Food: Lets party

Lorna Wing's mini fish and chips served in tiny cones made from newspaper changed the face of party food, as favourite dishes were downsized to Lilliputian portions. Here, she shares her secrets for the perfect celebration
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The Independent Culture
LORNA WING doesn't entertain at home much, but then who can blame her? Do decorators paint their own houses? Do cobblers mend their own shoes? For Lorna has thrown more than 5,000 parties, although never for herself.

The grandest she ever did was for the King and Queen of Greece, a wedding lunch for their son Pavlos at Hampton Court Palace. It would have been easier (and cheaper) to plan another Gulf War, she says. It wasn't so much the food as the security minefield: three months dogged by the SAS, investigating every aspect of their operation, vetting 700 employees for political and other affiliations. "Never again."

While the interference fazed her, the scale of the event didn't. Lorna Wing doesn't baulk at setting up parties for hundreds, and will even do three on the same day. "It all comes down to planning," she says coolly." The logistics can be awesome, and would provoke a nervous breakdown in people of lesser mettle. One day it was a party for topping out the Bankside Tate Gallery - food had to be taken up on a hoist, with catering staff and guests alike in hard hats; the next day the Design Museum, where staff were not allowed in until half an hour before the first guests were expected.

Lorna's clients represent a cross-section of the modern elitist establishment, those who are culturally rather than socially demanding: they range from Chanel to the Channel Tunnel to Channel 4, from Benetton to De Beers, from the V&A to the RCA, from Penguin Books to Virgin Records, from the Financial Times to You magazine.

She in particularly sought after by companies who want her creative skills to interpret their corporate style; perfumiers like Revlon, Yardley, Estee Lauder; Champagne houses like Moet et Chandon and Veuve Clicquot; Mont Blanc pens, Louis Vuitton luggage; and fashion houses Armani, Versace, Mary Quant and Jasper Conran.

In fact, it was Jasper Conran who started her on her rollercoaster to success some 12 years ago. She did a party for one of his fashion shows which so impressed his father Terence that, struck by her originality and the freshness of her food, he invited her to open a restaurant in Heal's on London's Tottenham Court Road, which he'd just bought.

"I had no experience at all," she recalls. "I was naive, but you could get away with being creative in a way then that you can't today." She did that for four years and used Heal's as a base to build up her own business.

Sir Terence remembers that first party Lorna gave for his son: "One thing that caught everyone's fancy was the mini-portions of fish and chips served in cones made from the Financial Times, a nice, quirky juxtaposition that has been imitated by many people since. But she got there first."

She laughs. The idea of miniaturisation was one of her first novelties, and produced canapes mounted with bangers and mash, scaled-down bacon- and-egg bites, baby paella in croustade, Lilliputian brioches filled with scrambled egg. "I tried to convey amusement and frivolity. There's an art to scaling down - not everything works."

But the mistakes, she says, are all part of a learning curve: "You have to learn from your disasters." Once, while using a blowtorch to glaze a pudding, Lorna inadvertently set off the fire alarm. "Eighteen burly firemen suddenly turned up at the party unannounced. There was nothing to hose down, so they stayed and vacuumed up the Champagne."

The food, you realise, may be the element which catches the eye, but it's the least of the headaches: "Only experience teaches you to predict the unpredictable. You must assume there may be a power failure" - as there was, in the middle of one party for 500. You must also be prepared for emergencies such as finding yourself with no helpers or staff when bomb scares close down the Underground. In essence, she says, don't rely on anything.

"I've learnt that the important thing is to plan, double-check, check some more and take nothing for granted." You arrange alternative supplies for everything; you ring local hotels and ask what their emergency facilities are. You arrange back-up for everything.

"I've always been very tidy, precise," Lorna says, "I haven't changed much." She studied domestic science at school, went to catering college afterwards, and joined the staff of Prue Leith's School of Food and Wine. Then, through an agency, she found herself cooking in private houses, which meant submitting to the food trends her employers expected. Inclined to be irreverent, she became impatient when asked to present dishes with more "height" - the food stacked up on the plate. "I carved a cabbage to make a base, put a stick of celery in it and balanced a piece of chicken on top, one foot in the air." The joke wasn't appreciated and she is rather more diplomatic these days.

