It's that time of year again – the time when we all start planning our festive get togethers. Preparing snacks for drinks parties can be tricky; you need to keep things simple as you don't want to spend all your time in the kitchen.
With a bit of know-how, creating delicious party nibbles doesn't have to be too labour-intensive; you just need to make sure that you get organised beforehand. I love creating ideas for new little nibbles, and they often turn out to be miniaturised versions of current favourite or classic dishes from around the world. Here are a few of my ideas ...
Sichuan sea bass
This is a mini version of the fiery dish that you often get in Sichuan restaurants, but don't worry; it's not as hot as it sounds and will just give you a slight tingle on your tongue. I've used Malaysian shrimp crackers here as a base which you can buy in most good Chinese supermarkets. Unlike your bog-standard prawn crackers, they have a really great flavour and make an ideal base for Asian canapés and snacks. Unroasted sesame oil is commonly used in Middle Eastern dishes and can be found in good halal shops.
250g sea bass fillet, boned and with the skin left on
100ml unroasted sesame oil
1tbsp Sichuan peppercorns
10-12 dried red chillies
A couple of teaspoons of sea salt
A few sprigs of coriander
5 or 6 small Malaysian shrimp crackers
Vegetable or corn oil for deep frying
Cut the sea bass into 10 even-sized chunks. Preheat about 8cm of oil to 160-180C in a large thick bottomed saucepan or electric deep fat fryer.
Break the prawn crackers carefully in half and fry them in the hot oil for a few seconds, turning them as they are cooking until they puff up, then remove with a slotted spoon on to some kitchen paper.
Drain off most of the oil and leave about 100ml or so in the pan and add the sesame oil, Sichuan peppercorns, chillies and salt and reheat gently. Add the sea bass to the oil and cook for about a minute then remove the pan from the heat. You are not actually deep-frying the fish but rather just simmering it in the oil.
To serve, remove the bass from the oil with a few chillies on to some kitchen paper. Place a piece of bass on each prawn cracker with a Sichuan peppercorn and sprinkle a small piece of chilli on too. Garnish with some shredded coriander.
Mutton and potato pies
I suggest that if you are going to make this then you make a large batch of the mince as a main course for another day and just keep aside a little for these lovely snacks. If your butcher hasn't got mutton, then use minced lamb. You can buy great tasting small tartlet cases from good supermarkets these days.
1kg minced mutton or lamb
Vegetable oil for frying
2 medium onions, peeled and finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1tsp chopped thyme leaves
1tbsp tomato purée
1ltr hot beef stock
1tbsp Worcestershire sauce
2 glasses of red wine
2-3 servings of firm mashed potato
10 mini tart cases
A few fresh white breadcrumbs mixed with some finely grated cheddar
Season the minced mutton with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Heat some of the vegetable oil in a heavy-based frying pan until it is almost smoking and cook the meat in small quantities for a few minutes turning it with a wooden spoon, then drain in a colander to remove any fat. Meanwhile in a thick-bottomed saucepan, heat some more vegetable oil and gently cook the onion, garlic and thyme for 2-3 minutes, stirring every so often until they have softened.
Add the meat, dust it with the flour and add the tomato purée and continue stirring on a low heat for a few minutes.
Slowly add the red wine, Worcestershire sauce and the hot beef stock, bring to the boil and simmer for about 1 hour until the liquid has thickened and the meat is tender.
Remove from the heat, check the seasoning and leave it to cool. Mix the mashed potato with the melted butter and season to taste.
Preheat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Fill the tart cases with the mince and either pipe or spoon the potato mixture on top, scatter with the breadcrumb mixture and bake for about 6-8 minutes.
Bacon cubons and crab apple sauce
The term "cubons" is a sort of cross between cubes and lardons, as I'm rather fond of cutting my chunks of bacon into squares! You will need to buy a piece of smoked or unsmoked unsliced bacon for this, so it's probably best to order it in advance from your butcher.
There have been quite a few crab apples around during the latter part of the season, so I took the opportunity to make up lots of this sauce and then put it in the freezer. If you can't get hold of crab apples, you can always make the purée with Bramley apples.
All you have to do is take about 150g crab apples and simmer them with a tablespoon of caster sugar for about 15 minutes.
