The fun of eating small dishes from small plates.
Starting as a fad in the United States in about 2000, offering food from a variety of small plates became popular in a certain style of restaurant before you-know-what shut it all down. Often served to a group of friends sitting at a bar, ordering à la carte and shared by all, I am sure it derives from various Mediterranean cuisines which have been presenting food in this manner since historic times.
Tapas is very popular in Spanish cuisine and consists of a wide variety of little dishes ranging from simple cold items, such as olives and cheeses, to hot servings of deep-fried baby squid. I first came across tapas at a Club Med, back when it was a rough and ready cheap holiday. We stayed in unlit straw huts on a beachfront, sharing communal washing facilities, and took our own sleeping bags. (I’m not saying how long ago this was!) After a wonderful afternoon riding tough little ponies through some verdant foothills, we descended to a pristine beach where a bar had been set up with ice cold sangria and plates of marvelous goodies: wrinkled black olives swimming in oil, chunks of coarse peasant bread and spicy chorizo sausages. My favourite was a platter of tiny potatoes boiled in very salty water so they became encrusted. We picked them up with the local equivalent of toothpicks and dipped them in salsa so hot it took the roof off my mouth. Since then, I’ve enjoyed tapas in sunny climes, from the Canary Islands to Mexico.
At the other end of the Mediterranean, mezze is equally popular. Dad worked in the Middle East when I was a boy and took us on sailing holidays up and down the coast of Lebanon and over to the Greek islands. At every stop we would have the local variety of mezze. Baba ghanoush, a smoky, silky dip made from roasted eggplants and tahini; labna, a yoghurt-based dip; tabbouleh, fresh chopped parsley, bulgur, lemon, tomato, onion and garlic; and falafel, deep fried chickpeas—some of the dishes I remember. On the island of Rhodes, I first had calamari, stuffed vine leaves called dolmades, Kalamata olives and sheep’s milk feta cheese. In Toronto, we often stop by Astoria in Greektown and always start with a platter of hummus, taramosalata and tzatziki with hot pita bread and luscious olives on the side. In London, my oldest lady friend (we were eight when we met in Cairo and have kept in touch ever since) always takes me to Meza, near her home in South London, for delicious Lebanese food.
I never serve any of these dishes at home: eating them with friends in an authentic setting is part of the experience. But it did get me thinking of how to present food in a different manner while making it easier to present at table. Since I have a wide collection of small dishes, my first efforts have simply been to take meals I would normally serve in a large pie dish and cook them in individual portions. Here are three of my recent tasty efforts.
PASTA & CHEESE PIE
- 1 tsp EVOO
- 1 1/2 cups uncooked organic penne or garganelli pasta
- 2 TBSP butter
- 2 TBSP flour
- 2 cups white grated cheddar cheese
- 1 1/2 cups thick (35% whipping) cream
- Pinch of salt
- 1/4 tsp pepper
- Pinch of grated nutmeg
- 2 rashers thick bacon, cut into lardons
- 2-3 large ripe tomatoes, cored and sliced
- 1/4 cup of breadcrumbs
Preparation & cooking
- Fill a large saucepan with water, bring to the boil, add a drop or two of oil and a pinch of salt. Add the pasta slowly so the water continues to boil. Stir occasionally to prevent it from sticking to the bottom. Cook for about 6 min for al dente.
- Cut bacon into 1 in chunks and pan fry until crisp. Set aside on a paper kitchen towel to drain.
- Set the oven to preheat at 390°F / 200°C.
- Grate the cheese and set aside 1/2 cup for the topping.
- Make a white sauce with the butter, flour and cream, using the roux method. Add the cheese and stir until well melted. TIP: The sauce works better with hot, not boiling, cream. Add a pinch of grated nutmeg at the end and stir in well.
- When the pasta is cooked, drain using a colander or sieve, rinse thoroughly with cold water and toss to remove excess water. Return to saucepan, pour on the béchamel sauce, add a good grind of black pepper and mix well. TIP: Rinsing the pasta after cooking it al dente is important. It removes the excess starch which will adversely affect your dish when it is cooking. Under rather than over cook the pasta. It will finish in the oven as it bakes in the rich sauce.
- Spoon the mix into a casserole, or individual serving dishes. Top with the rest of the grated cheese mixed with breadcrumbs. Layer on thick slices of ripe tomatoes, then the bacon lardons until the dish is covered, add a sprinkle of olive oil.
