It’s been a busy week. For the first time I can remember, I’ve not been thinking about food, what I’m eating, cooking or baking, instead my thoughts are preoccupied with the logistics of that cooking – storage, transporting food across the city, and installing stoves and ovens. The café is expanding. A new branch in the city centre opened this week, and with it a new menu, negotiating, liaising, and all those other long words which look great on your CV. Amidst this change and driving hither and thither, we had a couple of celebratory drinks parties. Along with the deliciously cold prosecco, mood lighting and tipsy laughter, we nibbled on dainty canapés.
Although canapés were touched on at Leiths, I haven’t had much exposure to them since donning my chef whites. They crop up at Christmas parties usually in the form of blinis covered in gin-cured smoked salmon, but the idea of hosting a canapé party makes my already pale skin turn a shade whiter. It’s all good hosting a party for a large number when you can haul out a saucepan of curry but when you have to plate up that many identical intricate morsels in neat rows you know you need to block out a week in your diary. All hands are on deck; you bring in boyfriends, friends, cousins to panné the arancini balls, to pipe mackerel pâté, and to pick minute pieces of parsley. The night before you’re rolling out shortbread for your dessert canapé with a twitching eye trying to remember those days when you enjoyed cooking.
That is what I anticipated when I heard we’d need to rustle up canapés for drinks parties this week. The numbers were slowly but surely increasing, rising to the hideous heights of 120 guests. Considering the hiccups we were currently facing, for example, no ovens or stoves, I thought it best to lower expectations now, take out the vegan option and try to make the experience as simple as possible. So, dear reader, if you’re ever in the delicate situation of making 120 canapés without heating equipment take my advice – take the easy road.
We settled on three varieties – one meaty, one veggie and one fishy (and now, looking at the photos, I realise they all have a pinkish hue, either bad planning or excellent colour co-ordination). All three were served cold so there was no fiasco of hiring a warming cupboard. Naturally, elements of all three needed to be cooked in advance (nothing is ever simple) so I trekked across town to another premises to use their ovens. Packed in my car were three ham hocks, a crate of apples, fennel, a tub of black olives, some lemons and onion, thyme, spices, walnuts and a couple of packs of red grapes, plus some slimy smoked cod’s roe.
When preparing taramasalata, dear reader, ensure the roe is in fact smoked or salted beforehand. I made that mistake acquiring three frozen blocks of raw herring roe. Without the facilities to smoke and without the weeks or months to salt, seeing as this was the day before the party, I knew I’d made a grave error. Luckily the fishmongers were friendly and willing to swap this sadly defrosting herring roe for smoked cod. Once you actually have all the correct ingredients, taramasalata is as easy as pie. I enthusiastically peeled off the papery membrane, much to the disgust of my friends when I dared to taste a morsel and then force-fed some to my friend Hannah, and plunged the lot into cold water to soak off the excess smoky flavour. Following this the recipe asked me to grate and juice an onion. Ah, the glamour of chef life. One tub of pink squelchy roe, another of onion juice, the last of soggy white bread drained from its watery bath, now resembling flakes of a washing-up sponge. Into the food processor they tumbled which I vigorously pulsed with lemon juice and oil. Sampling a teaspoon was a mistake… as all I wanted was to go back with a ladle. It was subtly smoky, the soak removing any bitterness, yet rich and creamy, with a gentle tang of fresh citrus. Dolloped into piping bags the taramasalata was served on crispy rye bread squares, gleaming pearly pink under a sprinkling of black olive crumbs.
The meaty canapé required more delicacy. The three ham hocks were bundled into the oven on a bed of red onion, thyme and star anise, and a pool of water. Covered in foil they were roasted at 140°C for four hours, regularly basted to maintain succulent moist flesh. The salty, smoky ham was shredded and piled on top of a square of toasted brioche, glossy apple puree spiked with cloves and mustard, and topped with a fragile frond of quickly-pickled fennel. After speedily toasting walnuts and roasting grapes so they were bursting their skins and oozing juice, they adorned crisp purple chicory and a blob of whipped goat’s cheese. All three had time-consuming aspects, particularly the bread base – cutting out 120 pieces of brioche and rye nearly aggravated some eye twitching so anyone would be forgiven for using packaged melba toast in the future – but plating was an effortless bish bash bosh. Piping and covering with a sprinkle of herbs covers a multitude of sins.
I will leave you with the delights of taramasalata, both to eat and make.
Adapted from the Guardian’s recipe
250g cod’s roe
100-200g stale crustless white bread
3tbsp lemon juice
200ml olive oil
- Peel away the roe’s membrane. It is quite fragile and papery so it can be easier to scoop out. Taste a little of the roe – if it is really smoky soak it in cold water for a couple of hours.
- Grate the onion and pass it through a sieve or j-cloth, reserving the liquid.
- Cover the bread with cold water and immediately drain. Squeeze out as much water as you can.
- Put the roe, a little onion juice and the bread in the food processor and gently pulse until combined. Add the lemon juice and gradually add the oil until thick and well mixed together. Taste the mixture. If the flavour is still too smoky add more soaked bread and oil. If the consistency is too thin add more soaked bread.
- Season with lemon juice and black pepper. Serve with pitta breads, or on rye toasts with olive crumb.