Easy ways to do party food

Don't bother with fiddly canapés, says Mark Hix. There are much heartier - and easier - ways to do party food
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Indy Lifestyle Online

You'd have to be very dedicated to bother making your own canapés. But before we get all partied out there's still time to invite people round, and you'll want to offer them something different to eat that isn't too much trouble. I usually find, too, that as soon as Christmas Day with the family is over and we've spent Boxing Day recovering, everyone's ready to start entertaining friends again before New Year. But you don't want to be making fiddly nibbles just for nibbling between meals. Something more down-to-earth and more like proper food is what's called for, I reckon.

Our catering company, Caprice Events, has just merged with another of the big boys, Urban Productions, and is now called Urban Caprice. As you can imagine, we spend quite enough time putting canapés together, but we've also noticed that the trend for minuscule frivolities (which, incidentally, last for mere seconds before people carry on talking, and are probably forgotten in the time it takes to swallow them) is moving on. Mini meals are in. I came across the phenomenon some years back at an awards party and nicked the idea immediately. Now most catering companies have cottoned on to these Action Man-sized miniature restaurant dishes and all compete to come up with different names for them. We just stick to mini dishes, which just about sums them up without leading the client to expect a gastronomic blow out.

The beauty of mini dishes is that you can do just about anything that takes your fancy, and they're less fiddly than trying to balance food on bits of toast and other edible vehicles for popping into your mouth.

I reckon next year will also see the return of good old-fashioned nibbles. I'm thinking of the best possible versions of the mainstays of the wedding and birthday-party buffet. I've got some lovely old Fanny and Johnny Cradock books in my collection along with the Galloping Gourmet and a few other classics from the Sixties and Seventies. They are great reminders of some of those classics that we just love to hate, such as the smoked salmon and brown-bread pinwheels, vol au vents and cheese and pineapple on sticks.

Chorizo sausage rolls

Makes about 20

Chorizo is becoming the king of European sausages. The dried chorizo can simply be sliced and offered as a pre-dinner snack with some olives. This recipe uses the fresh cooking chorizo which is now fairly easy to find in delis. I've tried making sausage rolls with different types of cooking chorizo - they vary in thickness and paprika heat. It makes a simple and really interesting change from those cheap, bland sausage rolls. You can make a long one and cut it up, or make individual ones with mini cooking chorizo or chopped up fat sausages. A sauce such as romesco (ground almonds, roasted peppers and garlic) which you can buy in a jar from Brindisa in Exmouth Market and Borough Market in London, and other Spanish specialists, goes well with these. Or eat them as they are.

200-250g cooking chorizo
150g puff pastry, rolled to about 1/3cm thick
1 egg, beaten

Pre-heat the oven to 180°C/Gas mark 5. Either cut the chorizo into 3-4cm lengths, or leave them whole. Cut the pastry into long 1cm wide strips and wrap it around the sausage, leaving about 1cm gaps in between. Brush with the beaten egg and lay on a greased baking sheet, or lay them on a sheet of silicone paper. Leave to rest in the fridge for at least half an hour. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the pastry is golden. Serve warm, or hot.

Mini fish fingers with mushy peas

Makes about 20

This is one of the most popular mini dishes we serve, handed round in old-fashioned cinema girl trays with holes to slot the cones in. They can be any size you like, not necessarily mini at all, if you want to give guests a proper supper they can eat standing up. The peas aren't really mushy, but a posher version made with frozen peas. They work perfectly with the tiny fish fingers as they have a more intense flavour than marrowfat peas and a better colour.

500g haddock or pollack fillet, skinned and boned
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3-4tbsp flour
2 eggs, beaten
50-60g fresh white breadcrumbs
Vegetable or corn oil for deep frying

for the mushy peas

A good knob of butter
1 shallot, peeled and finely chopped
150g frozen peas
50ml vegetable stock
A few sprigs of mint, stalks removed
Salt and pepper

Cut the fish fillet into small fingers measuring about 5cm x 1-11/2cm wide. Season them and put them first in the flour, shaking off any excess, then into the egg and finally into the breadcrumbs.

To make the mushy peas, heat half the butter in a pan and cook the onion gently in it until it is soft. Add the peas, vegetable stock and mint leaves, season and simmer for 10-12 minutes. Blend in a food processor until smooth. Check and correct the seasoning. Before serving reheat the purée and stir in the remaining butter.

Preheat about 8cm of oil to 160-180C in a large thick-bottomed saucepan or electric deep-fat fryer. Fry the fish fingers, probably in 2 batches, depending on the size of your fryer, and cook for 3-4 minutes until nicely coloured. Serve hot with the pea purée and wedges of lemon or malt vinegar.

Chilli con carne

Serves 8-10

It's been years since I've made a chilli con carne, or even eaten one, come to that. I have fond memories of when I first moved to London and would pop into the Texas Lone Star in South Kensington, round the corner from our flat. It wasn't that glamorous, believe me - the flat, that is - but to four West Country boys who still had straw behind their ears, it was pretty handy for our jobs in Park Lane hotels. And the Texas Lone Star was a bit of a treat for us as we couldn't really afford to eat in proper restaurants - though we might have been able to if we'd drunk less beer. The chilli came with nachos, or jacket potatoes and melted cheese, which was comforting to young hungry lads. f

Mexican chilli con carne differs from the Texan in that it calls for diced meat as opposed to minced. There are loads of variations, and you can do it your way, with pork or beef or a mixture. I've opted for half mince and half chunky meat; one foot either side of the border, you could say.

2tbsp corn or vegetable oil
500g minced beef or pork
500g stewing beef, or pork, cut into rough 2cm chunks
2tsp ground cumin
1tbsp flour
2tsp fresh oregano, or thyme
1tbsp tomato purée
1 x 350-400g can chopped tomatoes
500g tinned red kidney beans
1 litre beef stock
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 onions peeled and finely chopped
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
4 medium red chillies, seeded and chopped (or more, or less)

Heat the vegetable oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and fry the minced and diced beef on a high heat, stirring every so often until lightly coloured. Add the cumin, flour and tomato purée then stir in the chopped tomatoes and beef stock.

Meanwhile blend the onion, garlic and chilli in a blender with a little water until smooth, and add to the beef. Bring to the boil, season and simmer for 1 hour. Wash the kidney beans and add to the beef and continue cooking for another 45 minutes, or until the beef chunks are tender. Serve with rice, garlic bread, jacket potatoes or nachos, or for a more sophisticated twist, deep-fried plantain crisps.

Cheese and pineapple on stick alternatives

Cheese is always the perfect party snack in some form or other, and to look creative without much extra work there are various witty and original variations on the cube of cheese and pineapple chunk pairing. Try some of these harmonious pairings speared together.

A lump of good Parmegiano Reggiano, for example, is perfect with some of those sun-blushed tomatoes mixed with a little aged or normal balsamic vinegar.

Manchego, the Spanish cheese, naturally works well with quince paste, for which I gave the recipe a couple of weeks ago, but you can always buy it instead. We occasionally cut squares of manchego with same-sized squares of quince paste on top, and run through them both with a stick, which looks pretty effective.

Blue cheese, such as Stilton, will benefit from some port jelly, or a jelly like redcurrant or blackcurrant - just a blob on top of the cheese on a stick and you've got a really unusual taste combination. Dolcelatte and gorgonzola can be cubed and stuck on to cocktail sticks with a chunk of ripe pear.

Lancashire and Wensleydale cheeses are great with chunks of fruity Christmas cake. Soft goat's cheeses won't work on a stick, but spread little rounds of toasted baguette with tapenade then with goat's cheese and you've got a tray of classy nibbles to hand round.

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