Appetising aperitif foods
For the last five months in which I’ve been sharing my love of aperitif culture, I’ve been writing mainly about aperitif drinks. The drink is the backbone of aperitif culture, of course: it’s what lubricates the conversation and eases you out of the pressures of the day. Aperitif food goes almost unnoticed in most discussions, but what’s on your plate can be as important as what’s in your glass.
There appears to be a contradiction in serving food to stimulate the appetite. However, the purpose is not to provoke hunger but to kick-start digestion. Hunger can be the enemy of a good dinner. It temps you to gorge on whatever is served first, which is especially dangerous if it’s the bread roll on your sideplate. Good aperitif food will take the edge off your hunger while encouraging the production of saliva and other gastric juices. It tells your brain that something good to eat is coming. Key to its success is that it is visually appealing and stimulating on the tongue.
There are three key experiences that will stimulate the mouth like no others: salt, pepper and acid. Use these well and your aperitif service will be a success. Here’s one of the simplest things you can do, that makes great use of those experiences:
- Take a few thin-ish slices of really good bread, spread with unsalted butter.
- Lay salted anchovy fillets across them and sprinkle with a good grinding of black pepper.
- Immediately before serving, squirt the whole plate over with half a fresh lemon.
Cured meats, of course, are always salty, and this makes them perfectly suited for aperitifs. You can lay out Parma ham with fresh figs or melon – perfect to go with chilled Pineau des Charentes or a Negroni. Chorizo works beautifully with dry sherry or red vermouth. If you really want to impress guests, try curing your own beef or lamb for a few days in a mixture of salt and sugar with a couple of herbs or spices that appeal to you. Rinse, dry and slice very thinly, and serve on sliced baguette with a herb butter.
If your drink is sharp, like Champagne or a G&T, balance it with something a little fatty. A bag of really good, salted crisps (potato chips) could be perfect. Another simple idea is to take a piece of Emmental or Gruyère cheese (at room temperature) and cut it into cubes. Dust them with a little salt and some black pepper and give them a roll around to make sure they’re evenly seasoned.
|Truffled egg with sea urchin roe and caviar|
None of the ideas so far require much work. They’re great for relaxed dining and busy cooks. Sometimes, though, the occasion demands something a little more elaborate. This is where we come to the importance of the visual appeal of aperitif foods. Even before you’ve tasted or smelled the food, you see it. You want your guests not just to look at it, but to relish it with their eyes. When you’ve got time, it’s always worth going to a little trouble to make your nibbles look great. Play with shapes, colours and fancy ways of presenting them. Your aperitif is going to be the curtain-raiser to a great evening, so make it sing like a diva!
|Canapés, croustades and barquettes, singing like a whole choir of divas at a 1930s-themed cocktail party|
Here are some of my favourites:
- Cut hard-boiled quails eggs in half, gently pop out the yolk and mash this into a little mayonnaise with some curry powder or truffle oil (but not both!). Using an icing bag and star nozzle, pipe this mixture back into the white and garnish with a fine sprig of fresh herb.
- Make a pipérade by gently frying together shallot, red pepper and tomato flesh until you have a rich purée. Season with salt, pepper and a touch of paprika. Into this, pour a beaten egg and scramble carefully until just cooked. Serve this warm in tasting spoons or Chinese soup spoons with some finely chopped Serrano ham and parsley.
- Cook a few asparagus spears: make a purée of the stem and just blanch the tips. Put a little of the purée in the bottom of vol-au-vent cases. Top with a slice of cooked veal sweetbread. When you’re ready to serve, warm them, add a teaspoon of well-reduced veal jus and insert the asparagus tip so it’s poking out.
- Cut circles of white bread and either toast them or let them dry out a little. Spread each one with a very herby mayonnaise, flavoured butter or cream cheese. Take cooked, shelled king prawns and push a cocktail stick through so it passes through the narrow part then back through the wider part. Use this cocktail stick to pin the prawn upright on the bread, with its tail uppermost. Garnish with a sliver of lemon and a sprig of herb. Pipe two mayonnaise “eyes” on the bottom of each prawn and give them pupils by dipping a cocktail stick in black, blue or green food colouring and just touching each eye with it. I never said food has to be serious!
|'Prawns with eyes' and veal & asparagus vol-au-vents|
Next time: whisky aperitifs for Burns Night