She next got a job cooking on a yacht and spent a year crewing in the Caribbean, refining "40 ways with flying fish". Back in Europe, she worked in rather grand homes, cooking French-style menus for English families. Her entry into the competitive world of professional catering was smoothed by the arch party-organiser Lady Elizabeth Anson, who retained her to do food and drink for the higher echelons of society, among them various royals. "Aristocrats aren't very interested in food, what they care about is the wines and the labels."

If the scale and intense professionalism of Lorna's parties is daunting, not so the advice she gives others as summed up in her first book, Party Food (see special offer on page 53); it offers inventive recipes, common- sense advice, and meticulous plans for every party occasion on every scale.

She realises many cooks faint clean away at the prospect of a dinner party. "Don't think dinner party," she advises, "simply think of people coming to eat. Take it in your stride. Spend as little time in the kitchen as possible. Why not have a no-cook party? And for those who do like cooking, do something simple, a one-pot dish, a big cauldron of Jamabalaya."

Further encouraging words: "If disaster strikes, remember it is only food. Call the local fish and chip shop and arrange to collect 50 portions. Serve them wrapped in newspaper with the vintage Champagne you'd planned to drink. Your guests are there to enjoy themselves with you - watching you panic will only make them uncomfortable."

Elaborate table displays are fun only if you like doing them. "Luckily, the rules have changed about the way we entertain at home. It's your party, do what suits you." What Lorna believes above all is that a party is a wonderful opportunity to show off your style, which doesn't mean your abilities as a cook, but how you present food, say: "Contemporary steel, glass and Perspex give canapes a modern, sleek look; wooden plates and baskets lined with grapevine or banana leaves give a natural, earthy feel."

Or consider the sense of welcome: "Creating a party mood begins at the front door; so consider flowers and foliage, banners or fabric. In the dark, create a magical mood by hanging lights in trees, or make a candlelit walkway with a row of garden flares. Indoors, too, lighting transforms a home - uplighters, downlighters, mood lighting, clusters of candles, even single candles mounted in hollow apples."

Foodstuffs themselves can be decorous too: edible tubs of sprouting mustard and cress, brightly coloured spices like turmeric and paprika piled into pyramids, Indian style.

Overleaf, then, is taste of Lorna's colourful world.

GINGER CORDIAL WITH STAR ANISE ICE-CUBES

Refreshing and aromatic, this is a good thirst quencher on hot days and accompanies Asian foods extremely well.

Serves 10

20 star anise

225g/8oz stem ginger in syrup

2.25 litres/4 pints sparkling mineral water

Freeze the star anise with plain water in ice cube trays for four to six hours.

Blend the stem ginger with all of its preserving syrup and a little of the mineral water in a food processor for about one minute or until really well pureed.

Divide the mixture between glasses, top up with the remaining water and stir well. Add the star anise ice-cubes and serve.

ADVANCE PREPARATION

You can puree the ginger, cover and chill up to seven days ahead. Dilute the ginger cordial to order. Make the ice-cubes up to seven days in advance.

LEMON SYLLABUB PUFFS

Makes 16

For the choux pastry:

75ml/3fl oz water

25g/1oz unsalted butter (plus extra for greasing)

25g/1oz plain flour, sifted

a pinch of salt

1 small egg, lightly beaten

For the lemon syllabub:

2 teaspoons lemon juice

2 teaspoons sherry or brandy

1 tablespoon sweet white wine

1 teaspoon sugar

412 tablespoons double cream

16 crystalized violets, to decorate

icing sugar for dusting

Make the choux by gently melting the butter in a saucepan with the water. Bring the water to the boil, remove from the heat and tip in the flour and salt.

