Party time: creating drinks party food

Creating an informal drinks party at home, with food that's easy to nibble on, can be tough going if you're planning on doing it yourself without any help from outside caterers. The other tricky element is judging exactly what is and isn't in vogue; it's hard when every magazine is packed with tempting foodie suggestions.
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The trend these days, judging by what our guests tend to order for their parties through our events company, Urban Caprice, is miniaturising your favourite restaurant dish. I'm not necessarily talking about elaborate concoctions here; it could be a tiny little bowl of risotto or a mini steak and chips with béarnaise, or a little concoction of bangers and mash with shallot gravy.

The main thing is that party food has to be simple, tasty and, of course, non-drip. Some of the old classics are difficult to beat. I still love the idea of cheese and pineapple on a stick. If you treat the concept with respect and use fresh pineapple and good farmhouse cheddar, you've got a great snack. Or you could try it with pear and Gorgonzola, or even take it to another level, as I have done below in the recipe for lobster, pineapple and chilli brochettes. My view is that the simplest things done well are much more likely to impress your guests than fiddly little canapés that you've tried to copy from some posh drinks party you once went to. How much time do you really want to spend preparing the food? Isn't being with your guests more important? And do you really need to show off to them, because they're all going to get completely pissed anyway?

If I'm entertaining at home, which is often a spontaneous occasion, I will bring the old faithful leg of Pata Negra ham out of the larder. It never fails to impress the guests, and that incredible flavour beats any miniature roulade. You can pay anything from about £70 up to a few hundred pounds for a Joselito Grand Reserva ham (buy from Brindisa; www.brindisa.com, or from Sayell Foods; www.sayellfoods.co.uk).

A board of great cheeses from around the world is another favourite fast food of mine; think about combinations such as quince cheese for Spanish cheese; chutney and Dorset Knobs for British cheese and maybe Carta di Musica Sardinian bread with Italian cheese. It's an easy way to get out of a hard slog in the kitchen and keep your guests extremely happy at the same time.

Scotch quail eggs with caper mayonnaise

Makes 12

These are neat little snacks and the great thing is that they can be made and cooked the day before. The secret is to have good sausagemeat, and I would strongly recommend removing the skins from good quality sausages or, easiest of all, asking your local butcher (if he makes good sausages) to give you just the meat. Quail eggs can be a little fiddly to peel, but you'll find that they're normally a bit easier when they are still warm.

12 quail eggs, cooked for 1 1/2 minutes in boiling water, then drained and cooled under the cold tap for a minute or so and peeled
250g good quality Cumberland sausagemeat
1tbsp flour
1 egg, beaten
40-50g fresh white breadcrumbs
Vegetable oil for deep frying

For the caper mayonnaise

2-3tbsp good quality mayonnaise
1tbsp capers, rinsed and chopped
1/2tbsp chopped parsley

Divide the sausagemeat into 12 balls and flatten them into patties. Wrap the meat around each of the eggs evenly, moulding it with your hands.

Have three shallow containers ready, one with the flour, one with the egg and the third with the breadcrumbs. Put the eggs through the flour first, shaking off any excess, then through the beaten egg and finally the breadcrumbs, re-moulding them if necessary.

Pre-heat about 6cm of oil to 140-150C in a large, thick-bottomed saucepan or electric deep-fat fryer. Cook the eggs for 4-5 minutes, turning them every so often so they are evenly coloured. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on some kitchen paper.

Mix all of the ingredients together for the caper mayonnaise.

To serve, either cut the eggs in half then cut a little of the rounded end so that they stand up straight with the larger cut face upwards and spoon a little of the mayonnaise on top, or simply serve them whole with the mayonnaise in a separate dish.

Pigeon on toast

Makes 12

We often serve these at The Rivington in Shoreditch for gallery openings. They can be made slightly in advance and briefly warmed through in the oven or just assembled at the last minute.

Quail can be used instead of pigeon or if you have access to small game birds like teal, woodcock and snipe, even better. You ideally need to find slim baguettes that are sometimes called ficelles or you could cut bread into oval shapes to roughly fit the size of the quail breasts. You can make these larger by serving a whole pigeon breast on a single slice of a baguette.

