Small Bites Make A Big Impression

I like serving interesting small bites with drinks. I guess I have been influenced by my Austrian mother who always made little open sandwiches with pretty garnishes no matter what the occasion and for whoever dropped in unexpectedly. Somehow she always managed to rustle up something that looked appetizing and that’s what an appetizer should be after all. While there are a myriad of good quality dips and pates available at the supermarket there is something special about expressing a little style and individuality by making appetizers yourself. You can take inspiration from the tapas bars of Spain, the apperitivi hour offerings of Italy or the open sandwich bars that are so much a part of Vienna and middle Europe.  And if dips are more your thing, try making them from scratch; a baba ganoush is simply a matter of grilling a whole eggplant on the Weber at high heat for 30 minutes, removing the softened centre and blitzing it with lemon juice, tahini, salt and garlic. For extra smokiness hold the whole eggplant over the open gas flame of your cooker for a few seconds after grilling. It will taste amazing. Make stunning guacamole with ripe avocados mashed with one chipolte pepper from a can of La Morena peppers in adobo sauce for some real Mexican flavour.

small bites with tomato

Other ways to make wonderful flavoursome small bites is to take advantage of seasonal produce like really ripe tomatoes. You can make bruschetta with toasted slices of sourdough baguette rubbed with a piece of garlic and topped with chopped tomatoes and generously drizzled with extra virgin olive oil or top bread with crushed broad beans and mint in springtime. Take advantage of our wonderful local cheeses, like Meredith marinated goats cheese or the silky goat cheeses or fromage frais from Holy Goat. The latter goes so well with a little lemon zest, extra virgin olive oil and fresh herbs sprinkled on top.

A small bite can be a meal in miniature when you top a slice of dark rye bread with a smokey ham or poached tongue and tiny diced potato or Russian salad. Essentially meat and potatoes in a couple of mouthfuls. For fishy bites you can’t go past Tassie smoked salmon or trout fillets and, when in season, a handful of school prawns are just the right size for a small bite. Adding a little creamed horseradish to sour cream is a quick and tasty glue for your fishy bites.

A few condiments such as capers, cornichons and horse radish that kept for ages are worth  stocking in the fridge and a little pot of chives on the porch is very handy for a few snips of green to highlight your gems. Failing that, a bit of lemon zest also works wonders. None of these little open sandwiches I mentioned need baking and any cooking of components, such as potato salad, can easily be done the day before, just leave 20 to 30 minutes for plating before the first doorbell rings.

Oysters Alive Alive O

Nothing beats freshly shucked oysters. Their just caught, or rather dispatched, ocean flavour really sets them apart from those long dead ones in trays you mostly see in fish shops and markets.  That wonderful fresh flavour is why oyster bars and good restaurants shuck to order and why tourists head to The Seafood and Oyster Spot at Queen Victoria Market to devour and instagram a half dozen. So why do most oyster lovers settle for the dead lot when we could do it ourselves at home and enjoy them alive, alive o. I guess it is the perception that shucking is a skill best left to professionals unless you want an evening spent in casualty getting stitches instead of sipping champagne. The reality is that the task of shucking is really not that difficult and just requires a decent oyster knife and a little knowledge. Here are two great demos; one by Wayne from the Sydney Fish Market who explains the difference between Sydney rock and Pacific oysters and one by US food editor, Juli Roberts, who shows a nice easy and safe way to open an oyster.



With oysters that fresh you really don’t need anything other than champagne to enjoy them but the tang of a little squeeze of lemon is always nice. A simple home made vinaigrette dressing is also good for a change. I recently tried a Japanese dipping sauce featuring yuzu juice, a Japanese citrus with a bit more of a bite than lemon. The combination of yuzu with sake, mirin, soy and sesame oil balanced it out beautifully.  Yuzu juice can be bought at Japanese grocery stores and is also handy to have on hand for when you run out of lemons.

Japanese yuzu juice

Japanese Yuzu Dipping Sauce

measure: I used a dessert spoon but you can use anything depending on how much you want to make as long as you keep the proportions the same.

  • 6 spoons yuzu juice
  • 3 spoons light soy sauce
  • 3 spoons sesame oil
  • 1 spoon mirin
  • 1 spoon cooking sake
  • 3 tsp grated ginger
  • 1 spoon chopped chives

Grate the ginger into a small sieve over a bowl with the liquid ingredients and press out the juice from the grated ginger into the bowl. Discard the grated ginger. Mix in the chopped chives and serve.