Return the pan to a low heat and stir the dough vigorously with a wooden spoon for three to four minutes until the mixture cleanly leaves the sides of the pan. Cool slightly. Add the egg to the dough and beat until you have a smooth, glossy mixture.

Heat the oven to 400F/200C/Gas 6. Place small spoonfuls of the pastry well apart on a lightly greased baking sheet. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until crisp.

Make a small slit in the top of each puff, return to the oven and leave the door ajar for five minutes to dry them out. Cool on a rack and then cut a small wedge from the tops of the puffs.

Mix the lemon juice, sherry and white wine together, add the sugar and stir to dissolve. Slowly pour this mixture onto the cream, stirring gently with a small whisk, until it forms soft peaks.

Spoon the syllabub into a piping bag fitted with a plain 1cm (12in) nozzle and pipe it into the puffs. Decorate with the violets, dust with icing sugar and serve.

ADVANCE PREPARATION

You can make the syllabub and puffs a day in advance. Cover and chill the syllabub and whisk briefly if it separates. Put the pasties in an airtight box; crisp up for two to three minutes at 350F/ 180C/Gas 4 then cool. Fill the puffs up to an hour before serving.

You can also freeze the baked puffs three weeks ahead, thaw, crisp up and fill as above.

ELDERFLOWER JELLIES

Elderflower cordial makes beautifully scented, pop-in-the-mouth jellies that I stud with fresh berries.

Makes 20

6 leaves gelatin

7 tablespoons boiling water

165ml/512fl oz elderflower cordial

10 raspberries

20 blueberries

2 ice cubes trays, each with 10 spaces

Soak the gelatin in cold water for 10 minutes, then squeeze to remove excess.

Put the measured boiling water into a jug, add the gelatin and stir until dissolved. Pour in the elderflower cordial stir and leave to cool for 10 minutes.

Divide the raspberries between one of the ice cube trays and the blueberries between the other. Pour the elderflower mixture over these fruits and then chill for five hours or until set.

Dip the ice cube trays in very hot water just up to the level of the jelly, count to five and remove from the water.

Use a small, sharp knife to loosen the edges of the jellies and turn out onto a plate lined with plastic wrap. Transfer the jellies to a serving dish using a palette-knife or metal spatula.

ADVANCE PREPARATION

Make the jellies up to two days ahead, cover and chill.

FISH AND CHIPS

Miniature portions of fish and chips, served in newspaper cones lined with greaseproof paper, are one of our most regularly requested canapes. Offer vinegar separately, but make sure that it is malt - wine vinegar is a bit too smart.

Makes 10

8oz/225g potatoes, cut into thin chips, or frozen French fries

200g/7oz haddock or cod fillet cut into 10

75g/3oz squid, cut into rings (optional)

110g/4oz whitebait

3 tablespoons plain flour

vegetable oil, for frying

malt vinegar, to serve

salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the batter:

50g/2oz plain all-purpose flour, sifted

2 teaspoons olive oil

100ml/312oz water

I egg white

10 cones of paper lined with greaseproof or waxed paper

Make the batter by making a well in the flour and gradually whisking in the oil and water to give a thick mixture. Salt, cover and let it rest for an hour.

Rinse the chips in cold water and dry thoroughly on paper towels.

Whisk the egg white until stiff but not dry, then fold it into the batter.

Heat a large pan of vegetable oil for deep-frying to 350F/180C and set the oven to 350F/180C/Gas 4.

Dip the haddock or cod into the batter and deep-fry for about four minutes until crisp and golden. Drain on paper towels then keep warm in the hot oven.

Toss the squid and whitebait in the seasoned flour and fry in the hot oil for one to two minutes, until golden. Drain on paper kitchen towels and keep warm in the oven.

Fry the chips for three to four minutes. Drain on paper towels, then fry them again for another minute till crisp and golden. Drain on paper towels.

Toss all the fish and chips together and season with salt. Pile into the newspaper cones and serve immediately with vinegar.