Three pigeons
1 shallot, peeled and finely chopped
1 clove of garlic peeled and crushed
60g chicken or duck livers, cleaned
60g button or wild mushrooms, cleaned and finely chopped
A couple of good knobs of butter
1tbsp medium sherry
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
12 x 1/2cm slices from a slim baguette

Pre-heat the oven to 230C/gas 8.

Season the pigeons, rub with a little butter and roast for 5 or 6 minutes. Leave to rest.

Season the livers, melt a little butter in a frying pan and cook for a couple of minutes on each side. Put to one side. Add the shallots, garlic and mushrooms to the same pan with the rest of the butter, season and cook on a medium heat for 5-6 minutes, stirring every so often, then add the sherry and remove from the heat. Meanwhile, remove the legs and breasts from the pigeons and remove all the meat from the legs, then finely chop it along with the livers, and stir into the mushroom mixture until well mixed.

To serve, toast the slices of baguette on both sides then spread with the mushroom and liver mixture. Slice the breasts of pigeon into six and lay half a breast on each slice of toast.

Vegetable crisps

Crisps have been through a billion and one re-inventions, and my favourite is the vegetable crisp. My friend David Dorricott has been plugging away at his vegetable crisps for years and now his Origins vegetable crisps are out there (contact the True Food Company 01932 850179) and we even serve them behind the bar at the Rivington alongside the pork scratchings.

You can successfully make these at home, though, if you want to go to the effort. You can really use any root vegetable such as parsnip, celeriac or beetroot. Many tropical vegetables like taro, cassava and sweet potato also make excellent crisps. All vegetables do react differently, though, when deep fried, so you will need to be patient and allow for a little trial and error.

Sweet potato crisps

As I said, all vegetables vary when you're making crisps; some, like beetroot and carrot, will need to be sliced a little thicker and then cooked on a lower temperature, turning it up towards the end of cooking. Sweet potatoes and parsnips behave quite well, though, when they are thinly sliced.

4 orange sweet potatoes, scrubbed
Vegetable or corn oil for deep frying
Fine sea salt

Heat about 8cm of vegetable or corn oil to 150-160C in a deep-fat fryer or heavy-based saucepan. Top and tail the sweet potatoes if necessary, leaving the skin on unless they are very brown. Using a sharp mandolin or vegetable peeler, or even the side of an ordinary grater, slice them lengthways as thinly as possible.

Fry the slices in the hot fat, a few at a time, stirring to ensure that they don't stick together. The sweet potatoes will take a while to colour (do not over-colour them) and may appear soft while they are still in the fat. Once they have been drained they will dry out and crisp up. Sprinkle with salt and leave them to dry somewhere warm but not hot.

Wagyu steak haché

If you've ever been lucky enough to taste Wagyu beef, you'll know what a treat and rarity it is. Wagyu is a breed of cattle with heavily marbled flesh, which is highly prized and sought after by top Japanese restaurants. David Wynne Finch, a farmer in the Lleyn Peninsula in Wales, has started breeding Wagyu and I had my first taste a few weeks back. You may have heard stories about Wagyu cattle being massaged and fed on beer, but don't listen to all you hear.

Thanks to the company TFC Express ( www.tfcexpress.co.uk), which delivers throughout the UK, you can now taste this delicious beef in the comfort of your own home. Because it's so tender, some cuts that would normally be regarded as lesser can be used like a prime cut. The company also sells Wagyu burgers or mince which you can use for mini burgers or steak haché, as I have done in this recipe.

500g Wagyu beef mince, or other good quality mince containing about 30 per cent fat
1-2 large chipping potatoes, peeled
Dripping, lard or corn oil for deep frying
For the sauce
2tbsp tomato ketchup mixed with 3/4 tbsp French's American mustard

Mould the mince into 10 even flat patty shapes (pressing them into a small pastry cutter makes life easier).

Cut the potatoes into miniature chips about 2cm long by half a centimetre thick and give them a rinse and dry on kitchen paper. Meanwhile, heat about 5-6cm of dripping, lard or corn oil to 140-150C in an electric fryer or heavy-bottomed pan. Cook for 3-4 minutes until the potatoes are soft without being too coloured. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain in a colander or strainer.

Turn the heat up to about 180C and carefully plunge the chips back in and cook for 3-4 minutes until crisp and golden. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on some kitchen paper. While the chips are cooking, pre-heat a heavy-based frying pan or griddle and cook the steaks hachés for about a minute on each side if you like them rare, or a couple on each side if you want them cooked medium (depending on how thick they are).

