It's official: the party season has begun. We've received our first invitation - to Canapes for a Cause. We're asked to pay $10 a head, the contributions going to the hosts' favourite charity. I'm not sure that I want to think about all the hungry, lost and lonely animals while I'm enjoying good food, wine and the company of friends, but I'm sure they will benefit.
A canape is a type of hors d'oeuvre, or single-bite food, traditionally small, thin pieces of bread with a topping. Modern canapes may use crackers, blinis or pastry as the base.
In French, canape means sofa or couch. I guess in the past, one may have sat on the sofa to eat these morsels.
Today, we usually stand and that is why a canape should be easy to hold and eat. There's nothing worse than a flaky pastry savoury mince pie so piping hot that when it oozes down your fingers, you almost sustain third-degree burns.
Finger foods are fun to serve at any time of the day and it's prudent to be prepared for unexpected callers or at least be organised ahead for a planned gathering. Keep a supply of French bread in the freezer. It can quickly be sliced, brushed with olive oil and baked in the oven.
This makes an excellent base for tapenade and diced gherkins, chopped sundried tomatoes and capers or twists of shaved ham and chutney.
It's impossible to cater for every guest's likes and dislikes but you should check ahead to find out if anyone is vegetarian, dairy- or gluten-free and plan accordingly. Do remember the designated sober drivers - here are two of my favourite alcohol-free sips.
Mojitos (pronounced mo-hee-toes): take one cup of chilled Njoy lime juice (a new beverage available from supermarkets), one large lime cut into eight wedges and eight mint leaves, and "muddle" in a jug. Pour into four glasses, add a little ice and top up with soda water.
Cranberry Tart: combine equal amount of chilled Ocean Spray Classic Cranberry drink with chilled tonic water.
These baked polenta bites can be reheated briefly in the microwave.
1 cup each: chicken stock, milk
1/2 cup fine polenta
1/4 cup finely grated parmesan cheese
Toppings of your choice eg, brie and spicy pickle, goat's cheese and rhubarb chutney, tapenade and feta cheese or pesto and chorizo
Bring the stock and milk to the boil. Whisk in the polenta. Stir on low heat for about three minutes, until thick. Stir in the parmesan and butter.
Pour into an oiled tray patting into a 1cm-thick flat rectangle. Chill until firm.
Set oven to 200C. Lightly brush an oven tray with olive oil. Using a 4cm diameter biscuit cutter, cut about 16 rounds from the firm polenta. Place on the oven tray. Bake for about 15 minutes, until crisp.
Cover with your choice of topping. Makes about 16.
SPICY VEGETABLE DIP
This yummy gluten- and dairy-free vegetarian dip is great served with corn chips or crisp veges.
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 medium-large onions, diced
3 cloves garlic, crushed
3 medium courgettes, diced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/4 tsp ground turmeric
3/4 tsp each: ground coriander, cumin
Pinch ground chilli or to taste
2 tsp tomato paste
Heat oil in a heavy, non-stick frying pan. Add the onions and saute on low heat for five minutes. Add the garlic and continue cooking on low until the onions are very soft, about five minutes. Do not brown.
Stir in the courgettes, salt, pepper and turmeric. Cover and cook on low heat for about 10 minutes, until the courgettes are soft.
Remove from the heat and add the coriander, cumin, chilli powder and tomato paste. Mash well with a potato masher. Pile into a bowl, cover and chill.
Can be prepared two days in advance. Bring to room temperature before serving. Makes one and a half cups.
1 & 1/2 cups merlot wine
1 cinnamon stick
1 tbsp whole cloves
1/2 tsp ground mixed spice
Peel of half an orange
1/4 cup brown sugar
250g (1 & 1/2 cups) pitted prunes
Combine the wine, spices and orange peel in a saucepan. Steep on low heat for about 10 minutes.
Add the sugar and prunes and simmer on low for two minutes. Cover and stand until cold.
Store, covered, in the refrigerator.
To serve, drain and place on a platter with cubes of feta cheese, olives and small rolls of prosciutto.
The prunes can be prepared up to five days in advance. Serves 6-8.
GRISSINI WITH WASABI CHEESE & SMOKED SALMON
Grissini are thin, crisp bread sticks - perfect for dipping, or wrapping in prosciutto or smoked salmon - available at delis and supermarkets.
125g spreadable cream cheese
1-2 tsp wasabi paste
12 slices smoked salmon
Combine the cream cheese and wasabi paste (to taste), until smooth. Spread on the slices of smoked salmon.
Wrap a slice around the end of a grissini, cream cheese-side inside. Repeat. Makes 12.