ADVANCE PREPARATION

Cut the chips up to four hours before, leave them in cold water and cover. Make the batter (without adding the egg white) up to four hours ahead and cover. Fry everything to order.

SPOON CANAPES

The perfect way to serve prime ingredients and show off any pretty or unusual spoons that you have.

Makes 30

For the crab and lemon:

110g/4oz fresh white crab meat

2 teaspoons lemon juice

1 spring onion, finely sliced

For the gingered oysters:

10 oysters

2 tablespoons rice wine or white wine vinegar

5cm/2in piece of ginger, cut into fine strips

For the caviare and creme fraiche:

75g/3oz creme fraiche

50g/2oz Sevrugar caviare

30 spoons

Season the crab meat with the lemon juice and salt. Arrange it on 10 of the spoons and garnish with the onion. Divide the oysters among 10 spoons and sprinkle with the vinegar and ginger. Place the creme fraiche on the remaining spoons and top with the caviare.

Arrange all the spoons together on a platter and serve.

ADVANCE PREPARATION

Cut the spring onion and ginger up to eight hours before, cover and chill. Arrange the ingredients on the spoons up to 30 minutes before, cover and chill.

CLEAR GAZPACHO

Serve small glasses of this, studded with tiny diced vegetables, to greet your guests. Really ripe tomatoes give the best results.

Makes 10

For the tomato water:

1.8kg/4lb beefsteak tomatoes (to yield about 1.5 litres/212 pints tomato water), quartered

2 tablespoons salt

For the gazpacho vegetable garnish:

I beefsteak tomato

12 cucumber, finely diced

12 small yellow sweet pepper

12 medium avocado

1 rounded tablespoon finely snipped chives

freshly ground black pepper

some large squares of muslin or cheesecloth

Line a large sieve or colander with two layers of muslin and place over a bowl.

For the tomato water, blend the tomatoes and salt together in a food processor until well chopped.

Pour the tomato pulp into the sieve, cover and leave it for eight hours in the fridge so that the liquid drips through into the bowl. Do not force it. Remove the pulp and save it for another dish. Season the remaining liquid if it needs it.

Put the tomato for the vegetable garnish in a bowl, cover with boiling water and leave for 10 seconds. Plunge the tomato into cold water, then peel, quarter and discard the seeds.

Dice the flesh finely and mix it with the cucumber, pepper, avocado and chives. Mix the vegetables and chives into the clear tomato water, divide between glasses and serve chilled.

ADVANCE PREPARATION

Make the tomato water two days ahead; dice the cucumber and pepper one day before, cover and chill. Prepare the avocado and chives to order.

QUAIL EGGS WITH ROASTED SESAME SALT

You have to like your friends a lot to peel quail eggs for them!

Serves 10

36 quail eggs

1 rounded tablespoon white sesame seeds

a pinch of cayenne pepper

a pinch of cumin

1 rounded tablespoon of Maldon or flaked sea salt

a pinch of ground black pepper

Put the eggs into a pan of boiling water. Boil for two minutes 45 seconds for soft-boiled, three minutes for hard-boiled. Drain under running cold water until stone cold.

Reserve a few eggs in their shells to garnish. Peel the rest, rinse, dry on paper towels and place on a serving dish.

Dry-fry the remaining ingredients over a low heat for two to three minutes. Cool, put into a small dish and serve with the quail eggs.

ADVANCE PREPARATION

Make the salt dip a week ahead and store in an airtight jar. Cook and peel the eggs the day before, cover and chill.

ITALIAN VEGETABLE SKEWERS

Mix and match the vegetables on these skewers - they do not have to be identical. If you like, offer them with a pesto dip, or brush with pesto before serving.

Makes 10

6 bocconcini (tiny mozzarella)

6 sundried tomato halves in oil

6 yellow or red plum cherry tomatoes

3 yellow or green pattypan squashes, halved

12 small red or yellow sweet pepper, cut in 8

3 baby courgettes, cut into 5cm/2in pieces

3 spring onions, cut into 5cm/2in pieces

1 small red onion, cut into 6 wedges through the root

4 tablespoons olive oil plus extra for greasing

2 cloves of garlic, crushed

salt and freshly ground black pepper

10 bamboo skewers

Soak the skewers in a bowl of water for two hours; this will stop them burning.

