When entertaining a crowd, particularly during this time of year when parties are in full swing, platters of canapés are often the default dining solution of choice. They require far less effort, manpower and oven space than cooking a three-course meal for 30.
Regardless of whether you're going to prepare those bite-sized morsels yourself or invite someone else to do the hard work, careful planning is of utmost importance.
If you are outsourcing, make sure you book well in advance and are completely clear on the service the company will be providing. Things to consider include: the selection of canapés and quantity, whether they will be prepped on-site or delivered ready made and if extras such as serving plates, napkins and cutlery, a server or two and washing-up duties are included.
For those who decide to self-cater, it doesn't matter whether you've invited 10, 20 or 30-plus guests, the guidelines for success remain the same.
Andy Campbell is a trained chef who has experience catering for film premieres and large corporate events; he now runs Chef for Hire, a UAE-based company specialising in private dinners and parties. Campbell says that while it's nice to offer a selection of canapés, there's no need to go overboard. "In terms of choice, a good formula to work by is one canapé featuring red meat, one white meat, two fish and one vegetarian option. Serve two hot, the rest cold."
Size is crucial. Remember that canapés should be eaten in two (delicate) mouthfuls. Your guests won't thank you if they find themselves not only clutching a glass, making small talk, swaying to the music and concentrating on not spilling anything down their new party frocks, but are also given a plate, knife and fork to juggle.
Quantity wise, Campbell suggests working on a basis of eight canapés per person. For a party of 20 people, that comes out at 180 canapés - but before panic sets in, remember that simple elegance, rather than finicky fuss, is the aim.
Don't be afraid to take a few shortcuts: for example, shop-bought deli items such as marinated vegetables, stuffed peppers and pickled squid or mushrooms all look great when decanted into pretty serving bowls. For a homemade touch, buy good quality olives and marinate them overnight in extra virgin olive oil, garlic, a few sprigs of rosemary, thyme and some pared lemon zest.
Crostini are considered classic canapés for good reason: not only are they versatile, they're quick and easy to prepare. To make the bases, slice slim baguettes or ciabatta loaves into thin disks, drizzle with olive oil, season with salt and black pepper and cook in the oven until crisp and golden brown. Leave to cool, then store in an airtight container. These can be made two or three days in advance.
For toppings, it's entirely up to you. For something simple but still attractive, decorate the discs with a spread of cream cheese, a dot of green pesto and a quartered olive or sun dried tomato or make a simple pea and mint purée and spread over the toasted bread, finishing off with shavings of pecorino cheese and a scattering of lemon zest. Sear a couple of sirloin steaks in a hot pan, leave to cool and cut into thin slices - a little goes a long way - and serve on crostini with whole-grain mustard and crème fraîche (whisk the two together until stiff) and rocket leaves. Dice feta, cherry tomatoes, black olives and cucumber, add olive oil and pile on to the toasted breads for miniature Greek salad bites, or top the rounds of bread with ripe Brie, roasted halloumi, goat's cheese or pâté and a dot of your favourite chutney.
Smoked salmon grissini swirls make excellent canapés, not least because their elegant appearance belies just how easy they are to make. Lay slices of smoked salmon out on a chopping board and spread the upper surface with a layer of cream cheese. Season generously with black pepper, sprinkle over chopped chives and finely grated lemon zest and cut the salmon into thin strips. Then simply twist these strips around shop-bought grissini (with the cream cheese side down to help the salmon stick) and serve in a tall glass.
Little skewers or cocktail sticks make ideal vehicles for canapé party fodder. Try marinating cooked prawns in lime juice, soy sauce, honey and ginger for an hour or two, before shaking off the excess liquid and threading on to skewers, along with a small piece of diced mango. Caprese salad on a stick is another favourite, which thanks to the brightly coloured ingredients, also looks festive: skewer a small piece of mozzarella, half a cherry or sun-blushed tomato, a bit of basil, drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Oven-baked apricots, figs or dates wrapped in turkey bacon or stuffed with Gorgonzola cheese also appeal.
There's nothing wrong with serving crisps and nuts at a canapé party, just make sure you do them right. Shop-bought miniature poppadums are the perfect shape for topping with a spoonful of mango chutney and a little mint raita, and flour tortillas can be cut into eighths, sprinkled with olive oil and baked in the oven for homestyle crisps. Spiced nuts taste great, too. Coat a selection of your favourite nuts with egg white, brown sugar and spices (ground cumin, cinnamon and paprika work well) and toast in the oven until crisp, then leave to cool and break into pieces.
While Campbell's bespoke canapé parties feature all manner of intricate offerings, from choux pastry buns with foie gras mousse and caramelised spiced fig to saffron-infused lobster and prawn risotto balls with tamarind and coriander dipping sauce, he has created a number of more simple but still delicious canapés, right.
For more information on Chef for Hire, visit www.chefandycampbell.com.