300-400g piece of streaky smoked or unsmoked unsliced bacon
Vegetable or corn oil for deep frying
100-150g or so of crab apple or Bramley apple sauce (see above)
Put the piece of bacon in a saucepan, cover with water and bring to the boil then drain off the water and add some fresh cold water.
Bring to the boil and simmer for about an hour or so until the meat is very tender. Either leave to cool in the liquid or remove and leave to cool on a plate. Once cool cut the bacon into 2cm cubes.
Preheat about 8cm of oil to 160-180C in a large thick-bottomed saucepan or electric deep fat fryer.
Deep fry the bacon cubons for 3-4 minutes, turning the pieces with a slotted spoon while they are cooking, until crisp then transfer on to some kitchen paper.
Spoon blobs of apple sauce on to a serving dish, skewer the bacon cubons and place on the apple.
Berkswell and pickled walnuts
This is a dead easy snack to knock up and it can be made with any hard cheese such as cheddar or Lancashire. It's well on the way to being a modern-day version of the cheese and pineapple on sticks!
150-200g Berkswell or another hard cheese, such as cheddar
2-3 pickled walnuts, drained
Remove the rind from the cheese and cut into 1 –2 cm x 1cm deep chunks. Slice the pickled walnuts and lay a piece on top. You may need to halve and slice the walnuts if they are large.
Sweet and sour pork
Everyone loves a bit of sweet and sour pork, especially when it's made with decent pork. I've used Doves Farm gluten free self-raising flour here as it makes a great crispy batter.
About 150g pork neck, cut into 1cm cubes
2tbsp gluten free self-raising flour
Dry cider, to mix
A couple of good pinches of salt
For the sauce and marinade
2tbsp chicken stock
2tsp light soy sauce
1tbsp rice wine vinegar
¼tsp tomato paste
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
A small piece of red pepper, cut into very fine dice
1 spring onion, finely chopped
Put the pieces of pork in the soy, rice vinegar and sugar and leave to marinade for an hour then drain reserving the liquid and dry the pork on some kitchen paper.
Put the liquid in a saucepan with the chicken stock and tomato paste, bring to the boil and simmer for 20 seconds. Dilute the cornflour in a little water and stir into the sauce, season and simmer for 30 seconds until the sauce is quite thick. Add the pepper and spring onion and remove from the heat.
Meanwhile preheat about 8cm of oil to 160-180C in a large thick-bottomed saucepan or electric deep fat fryer. Mix enough cider with the flour and the salt to form a thick-ish batter. Dip the pieces of pork in and fry in the hot fat, turning them as they are cooking for a few minutes then drain on some kitchen paper. To serve stick a cocktail stick into the pork then dip into the sauce and serve.
Roasted maple peas
Maple peas, or carlings, can be tricky to get your hands on unless you live in the North. If you can't get them, just use chickpeas instead.
100g maple peas, soaked overnight in cold water
4tbsp rapeseed oil
2tsp fresh thyme leaves
2tsp rosemary leaves chopped
2tsp ground cumin
1tsp chilli flakes
2tsp sea salt
Cook the maple peas in salted water for about an hour or until tender then drain. Heat 3tbsp of the oil in a frying pan and fry the peas on a medium heat for 4-5 minutes, stirring as they are cooking until crisp. Add the rest of the oil and the other ingredients and cook for another minute or so, stirring well. Drain on some kitchen paper and leave to cool before serving.
No one serves croquette potatoes anymore; I think they died a death during the Seventies when every pub and restaurant used to serve those frozen ones – but these parsnip-based versions elevate them to a higher level.
250g floury potatoes for mashing, peeled and roughly chopped
250g parsnips, peeled and roughly chopped
2 small eggs, beaten
50-60g fresh white breadcrumbs
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
Cook the potatoes and parsnips in boiling salted water in separate pans, then drain, mix together and return to the heat for a minute to dry them out and evaporate any excess water. Preferably using a potato ricer, mash the potatoes and parsnips then season and mix well. Mould the mixture into cylinder shapes about 3cm long and a little slimmer than a wine cork.
Have the flour ready in a dish and carefully roll the croquettes in it, holding them carefully with your fingers and shaking off any excess. Next roll them in the beaten egg, and finally roll them in the breadcrumbs.
Preheat about 8cm of oil to 160-180C in a large thick-bottomed saucepan or electric deep fryer.
When the oil is hot, fry the croquettes a few pieces at a time for 3-4 minutes until they are golden and drain on some kitchen paper. Serve immediately.