Marinate all the ingredients in the oil, garlic and seasoning for 30 minutes.

Thread a mixture of the bocconcini and five different vegetables onto each skewer. Cook on a hot ridged cast-iron grill-pan or under the grill for five to seven minutes, turning once or twice, until the vegetables are tender but still have some bite.

Alternatively, place the skewers on an oiled rack set 10cm (4in) above medium-hot charcoal. Turn them after five minutes or so and cook for a further five minutes, until done. Serve the skewers hot or cold.

ADVANCE PREPARATION

You can marinate the cheese and vegetables up to 12 hours before cooking, provided you cover and chill them. If serving the skewers cold, cook them up to six hours in advance, cover and chill.

THAI MUSSELS

Serves 10

6 stalks lemon grass

4 tomatoes

6 cloves garlic, crushed

300g/11oz Thai red shallots halved

10cm/4in piece galangal, or root ginger, sliced

4.5kg/10lb mussels

1 teaspoon hot red chilli flakes

2 large fresh hot green chillies, split and seeded

4 tablespoons Thai fish sauce

2 tablespoons palm sugar or dark brown sugar

Pound lemon grass with a pestle to crush. Put the tomatoes into a bowl, pour over boiling water to cover and leave for 10 seconds. Then plunge them into cold water, peel off the skin, quarter the tomatoes and removethe seeds. Roughly chop the tomato flesh.

Divide lemon grass, shallots, galangal, garlic and a pint of water between two large pans. Bring to the boil. Divide tomatoes, chilli flakes, fresh chillies, fish sauce, sugar and mussels between pans.

Cook covered at maximum heat for four to five minutes, until mussels have opened. Discard any which have not, along with lemon grass. Transfer mussels and vegetable broth to bowls to serve.

ADVANCE PREPARATION

Prepare the tomatoes up to four hours before cooking, cover and chill. Cook the mussels to order.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY CUP CAKES

These bit-sized orange cakes are a fun for a festive occasion. Decorate them however your artistic talents allow.

Makes 48

For the orange cup cakes:

95g/312oz softened unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing

110g/4oz caster sugar

finely grated zest of 112 medium oranges

1 medium egg

2 tablespoons orange juice

165g/512oz self-raising flour, sifted

For the glace icing:

250g/9oz icing sugar, sifted

412 tablespoons warm water

1 tablespoon orange flower water or strained orange juice

For the royal icing:

3 large egg whites, lightly whisked

425g/15oz icing sugar, sifted

2 different food colourings

4 sets of 12 mini (diameter 4cm/112in) muffin tins

48 small paper cake cases

2 piping bags with 2 small star nozzles and 1 small plain nozzle

Heat oven to 350F/180C/Gas 4 and line muffin tins with the paper cases. Beat butter, sugar and orange zest together for two minutes until light and creamy. Beat in the egg and orange juice, then fold in the flour. Divide between the muffin tins and bake until risen and golden. Lift onto a rack to cool.

Make the glace icing by putting the sugar in a bowl and making a well in the centre. Slowly incorporate the water until the icing is very smooth. Mix in the orange flower water or orange juice.

Use the glace icing immediately or a skin will form on it. Spoon it on to the cakes and allow to set for about an hour.

Mix egg whites and sugar together for the royal icing until stiff but pipeable. Divide into thirds, tint a batch with each colour and leave the remainder white.

Decorate the edges of the cakes with white royal icing using a star nozzle. Pipe the message on the cakes (one letter on each) with one colour, using the other star nozzle. Use the other coloured icing and the plain nozzle to decorate the rest with hearts and flowers. Allow to dry for two hours before serving.

ADVANCE PREPARATION

Decorate cakes two days ahead, store in single layers in airtight containers.

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