Ajvar – Balkan Roasted Pepper Relish

Ajvar (EYE-vahr) is a popular roasted pepper relish throughout the Balkans. The word, Ajvar, is Turkish for fish roe but the method of roasting peppers and eggplant, slowly cooking the skinned and chopped flesh with lemon juice, sunflower oil and salt seems to be of Serbian origin. Ajvar is a great accompaniment to barbecued meats, is delicious on garlic sourdough toast, in a burger or tossed through pasta but I recently found it is also a great way of jazzing up cooked green beans. New season beans are available now and you can also get large flat beans which are not adverse to a little stewing or just reheating with a couple of tablespoons of this relish. You could also use it in home made baked beans or with other stewed pulses. I served my beans with ajvar on a Turkish plate; fish roe or not, it’s all been part of the mix for centuries.

new season flat beans

You can easily make ajvar when there is a glut of the long red bull’s horn peppers but late Summer is quite a few barbecues off yet, so I would invest in a jar or two bought from a Mediterranean or Turkish grocery store or your local supermarket.  Woolworths stock Mama’s Home Style Avjar. Most commercial Ajvar available here is made in Macedonia but whatever brand you buy make sure the ingredients don’t go beyond the basics of roasted red peppers, eggplant, lemon juice or vinegar, salt and chilli, ifmamasajvar-mild you like it hot.

Avjar is the very essence of summer, packed full of sweet red peppers that have had their skins blackened over a charcoal grill or inside a covered BBQ. With the hint of smokey flavour remaining the flesh  is then slowly stewed to tenderness on the stove. I’m thinking a clay pot in the oven would be perfect for gentle stewing. When summer finally arrives I will be making a batch.


Spicy Shanks

There’s nothing I enjoy more than spicy shanks with the meat falling off the bone into a pool of spicy North African tomato gravy. Harissa is the perfect chili paste for the job and Australian brand, Garnisha, is such a good product I have no qualms with opening a bottle and using it as my base rather than making the paste from scratch (yes, I do cheat occasionally). I have had jars of harissa languish in the fridge for years because the flavours always tasted a bit weird or were too pungent but Garnisha’s harissa, while not overly hot, is a very pleasant blend of chili, mint, caraway, coriander, cumin, paprika and lemon juice. The label says, “Produce of Paradise”, which is a confident declaration and supported by the really fresh taste of this curry paste.

This recipe is really a no brainer. It’s easy to scale up for a large family by adding 1 heaped dessert spoon of paste per person, per shank, assuming you have big eaters. Large numbers of shanks can be cooked in a large roasting tray, arranging the lamb shanks head to toe (fat end to skinny end) and covering the tray with foil to bake.

For Twoharissa

  • olive oil
  • pinch of salt
  • 2 lamb shanks
  • 2 brown onions, diced
  • 2-3 heaped dessert spoons of Garnisha harissa
  • 400 g tin of diced tomatoes
  • pomegranate seeds and fresh coriander leaves for garnish(optional)

Preheat the oven to 160 °C.

Heat some olive oil in a heavy casserole dish on the top of the stove. Brown the shanks, turning regularly until evenly browned. Remove shanks. Add a little more oil and sauté the onions with the salt until translucent. Add the harissa paste and stir until combined and aromatic. Add the tomatoes, shanks and a little water ( just enough to rinse the tin of tomatoes). Cover the dish, place in the oven and cook for 2 hours. Rotate the shanks after the first hour and check liquid levels. Don’t add too much water as you want a nice thick curry. Garnish the shanks with pomegranate seeds and coriander leaves. Serve with basmati rice or couscous with a little labna (strained natural yoghurt) on the side.

Variation: add a tin of chickpeas


Turn Up The Heat With Chillies

Turn up the heat with chillies if you’re feeling a little cooler these days. Glenora Heritage Produce at Gasworks Farmer’s Market has got every chilli you could possibly want to spice up your dishes. Now is a good time to make harissa, kasundi or a chilli paste to store in your pantry, string a few long ones together to hang and air-dry in a well ventilated place or easier still, why not pickle some chilies. I pickled these lovely yellow amarillo chillies in apple cider vinegar. Amarillo chillies are a Peruvian variety with a warm citrus flavour and a heat that dissipates quickly in your mouth, so no need to rush to the tub of yoghurt for comfort.  amarillo chilliesWith the tip of a sharp knife put a tiny slit into the side of each chilli and wash them with salted water. The slit will ensure that the pickling liquid permeates the entire chilli. Sterilise a small jam jar and lid with boiling water. Meanwhile bring 250 ml of apple cider vinegar with 2 1/2 tablespoons of sugar, a bay leaf and a few peppercorns to the boil. Pack your jar with the chillies and then fill to the brim with the vinegar, including the bay leaf and peppercorns. You will see tiny air bubbles bubbling up from inside the chillies.  Wait until all the bubbles have risen to the surface and then place the lid on. Store for a few weeks and refrigerate on opening.

A recent favorite of mine is the Padron chilli pepper. Only one in five is supposed to be firery and hence the fun in eating these simply flash fried in olive oil as a tapa with drinks; a sort of culinary Russian roulette. Curiously, every one I tasted the other night was very hot, while none in the plate I ate with friends at Tinto, Spanish tapas bar in Hawthorn were the least bit hot. I really enjoy the 1:5 ratio but any more can be a bit much.  A tip from the young woman at Glenora was to add a little splash of sherry vinegar to the pan after frying to temper the chilli heat a little. Be careful to do this away from the hotplate or gas flame as it will spit violently. While the uncertainty of the Padron is part of the attraction, they do actually have a lovely flavour and are a great addition to a spread of small appetizers.