- Cook in the oven, on a baking sheet or aluminum foil to prevent spilling, for 15 min, then turn heat to broil for a further 5 min until the bacon sizzles. Serve immediately.
- 1 lb / 500 g organic Atlantic salmon, skinned and boned
- 5-6 large yellow potatoes (such as Yukon Gold), peeled and cut into quarters
- ½ onion, peeled, chopped fine
- 1 stick celery, chopped fine
- 1 large carrot, peeled and chopped fine
- 3 cloves garlic, peeled, chopped fine
- ¼ lb butter / one stick / 4 TBSP
- 2 TBSP sauce flour
- 2 bay leaves
- ½ TBSP fennel seeds
- ½ TBSP coriander seeds
- 1 pkt / 0.35 oz / 10 g dashino-moto Japanese fish seasoning or 1 cup fish stock
- 1 TBSP tomato paste
- 1 cup white wine
- ¼ cup brandy
- 1 cup thick (35% whipping) cream
- 1 uo frozen green peas, defrosted (optional)
- Sea salt and white pepper
Preparation & cooking
- Make the mashed potatoes: peel and cut into uniform chunks; boil in a pan of well salted water for 10 mins; drain and allow to steam dry for 10 mins. Mash potatoes by hand, add 3 TBSP butter, season well and set aside.
- Make the sauce: Pan fry the “holy trinity” of onions, celery and carrots in 2 TBSP butter with a little EVOO added to prevent burning, until soft; add garlic and cook for a further 2 mins; add flour and mix in well, frying for 2 mins; add white wine and brandy and mix until the sauce is thick and smooth. Warm the fish stock, or mix the dry seasoning into 1 cup of warm water; add to the pan and mix in until the sauce is smooth. Add the tomato paste and the dry spices; mix in. Simmer the sauce for 20 mins to reduce.
- Wash the fish, removing any skin and bones, and cut into uniform 1 in pieces.
- Warm the cream and add to the sauce, stirring in well.
- Preheat the oven to 375°F / 190°C.
- Add the fish to the sauce and poach for about 10 mins, stirring very gently to ensure the fish does not flake. (OPTION: Add the uncooked but defrosted peas and mix in.)
- Remove from the heat and spoon into a large serving dish or four oven proof bowls.
- Fill a piping bag with a star nozzle with mashed potatoes and pipe on top in an attractive pattern, or spoon on and create a crisscross pattern with a fork.
- Bake in the oven for 12 mins, then broil for 5 mins until the potatoes are a golden brown. Serve at once.
- 1 cup thick (35% whipping) cream
- 1 tsp vanilla essence
- 1/2 cup vanilla sugar, divided
- 2 large egg yolks
Preparation & cooking
- Preheat the oven to 325°F/165°C.
- Pour the cream into a saucepan over medium-high heat, add 1 tsp vanilla essence and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat, cover and allow to sit for 15 minutes.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together 1/4 cup sugar and the egg yolks until well blended. Add the cream a little at a time, stirring continually. Pour the liquid into 4 small ramekins. Place the ramekins into a large cake pan or roasting pan. Pour enough hot water into the pan to come halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake just until the crème brûlée is set, but still trembling in the center, approximately 40 to 45 minutes. Remove the ramekins from the roasting pan, allow to cool, then and refrigerate, covered in cling film, for at least 2 hours and up to 3 days.
- Remove the crème brûlée from the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes prior to browning the sugar on top. Divide the remaining 1/4 cup sugar equally among the 4 dishes and spread evenly on top. Using a butane torch, melt the sugar to make a crispy top. TIP: To ensure the sugar doesn’t burn when you apply the torch, spritz the sugar on top of the custard with a fine mist of water. Allow the crème brûlée to sit for at least five minutes before serving.
- Add some berries while the sugar is still hot for a delicious and decorative touch.
Please LIKE this blog, if you have enjoyed the article, or add a COMMENT — clickable at the top of each story. Click on the FOLLOW button at the bottom of the page if you would like to receive email notifications of new articles.
This is Nigel’s 337th blog on Gentleman’s Portion. The SEARCH function at the top works really well if you want to look back and see some of his previous stories–or check under CATEGORIES.
Categories: Simply food