Angels and devils and spoonfuls, oh my!

Lately I have worked on a lot of events that have involved finger food or canapés and it has made me think about different ideas and combinations that are not only simple, but taste great… especially for the coming holiday season.

Canapés are incredibly common in Europe, although I think when a food item is so tiny, it really is ridiculous if the preparation involved is time consuming and tedious.  All that trouble for a single morsel of food?  Forget it.  Normal people like you and I, not only don’t have the time, but lack the patience required to produce something that will only get greedily chomped down without even the slightest thought given to the work involved in its creation!  “Boooooo!” I say!  Down with laborious, painstaking, fussy finger food and instead up with simple but delectable mini mouthfuls of pure heaven!

Right, let’s get down and dirty… Where to start?  Well I think the Italian’s have the right idea and so I begin with Bruschetta… deriving from the Italian word ‘Bruschare’, which literally means ‘to burn’, the base of this dish is char-grilled bread which once grilled (which is the ‘burning’ its name refers to) can then be rubbed with a raw clove of garlic (or not) and then drizzled with olive oil.  The topping is entirely up to you, but the classic and most basic topping is finely chopped tomatoes, a little chopped onion (or some use chopped garlic) some freshly chopped flat-leaf parsley, salt and some olive oil.  This is my absolute favourite topping, because it demonstrates the Italian’s natural flare to turn a few simple ingredients into something unbelievably flavoursome.  Other great toppings are milky Buffalo Mozzarella, with a little Prosciutto di Parma (that’s Parma ham to us) or how about Rocket, Bresaola and Goats Cheese or just simple roasted/char-grilled vegetables with a drizzle of good quality Balsamic vinegar… and for the record, GOOD Balsamic vinegar does not mean taking some crap Balsamic and heating it in a pan until it reduces to produce a thicker liquid.  This is NOT good quality.  This is an abomination and I cannot understand why so many (alleged) top Chefs advocate this process.  REAL Balsamic vinegar is aged, sometimes for over 20 years and so there is no substitute to this painstaking and truly authentic process.  Ok, that’s my vinegar rant over.

I also love the trend for miniatures of all our favourite foods.  Examples?  How about mini hamburgers and fish & chips?  Meatballs on skewers, with just the tiniest grating of Parmesan cheese.  Mini spring rolls, lamb or chicken Shawarma wraps or mini sausage and mashed potato portions?  I just love miniature food.  It’s such a great way to eat all those delicious, but often quite fattening dishes, in just an ample portion to satisfy our greed as well as our inner child.  

I do also like the idea of making items that look visually appealing as well as delicious. I think how you serve something is 75% of the overall impact of what you serve.  I love the idea of serving little shot glasses filled with soup.  I think they are great for cocktail parties, as well as a nice ‘surprise’ course when serving a sit down meal.  Summer time is a perfect time to serve cold soups like the Spanish ‘Gazpacho’, made with red peppers, tomatoes, garlic and olive oil or the French ‘Vichysoisses’ which is a cold leek and potato soup.  Some of my favourite varieties are the more wintery soups, I must confess.  Right now, I’m all about soups and at work, we have a great Chef and we are fortunate that he conjures up 2 wonderful creations for us on a daily basis.  Furthermore, I am even more fortunate because I work closely with him, so occasionally I can plead with him to make one of my favourites, such as ‘White bean and truffle oil’ or ‘Thai chicken noodle consommé’.  A consommé being a soup broth (usually made from meat/fish) that is a completely clear liquid.

Following this train of thought, I also love little porcelain spoons (like the kind you get in Chinese restaurants) filled with a whole host of different goodies, like risotto.  Risotto as a canapé?  Yes!  It’s such a great way of serving up hearty and delicious food that normally is impossible to eat as a canapé, but yet the spoon becomes the perfect vehicle for its consumption.  I am SO over mushroom risotto!  Even for the vegetarians amongst us, I feel that there are so many more interesting combinations that just haven’t become main stream yet.  The point of risotto is to use absolutely anything that you have lying around as its main feature.  The rice offers a fantastic base but it is just begging for the excitement of being paired with something more interesting than mushroom and parmesan.  Anything goes with risotto.  In spring time, spring vegetables such a peas, asparagus and greens of any variety are fantastic in a risotto.  Want to be a little bit daring? Why not use a little truffle oil to beef up your risotto?  I love the fresh pea and asparagus combination with a teeny drizzling of white truffle oil and add a poached egg on top and I’m in absolute heaven!  Or how about going with the seasons and making a courgette and mint or pumpkin/butternut squash and sage risotto?  Whatever you decide to put in your risotto, you really can’t go wrong.  Just remember, if you are using fish or seafood, DO NOT add Parmesan to your risotto.  Italians do not add Parmesan where fish is involved!  Use lemon juice or fresh herbs instead!

