Professional caterers may juggle lengthy menus of appetisers at proper "dos"; it is their job, after all, but most of us, solo, only have the time to dish up three or four different snacks or nibbles. So there is a lot to be said for including a couple of known greats, such as dips and crisps or cocktail sausages. Very simple culinary tactics can produce striking results: simple crostini (a crisp bread base with a dollop of tapenade), say; bite-sized spicy choux puffs, or a tangy tomato pissaladiere made with a puff pastry base (and, yes, you could use frozen).
Dips are a sure-fire hit. I recall as a child being consummately jealous of my younger brother as he recovered from near-fatal appendicitis because he was allowed to subsist off my mother's cheese dip and crisps - that ritual of loading up a thin, salty crisp with a cool, creamy dollop. Nothing can beat her recipe (see below).
And where there is dip, there should be crisps. Good old-fashioned plain ones take a lot of beating; but your local health food shop can provide exciting alternatives: blue or yellow corn chips, even red ones (the colour depends on the variety of corn, not artificial dyes); miniature rice cakes; sesame and rice wafers; and vibrant root vegetable chips. Crudites are perfect for dips and just one or two vegetables in abundance will look more striking than five or six.
Abundance is a key tactic. You can get away with murder if there's enough of it: salted cashews, almonds, or macadamia nuts; a large platter arranged with piles of different types of olive - green, black, marinated, stuffed; some long, green pickled chillies and cubes of feta in olive oil, and some herb fronds or rockets leaves as borders between the piles.
The same applies to prepared supermarket party food. The trick here is to be selective: top-up home-made appetisers with the delicious little oriental fiddly bits that are hellish to attempt yourself. Bung them in the oven for ten minutes and they emerge crisp and spicy, ready for dipping into a sweet and sour Thai dipping sauce, or a dark soy sauce. Marks & Spencer stores excel at Chinese and Indian food: their Chinese selection (20 pieces, pounds 3.99) is good; they also have an Indian selection (20 pieces, pounds 1.99). Amoy have a new frozen prawn and vegetable dim sum range which is excellent (20 pieces, pounds 3.49). Waitrose has a party line from which you order what you want in a catalogue, then go and pick it up. Sainsbury's are launching an Occasions range next weekend, with prices ranging from pounds 1.49 to pounds 3.99, though I found these bland. Marks & Spencer, too, are expanding their range.
There is always the risk of being found out, but that's better than having a breakdown.
My mother's dip, serves 4
Add more or less milk to the dip as necessary, it should be the consistency of whipped cream.
1 x 200g/7oz carton Philadelphia cream cheese
1 tbsp lemon juice
2 tbsp single cream
2 tbsp milk
1 tsp chopped onion
a few drops of Tabasco
cayenne pepper to decorate
Place all the ingredients in a liquidiser and reduce to a smooth puree. Spoon into a bowl, cover and chill until required - it will thicken on chilling so stir before you serve. Dust with cayenne pepper.
Making your own crostini is time well spent. The aim is a crisp, crouton base: either thinly slice a thick stick of French bread, or cut out rounds from sliced white bread using a biscuit cutter. Lay these on a baking sheet and dry them out in the oven for five minutes at 180C (fan oven)/190C (electric oven)/375F/Gas 5, then paint them with olive oil or clarified butter and bake for a further ten to 12 mintues until they are pale gold in colour.
The spread should be conspicuous in flavour. To return to health food shops, their ready-made hummus, aubergine dips, feta and artichoke purees can be very good. Supermarkets are not ashamed to pile in the additives to their varieties.
There is little excuse, however, not to run up a bowl of tapenade, the pungent black olive Mediterranean paste. Simply whizz to a puree in a food processor 4oz pitted black olives (the wrinkly sun-dried Provencal ones are best), 12oz capers, a pinch of thyme, half a garlic clove and one tablespoon extra virgin olive oil. You can mix a small quantity of whipped cream and fromage frais into tapenade (omit the capers), and pile it into luxurious mounds. Real short cuts are soft, fresh cheeses or mascarpone with chopped herbs folded in.
Garnish is a dirty word in domestic catering. Precious time is wasted in devising absurdly intricate finishing touches for canapes, but it would be a shame not to have anything. Stoned and halved olives, strips of roasted peppers, chopped herbs, capers or sliced cornichons, or a few toasted pine-nuts will suffice. Whatever you do, don't assemble crostini and leave them hanging around. - they should be fresh and full of crunch.
Pissaladiere, makes a 25.5x36cm (10"x14") tart
This is the cheat's version which uses puff pastry instead of dough as a base, but you could use either.
for the puree
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, peeled and minced
1 onion, peeled and chopped
900g/2lb tomatoes, chopped
2 heaped tbsp tomato puree
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs of thyme
13 level tsp salt
12 tsp caster sugar
15 saffron filaments, ground and blended with 1 tbsp of boiling water
for the base
250g/9oz puff pastry
85g/3 oz black olives, pitted and coarsely chopped
1 tbsp small marjoram or oregano leaves
Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan, and sweat the garlic and onion for a couple of minutes until soft and translucent. Add the tomatoes and the puree and cook, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes collapse. Add the herbs, salt, sugar and pepper and simmer uncovered until it reduces right down to a thick puree, about 35 to 40 minutes - add the saffron liquid towards the end. Press through a sieve, there should be about four tablespoons remaining, you can return it to the saucepan and reduce it further if it is still too thin. Cool to room temperature.
While the puree is cooking, prepare the pastry base: preheat the oven to 200C (fan oven)/210C (electric oven)/425F/Gas 7. Lightly flour a work surface and roll the pastry into a 25.5x36cm (10"x14") rectangle 3mm (one eighth of an inch) thick. Place this on a baking sheet and weight it with foil and baking beans. Bake for 17 to 25 minutes until lightly golden, you may need to turn the tray around to get an even cooking. Remove the foil and beans , and cool. You can prepare everything to this point in advance.
To serve, spread the puree in a thin layer over the pastry, trim the sides, cut into small squares or larger for finger food, and scatter over the olives and marjoram
Cheddar and Cumin Bouchees, makes 30-40 These light choux puffs need to be eaten as soon as possible after cooling. In posh joints, you might find such puffs filled with a mousse, but these are zesty by design and that isn't necessary.
40g/112 oz unsalted butter 150mls/5 fl oz water pinch of salt 85g/3oz plain flour, sifted 2 eggs (size 1) 85g/3oz Cheddar, grated 1 heaped tbsp freshly grated Parmesan black pepper 1 scant tsp cumin seeds
Melt the butter together with the water and salt in a saucepan. When the mixture boils remove it from the heat and beat in the flour. Return the pan to the heat and cook the dough for a couple of minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, allow it to cool sl ightly, then beat in the eggs one at a time. The dough should remain stiff. Stir in two-thirds of the Cheddar and the Parmesan, and season with pepper. Preheat the oven to 180C (fan oven)/190C (electric oven)/375F/Gas 5. Butter and flour two large baking sheets. Place half teaspoons of dough on the baking sheets, well spaced, these will swell to about three times the original size. Mix the cumin seeds i nto the remaining cheese and place a pinch on the top of each bouchee. Bake for 25 minutes until lightly golden. Eat as soon as possible.Reuse content