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Our friend Gayner turned 40 on Friday. She wasn’t there. She passed away 15 months ago. We celebrated her birthday last year too, what a tear-filled mess that was, but somehow this year was harder. Milestone birthdays that will never be celebrated are just tragic. We weren’t sitting in the sun, wine tasting in California, we weren’t driving around in the cold, wine tasting in Bordeaux, nor were we doing any of the million things that were floated as ideas for celebrating her birthday. Instead, we were at a friend’s house, cozying up in her dining room, eating her favourite foods. I was back in my usual position as head of canapes, and everyone else was making meatballs. She was a huge fan of meatballs and made them everywhere that we went on our group holidays, one of our favourite birthday celebrations of hers was a ‘meatball party’. Everyone brought a different type of meatball, it wasn’t supposed to be a competition but someone decided to bring prizes and there were lots of rounds of judging (which is really just eating). I came second with my ‘ball, in a ball, in a ball’ meatballs with three types of meat (I’d actually forgotten this until I was reminded on Friday). There were tuna balls, which didn’t go down well, and also cake balls for dessert. I had made a meatball cake with Fererro Roche and raspberry treat sauce, which even trumped the cake I’d made her the year before which was a tower of cupcakes covered in the Norwich City football strip. This year, two of our urban family had become vegetarian, so there were lentil balls too. No spaghetti though this time, there was pesto and mash (I did question this!). Her university bestie had gotten her a total boomerang gift (she excels and that – it’s why I own some fantastic canape baking tins!), in the shape of The Meatball Shop Cookbook. There are some fantastic recipes in it, and now its back in the hands of those who will appreciate it the most. I urge you to get your hands on a copy, you won’t regret it.
I mixed up the canapes a bit this time, one of her favourites, and a few new ones that she’d love. You really can’t go wrong with a miniature ham and cheese toasty. I’d first made these one New Year’s holiday on Winchester. Dinner was going to be a while, drinking had started already and it seemed sensible to snack on something… I was just thinking on my feet and using up what food we had left over. Initially I made nine, and they were gone in about two seconds flat, followed by a loud cough and, “Er…more please!” (guilty cackle…). There were 8 of us on Friday (well, six meat eaters), so I figured 45 would be ample. It was. One thing that we eat an awful lot of as group is pulled pork (my fault, I keep cooking it). The last time that we had it was on a bank holiday in Suffolk at Gayner’s holiday home, we ate it at about 7pm. Then we had it again at about 1am. At about 4am the police knocked on the door to tell us that our karaoke was too loud. Oops. Pulled pork can be messy as a canape, so I put in in a samosa, the pastry was made with Ranch dressing instead of milk, and it was served with a chilli beer cheese dip (note that for the vegetarians, I used BBQ pulled jack fruit instead). She would have approved.
I’ve been having a massive clear out over the last 6 months (spurred on by watching far too many documentaries about hoarding!) so I’ve been flicking through all of my cookery books which had not been read in a while. Including the rather wonderful Real Food Cookbook. Its a much over-looked classic, it has some incredible recipes in it, including a fantastic recipe for rabbit with olives by my lovely friend Valentina Harris (you can follow her on Instagram @chef_valentina). Being a lover of all things nuts, I’d previously made the crunchy pistachio and spiced sea salt chicken (by The Anglesey Sea Salt Company), so I went back to that idea to make it in miniature and serve it with a pomegranate ketchup. Last, but by no means least, there was the chorizo with herbed cheese cream. Chorizo is your best friend when it comes to canapes. People love it, its so easy to work with, and so versatile… But what about the vegetarians?! I simply made them an alternative with sweet paprika dusted sweet potato slices. Problem solved. All off the recipes are here in #whatsarahcooks.
And then it was on to the balls… This was my first plate. There was a second.
Much wine, a champagne toast, and port and cheese later, we were less sad. It was just good to be together.