape, as we most often know it, occurs at catered functions, and provides an excuse for some much needed hand-to-mouth action, giving a polite reason not to talk while eating and thus affording time to think of the next conversational gambit: "Lovely food! What was that we were eating?"

Herein lies the problem at the heart of most party food. A canape is usually highly manipulated, often going through a dozen processes before being offered by your cummerbunded waiter. For reasons unimaginable to most of us, much finger food is of the deep-fried persuasion, either searing hot and far too juicy, or barely lukewarm and frankly flaccid. As well as guaranteeing a very smelly kitchen, there's the added benefit of getting grease-spots on your glad rags. The indigestibility of most deep-fried snacks, what's more, makes mixing them with strong drink a prescription for the Rennies.

Time is also of the essence. Those of us who spend the holiday season being both cash- and time-poor should be too busy camouflaging lined necks and baggy eyes to spend time tying filo moneybags of feta with ribbons of leek, no matter how charming the end effect.

The ideal canapes, therefore, should be preparable in a spare half-hour. They should eat in an easy bite and gently charm with their wit. Just like us. Here are a few ideas. All recipes serve 10 social drinkers or 12 polite ones:

Cheery Cherry Marys

200ml/7fl oz Polish vodka

1 tbsp Worcester sauce

1 tsp Tabasco

1 tbsp fresh lemon juice

1 tsp celery salt

30 cherry tomatoes

Convince your local pharmacist that you're not supporting a habit, and score a syringe. Make a strong mix of the vodka, Worcester sauce, Tabasco, lemon juice and celery salt. With the syringe, draw out the juice from the cherry tomatoes and squirt it into a plastic container. Save the juice for the next time you're marinating a steak.

Replace said juice with lethal vodka mixture, via the same syringe. (Any that's left over will mix well with tomato juice for a bracing breakfast the following morning.)

Refrigerate for an hour or two and serve without a word, watching your guests' inhibitions evaporate.

Max Rutherston's Beetroot

2 large raw beetroots, beautifully round

2 tbsp lemon juice

2 tbsp olive oil

450ml/15fl oz yoghurt

1 tbsp fresh horseradish, or

1 tsp made-up wasabi paste, or

1 tbsp English mustard

75g/3oz shelled walnuts

Who would have thought it? Simplicity itself from the director of Sotheby's Japanese department and noted eater.

Carefully peel the beetroot. With a mandolin, and watching your fingers, slice the beetroot into uniform, millimetre-thick slices.

Lay the slices on a large shallow plate, or clean board, and rub in a mixture of half olive oil, half lemon juice, with your fingers. Mix the natural yoghurt with a tablespoon of fresh, grated horseradish (if you can't find any horseradish, ready-made Japanese wasabi paste or English mustard are perfectly good substitutes). Then coarsely chop the walnuts.

Serve slices of beetroot topped with a teaspoon of the spicy, cooling yoghurt mixture, thinly sprinkled with walnuts.

Celery Martini

1 head of celery, brimming with

vigour

1 lemon

200 ml/7fl oz vodka

A pinch of salt

Vermouth

Cut the head of celery into 7.5-cm/ 3-inch lengths, keeping the leaves to torment children with. Make a mix of the vodka, a pinch of salt, the juice of a lemon and a splash (capful) of vermouth.

Pour the mix into a flat-bottomed, lidded, plastic container and cram with the celery, with the cut ends sitting in the vodka bath.

Refrigerate for 48 hours. Capillary action will draw the Martini mix up the celery, helping it to lose its innocence.

Jalapeno olives

500g/1lb pitted, green olives

225ml jar whole jalapenos, or

Turkish aci biber or tursu (Turkish hot peppers), or

Oriental pickled red birdseye chillis

spongy white bread

Buy the biggest, fattest, pitted green olives you can find. Put them in a colander and rinse well with cold water. Take the whole jalapeno chillis, or Turkish aci biber or tursu (Turkish hot peppers), or Oriental pickled red birdseye chillis, and drain the preserving liquid away.

Push a chilli all the way through each pitted olive, so that a bit of the chilli sticks out of each end of the olive. Chillies can be cut to size if they are too thick, while oversized olive cavities can be filled by judicious use of spongy white bread.

(Usefully, over-strength chi- llis can mask the acid bite of cheap fizz.)

Kevin Gould is a grocer who supplies food for parties. He can be contacted at Realfood, 14 Clifton Road, Little Venice, London W9 1SS (0171-266 1162), e-mail: realfood@dircon.co.uk

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