Serve on small plates with the chips and ketchup and mustard sauce.

Spiced macadamia nuts

You can adapt this spice mixture to suit your taste and even vary the nuts and add seeds such as pumpkin or sunflower.

1tbsp icing sugar
1/2tbsp ground cumin
1/2tbsp fennel seeds
1/2tbsp nigella seeds (onion seeds)
2tbsp chopped rosemary leaves
2tbsp sesame seeds
2tbsp flaky sea salt (or 1tbsp if the nuts are already salted)
50ml olive oil
1/2tbsp pimenton (Spanish paprika)
500g macadamia nuts

Pre-heat the oven to 180C/gas 5.

Put the herbs, icing sugar, spices and oil into a food processor and make into a paste, then mix with the nuts and spread on to a baking tray lined with greaseproof paper. Cook in the oven for 20 minutes, turning every so often with a spoon. Leave to cool and store in a Kilner jar or airtight container for up to two weeks.

Lobster, pineapple and chilli brochettes

Makes 12

This canapé evolved from a starter that Kevin Gratton did at Le Caprice. If you don't want to fork out on lobster, then large prawns, cooked and shelled, will work well. But don't throw away the lobster or prawn shells - make abisque and serve it in shot glasses, as I have done in my final recipe.

If you have a Japanese or Asian supermarket nearby, it might well sell a good selection of small skewers; the green knotted bamboo skewers seem to be the in-thing now.

1 lobster weighing about 500g, cooked, with all the meat removed from the shell
1/2 small pineapple, peeled and cored
Sweet chilli dipping sauce to serve
Short bamboo skewers or similar

Cut the tail of the lobster lengthways down the middle, then cut into small bite-sized chunks. Cut the pineapple into similar-sized chunks and skewer a piece of each on to your skewers. Serve with the chilli sauce.

Lobster bisque

Serves 4-6

You'll never catch me throwing lobster carcasses away - there is just too much flavour in those shells. You can either make the bisque and then freeze it or you could just freeze the shells and make it at a later date.

Approximately 500g lobster shells (less or more is fine)
1tbsp vegetable oil
1 small onion, peeled and roughly chopped
1 small leek, roughly chopped and washed
3 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
1/2tsp fennel seeds
A few sprigs of thyme
1 bayleaf
1tbsp tomato purée
1tbsp butter
2tbsp flour
1 glass of white wine
2ltrs fish stock (a couple of good stock cubes dissolved in that amount of water will do)
100ml double cream

Crack the shells carefully with a rolling pin or steak hammer.

Heat a large heavy-bottomed saucepan with vegetable oil and fry the lobster shells on a high heat for about 5 minutes, stirring every so often until they begin to colour. Add the onion, leek, garlic, fennel seeds, thyme and bayleaf and continue cooking for another 5 minutes or so until the vegetables begin to colour. Add butter and stir well, then add the tomato purée and flour, stirring well for a minute or so on a low heat. Add the white wine, then slowly add the fish stock, stirring to avoid any lumps. Bring to the boil, season and simmer for 1 hour.

Drain the soup, in a colander over a bowl, stirring the shells so that any small pieces go into the liquid. Blend the soup, including the small bits of shell, in a blender or food processor until smooth, then strain through a fine meshed sieve. Return to a clean pan, season with a little salt and pepper if necessary and bring to the boil. Add the cream and stir well; serve in little shot glasses.

Sloe gin jellies

Makes about 16-20 shot glasses

I was introduced to Gordon's sloe gin recently (it's available at supermarkets and good off-licences) and decided that it would make a great ingredient for a jelly. Jellies are fun at the best of times, but when they're miniaturised into shot glasses they constitute seriously adult fun, especially if you dabble with other spirits such as absinthe and vodka.

400ml water
200ml sloe gin (or more gin and less water)
120g caster sugar
3 sheets leaf gelatine

Bring the water to the boil, add the sugar and stir until dissolved, then remove from heat. Soak the gelatine leaves in a shallow bowl of cold water for a minute or so until soft. Squeeze out the water, add to the syrup and stir until dissolved. Add the sloe gin then pour into shot glasses. Leave in the fridge for a couple of hours or so until the jelly is set.

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