Using the same spoons, you could also serve things like mini pieces of fish such as seared tuna or pan fried sea bass on a bed of something like couscous or tabbouleh, which are both excellent bases for fish and delicate enough to fit in the spoon.  I just think that the spoon has enormous versatility and you can use absolutely anything that would fit comfortably in the spoon and it would have a really great impact on the people you serve it to!  Even if it’s only a few friends for dinner, why not spoil yourself?  Oh, and your guests of course!  The spoons aren’t just limited to savoury dishes.  What about mini scoops of ice cream?  A tip for preparing these for a dinner party is to prepare the ice cream spoons in advance and once you have filled each spoon with your favourite ice cream, place them back in the freezer and then when you are ready to serve them to your guests, you just take them out of the freezer and voila!  Spectacular individual desserts! Great as a ‘dessert canapé’ or on the side of a warm cake-like pudding, that begs for the icy-creaminess that only a scoop of your favourite flavour could bestow.   

Another great canapé idea is mini tartlettes.   Now these could be savoury or sweet, with great fillings like quiches or feta cheese and caramelised red onion, roasted vegetables, seafood cocktail with chives, Banoffi cream pies, fresh berries and crème patisserie or just good old fashioned chocolate.  Now what is wrong with that?  On the theme of chocolate, I just love dipping strawberries in dark chocolate, as well as my latest discovery of juicy fat blueberries (skewered for ease) and dipped in white chocolate.  Who said fruit can’t be fun?  Ok… granted, it’s 50 times better when swimming in chocolate, but at least you have a fighting chance of getting the kids to eat it!

What about sticks and skewers?  Do you see the theme here?  Basically, the most important element for finger food or canapés seems to be the item it is served on.  Skewers are a great way to eat meat, chicken and fish.  Even better if they were given a good old scorching on a BBQ.  Generally anything from your conservative vegetable or fruit skewer to your more exotic Japanese chicken yakitori, mini meat balls or just delicious hunks or marinated meat cooked to perfection by any means necessary.  Not forgetting the integral dips and sauces that are a MUST for all grilled meats in my opinion, not just for taste, but also if the tray has been passed around a few times, the chances are the meat is not as hot as it should be and so a good slick of sauce will do it the world of good.

So from sticks, spoons and shots to tarts and miniatures, I hope my suggestions will make an appearance in your home over the coming months.  But I almost forgot one item, a retro classic of British culinary greatness.  One that my colleagues and I spent a good 20 minutes discussing and salivating over… ‘Devils on Horseback’.  Sounds quite sinister, but is absolutely amazing and it has pretty much been banished from party culture these days, for fear of being a bit too tacky and overly 1970’s… but I feel it deserves to make a come back. 

What is it?  Essentially it’s a single pitted prune wrapped in a piece of salty streaky bacon and cooked in the oven until the bacon is nice and crispy brown.  A mouthful of salty bacon enveloping a juicy sweet prune, with flavour that has now sprung to life through gentle heating, is nothing short of exquisite.  So don’t knock it ‘til you try it, because despite its hellish name, it’s actually quite heavenly!  For those of you who really cannot abide the thought of prunes, try ‘Angels on Horseback’ which are beautifully plump scallops wrapped in bacon and crisped in the oven.  So which one is more your taste?  Are you a saint or a sinner?  Well, when it comes to food, it shouldn’t surprise you that I fall into the latter category, because if gluttony and greed are sins then I am 100% sinner baby…!  And as they say… “Good girls go to heaven, but bad girls go EVERWHERE”.  Definitely food for thought.

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